“Is there anything you don’t eat?” a guest is asked. Often the answer is “meat,” and a cook needs a game plan for feeding vegetarians or vegans who suddenly appear. Because most of them urge you not to bother on their account, you could just hand them bread, peanut butter, jelly and a knife. But it’s more fun to find a creative way to feed unexpected “veggies,” even when the meal you’ve cooked excludes them. Think of it as a home version of “Iron Chef.”
If you have a garden, the first step is obvious. Vegetarians eat vegetables, so you grab your basket and out you go. Collect a few choice items that are in season. One recent no-meat scavenger hunt yielded sweet early onions, a bunch of small, tender carrots, a bulb of fennel, Tuscan kale, parsley, loopy scapes from our hardneck garlic and a few baby new potatoes. Chopped and sauteed together in a pan with olive oil, they made a fine early-summer feast.
Soon, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and zucchini might form the core group. Peas, either shelled or the whole sugar snap type, are always tossed in when I have them.
The comment “just leave the meat out of mine” is not helpful. Many dishes either contain meat stock or begin with the browning of meat in fat. So often you must make your creation from scratch, and quickly.
Potatoes take a while, and rice even longer. Pasta is slightly better. But the real lifesavers are couscous and quick-cooking polenta. Added to water and brought to a simmer, they cook in just a few minutes, and all you need to do is set your vegetable medley neatly on top. Or add it to an omelet (if eggs are accepted), either the folded-up or open-faced kind.
A sprinkling of fresh herbs makes any of these choices more special.
The other thing that saves the day is a short list of key condiments. I try to have the following on the pantry shelf or in the fridge at all times: hot pepper flakes (preferably Aleppo), hot sauce (Tabasco or Sriracha), capers, olives, pine nuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, feta cheese, sharp Cheddar and black fermented soybeans, which are intense little morsels available at Asian food stores or from Amazon.com.
At some point in the five-minute preparation of this one-dish meal, executed in that calm state of flow that comes upon people in emergencies, a direction will emerge. The Italian route always begins with olive oil in the pan. So does the Greek one, which makes a stop for feta, capers and olives. The Asian journey starts with sesame or peanut oil and takes on those little black beans.
Whatever its style, the dish looks appetizing when served in a black iron skillet and placed on the table next to the vegetarians, whom I cluster together. Someone at the carnivorous end of the table always asks, “Are you going to eat all of that?”
Barbara Damrosch, author of “The Garden Primer,” is a freelance writer.
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