I could have chosen the fish entrée at the wedding we went to a few weeks ago. But since we eat fish several times a week, and since the caterer was known for creative healthy main courses, I opted for the vegetarian choice. Maybe I would discover a novel way of preparing non-animal protein to add to my cooking repertoire.
But alas it was not to be. The mix of vegetables, grains, and lentils that were described in the printed menu was like a bait and switch. The plate arrived containing a mound of steamed cauliflower surrounded by two tiny pieces of sautéed mushrooms. I looked wistfully at the perfectly grilled fish my spouse was eating. Next time I will know better.
But why? Why shouldn’t a caterer prepare a vegetarian entrée with the same balance of protein, vegetables and starch that would appear on a traditional meat or fish dish? Why do caterers or chefs in general assume that vegetarians eat only vegetables? People who identify themselves as meat and potato eaters surely must eat other foods for breakfast or lunch. And why do caterers and chefs conflate vegetarian and vegan? They are not the same.
Indeed, the menu said “ vegetarian” entrée, not vegan. This meant that protein from dairy products and eggs could have been incorporated into a main course, thus allowing for a large variety of possible dishes. Moreover, if the entrée had been listed as vegan—meaning no dairy or eggs—then other protein sources such as beans, lentils, soy, and quinoa could have been used.
It is not necessary for the chef preparing a vegetarian meal to reinvent the wheel. Because animal protein has always been expensive and out of reach for much of the population, each culture has developed signature non-animal protein dishes from cheese blintzes to bok choy stir-fry with crispy tofu. Moreover, the Lenten season restricts the consumption of animal protein, and over the centuries many vegetarian dishes have also been developed to feed families unable to eat meat or chicken.
But none of this seems to be considered when the catering kitchen or many restaurants plans the components of a vegetarian meal. Unfortunately, despite the protein sources that could be incorporated into a vegetarian dish, the protein is usually omitted. Sometimes this is because the caterer simply takes the vegetables from other entrées and dumps them on the plate for the token vegetarian. But protein is often left off of the plate because the chef doesn’t take the time to learn how to include it.
Ironically, eating a vegetarian entrée at a catered affair that serves the main course often hours after one normally eats is a wise choice. Ingesting a slab of filet mignon or heavily sauced chicken at 9 or even 10 pm does not make for a sound sleep a few hours later. Digesting the fat in these animal protein dishes sometimes causes sleep disturbances or a lighter sleep than normal as well as a feeling of heaviness upon awakening the next morning. Vegetarian options tend to contain less fat (unless substantial amounts of cheese are used) and are less likely to demand heroic digestive function late at night.
Until the education of chefs at well-known culinary institutes includes an intensive education in preparing protein-rich vegetarian dishes, there is little hope that vegetarian entrée options at catered affairs will improve. And until cooking shows feature vegetarian dishes that provide at least 25-30 grams of protein and which seem “yummy” enough to be reproduced in the viewer’s kitchen, there is little hope that home cooks will find making a well-balanced vegetarian meal as desirable as grilling chicken or a hamburger. Fortunately, there are many excellent cookbooks and some gourmet cooking magazines that provide ample recipes for the vegetarian home chef. And in fairness to the caterers and restaurant chefs who have developed nourishing vegetarian main courses that look and taste good, it is hoped that they will be able to stimulate others to provide nourishing meals for those who abstain from animal protein.
However, until this occurs, it may be necessary to plan on eating before going to a catered event or bringing protein bars to nibble, discreetly, along with that cauliflower. And if there is any benefit to being denied a substantial vegetarian meal at a catered affair… it is that you will be one of the few who don’t feel your wedding finery is getting snug.