When Anna Thomas wrote her first cookbook, “The Vegetarian Epicure,” in 1973, the prospects for vegetarian eating seemed anything but epicurean. The book became a classic, Thomas went on to write two sequels (and other books), and the culinary landscape of America drastically changed. These days, especially in urban centers, you may be just as likely to hear cooks talk about grain bowls and almond milk as you are about the perfect roast chicken.
At the same time, diets have become so divergent that the prospect of cooking for a group almost immediately raises the question: How can I possibly please everyone? Thomas’s latest book, “Vegan Vegetarian Omnivore: Dinner for Everyone at the Table” (W.W. Norton, 2016), answers with recipes and menus that begin with the food that everyone can eat (it’s vegan), and build on that in different directions depending on the crowd.
“There is something more important than what’s at the table — and that’s who’s at the table,” Thomas, 67, told me. “That’s why I wrote this book.” Edited excerpts from our phone conversation follow.
Do you get any grief from readers about the fact that you’re not a “pure” vegetarian?
I always say I’m mostly vegetarian most of the time. If I’m at your house for dinner, I may eat something else, because of the exceptions we make for hospitality and personal relationships and graciousness. Although I have to say, I really have no interest in beef. There are certain things I haven’t even bothered with in 40 years, because I basically eat what I want, and I think that’s what most people do.
Your approach strikes me as refreshingly non-dogmatic.
I’ve never lectured to anybody, that you should eat like this, because it is the right way, and this is the wrong way — it never occurred to me. And I think that’s partly why “The Vegetarian Epicure” became such a success. It didn’t sell a million copies just to vegetarians. It’s that approach that led directly to this book.
More than anything, it’s about hospitality. I don’t think coming together and sitting down to eat dinner, breaking bread together, is merely a detail of civilized life. That’s the basis of civilization. So are we going to give that up just because everybody doesn’t eat the same way? That’s insanity.
So how do you solve the problem?
When you go to banquets and big events, there are often two separate meals, one for omnivores and one for vegetarians. I’m sorry, but I believe if there are two separate meals, there’s an A meal and a B meal, and nobody wants to eat the B meal. It creates a hierarchy that’s not very hospitable.
I had this epiphany that we’re coming at this backward. Let’s start with what everybody eats and then elaborate. I started to design recipes and meals around that idea. Start with a meal that works for everybody. It’s vegan, but we don’t call it vegan, because that puts them in a ghetto. You go to the bar for happy hour, you’re not eating the vegan guacamole and chips with your margarita, you’re just eating the guacamole and chips. Anyway, this just means the food everybody eats, and from there, you add cheese, which I love, you add dairy products, you add seafood or meat in a way that makes it the accessory. People at the table who want to have grilled shrimp on their beautiful lemon risotto with fava beans can have it their way, and the people who don’t can have it their way, too.
Big celebration meals are one thing. How about the everyday meals?
The simple meal is harder. You can do a dinner made out of mezze — beautiful Mediterranean dishes at room temperature. Or taco night at home — that’s one of my favorites. Delicious, and everybody makes their own, and it’s fantastic. I have a fish soup that has become wildly popular with everyone who’s come over and had it. It starts as a very robust and delicious vegetable soup, and has the flavor profile we like for seafood — tarragon, garlic, tomatoes, white wine — and you add seafood five minutes before you serve it. It’s a big batch of vegetable soup to start with, and you can divide it in two pots. Five minutes before I was about to serve it to a group of friends, I told them it was coming, and one said, “Oh, Anna, I forgot to tell you, I’m allergic to seafood.” I said, “Kelly, don’t worry: It’s not fish soup yet.”
I made your Roasted Beet and Lentil Salad and loved it. My boyfriend eats chicken but not red meat, and he had some chicken sausage, so I grilled that up to go with his portion.
Oh, yes, that would go perfectly. You’re the poster child for this. You do something that can work a couple different ways. I hate when I see my vegan friends picking their way around the edge of the plate carefully. Nobody should feel sidelined, and nobody should feel guilty. The hospitable table welcomes everybody.
Anna Thomas will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
This earthy vegan salad, stained an alluring wine-red, is hearty enough to be a meal centerpiece, served on a bed of salad greens and accompanied by a chewy roll or piece of crusty bread. Author Anna Thomas suggests that when you’re serving it to a crowd that includes vegetarians, add slivers of ricotta salata or aged Jack or chunks of gorgonzola. For omnivores, top it with smoked fish, sliced smoked duck leg or diced, sauteed pancetta as a garnish.
For the salad
2 pounds small to medium beet roots with at least 1/2 pound greens (see headnote)
2 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more as needed
1 1/4 cups Beluga or other black lentils (may substitute brown or green lentils)
3 medium carrots, scrubbed and finely diced
3 cloves garlic
1 dried arbol chili pepper (may substitute another dried chili of your choice)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large red onion, quartered and thinly sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
For the vinaigrette
5 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
For the salad: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Scrub the beets and trim off the greens, leaving an inch of the stalks. Wrap the damp beets in heavy-duty aluminum foil and roast them until they can be easily pierced with a fork, 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours, depending on their size. Let them cool until you can easily handle them, then slip off their skins, trim off the stalks and cut them into 1/2-inch dice. (You should have about 3 1/2 cups.)
While the beets are roasting, bring 8 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heats. Add 2 teaspoons of the salt, plus the lentils, carrots, garlic cloves and arbol chili pepper. Reduce the heat to medium-low so the liquid is gently bubbling, and cook the lentils until they are just tender but still firm, 25 to 30 minutes. Drain the lentils. (Keep the broth for soup if you’d like.) Discard the chili pepper and garlic. Spread the lentils and carrots on a baking sheet to cool.
Wash the beet greens, trim off only the thick lower stalks, cut the leaves in half lengthwise if they are large, then stack and cut them into 1/4-inch strips.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, tossing frequently until the onion is softened, blistered and shows brown spots, 6 to 7 minutes. Turn off the heat, add the vinegar and stir quickly as the vinegar sizzles away.
Combine the onion and diced beets in a large mixing bowl.
In the same skillet, heat the remaining tablespoon of oil over medium-high heat. Add the damp beet greens and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, and toss them until they are just wilted, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the greens to the beet mixture.
For the vinaigrette: Whisk together the lemon juice, oil, agave and salt in a medium bowl, or shake them together in a jar fitted with a lid. (You should have about 2/3 cup.)
Add the lentils and carrots to the beet mixture, along with 1/4 cup of the dressing, and gently toss to combine. Right before serving, taste, and add salt or more of the dressing as needed. Divide among plates and serve.