But hold the gluten, dairy, soy, nuts and meat
Last June, I decided to celebrate a milestone birthday by throwing a dinner party for a few friends.
Perhaps I’d been reading too much Jane Austen, but a sophisticated feast with courses and formal (or at least clean and matching) attire seemed like a festive opening of a new decade. Unlike many meals around my long, barn-style table, there would be no macaroni and cheese, no running around the dining room while others finished eating, and the fancy dishes would come out of the china cabinet. Detailed planning commenced.
Guest list: Four other couples. No kids.
Dress code: Whatever made people feel fabulous.
Special birthday request: That everyone indulge my love of charades after dinner.
Menu: Something summery with as many spices and fun flavors as possible. Which reminded me that I should check with my guests before I bought any ingredients that might not work for them.
Ever the attentive hostess, I texted my guests to inquire if they had any dietary restrictions or aversions. With a family history of celiac disease, I was taking a break from gluten, but that omission left countless options for an elevated menu. Then my friends’ texts started rolling in.
“I’m vegetarian, sweetie.”
No problem there. Most days, meat is treated like a condiment in my kitchen anyway.
“The baby is sensitive to dairy and soy. Since I’m nursing, I can’t have any either. So excited for your party!”
This one was trickier. That meant no Parmesan or fresh goat cheese, two of my favorite ingredients. No ghee or butter for sautéing vegetables. Farewell to the cheese board and gelato and nearly everything in the grocery store, which was rife with hidden soy. The prospective menu took a hard turn toward produce.
“No nuts. I found out I was allergic on my first date with Hank when I ate a salad topped with almonds and broke out in hives.”
Now what? Not that I was planning to serve trail mix, but coconut milk makes a fantastic Thai curry that checked all of the other boxes. Some of my favorite gluten-free alternatives involve almonds (see: Blue Diamond Nut-Thins, the world’s best answer to spreads). If the next guest texted that they were doing Whole30 this month and were also sensitive to nightshades, I was throwing in the kitchen towel.
Perhaps we could all share a bowl of unbuttered popcorn and toast the evening with tap water.
Fortunately, no one did. I went over the major categories still in play: legumes, seeds, non-gluten grains, vegetables, fruits, eggs, spices, olive oil and vinegars. I could work with that.
My well-stocked cookbook shelf seemed ill-equipped for this particular configuration of restrictions. I needed The Anti-Inflammation Cookbook (which features recipes without gluten and dairy) to have a baby with the vegetarian volumes. A more entertaining information source was social media friends, who provided wiseacre comments along with a few viable options to the question:
What you would serve at a dinner without dairy, soy, gluten, meat or nuts?
“This is why I don’t have people over to dinner.”
“Stuffed bell peppers. Vegetarian fajitas with corn tortillas.”
Now we were getting somewhere.
“Risotto with Parmesan on the side. It’s my go-to for situations like these.”
“Whiskey-glazed carrots with cornbread. Salad bar or taco bar.”
Encouraged, inspired and even a little relaxed by this point, I pressed onward. Since the pool of potential ingredients had shrunk considerably, the ones that made it to the table had to be the highest quality. Fresh ingredients, and I mean really fresh, make any home cook a star, even if your name isn’t Felicia Suzanne or Erling Jensen. So I started with my farmers market purchases.
With the season teetering on the brink of summer, the last lettuces and beets were still rolling in, as well as the first tiny tomatoes and squashes. A salad we could do, but one that was really a salad bar on a platter. Piles of chopped pickles. Roasted, diced beets. Halved hard-boiled eggs. The best olives I could procure from Sprouts. Shredded Arkansas carrots whose sweetness and sass gave the world assurance of carrots.
In fact, those carrots were so spectacular (Q: When does one ever use those words together in a sentence? A: When they’re from Whitton Farms.) that they also appeared on a plate of crudités before the meal along with strips of bell pepper and celery. Sautéed vegetable dip anchored the platter with savory, salty flair. White wine and sparkling rosé matched the weather, the crunchy appetizer and my mood.
For the main course I chose a pair of curries, one veering more savory and the other a bit spicy. Two rice cookers with a “stay warm” feature ensured that I would have time to change into a party dress and some dangly earrings before the guests arrived. Dessert seemed the most difficult hurdle for our party. Homemade raspberry-basil popsicles and squares of soy-free, dairy-free dark chocolate were both elegant and whimsical. (For chocolate that does not contain soy lecithin, be prepared to read many labels and shell out a few extra dollars.) As a bonus, the popsicles could be prepared ahead and the chocolate required nothing of me after the label reading.
What can be said about the evening itself?
My friends brought their A games of celebratory outfits and extra libations.
The crudités and salads disappeared. Second helpings of rice and curries were enjoyed. The salt and the heat of the food heightened our thirst for wine, which played brilliantly into my plan for after-dinner charades. In short, it was a smashing success.
What initially seemed an insurmountable task (a menu with no dairy, soy, gluten, nuts or meat that was inviting, affordable and scalable for a party of 10) evolved into a pleasurable culinary challenge. The point, of course, was a fun and relaxing evening with friends. The tasty menu helped to set that mood. But the fun would have happened regardless, even if dinner had been just a potluck, a restaurant reservation or—if all else failed—a bowl of unbuttered popcorn.
Heidi Rupke finds pleasure in maintaining the practical skills her grandmothers loved: quilting, gardening, keeping chickens and cooking from scratch. She enjoys biking around Midtown with her family and will drop everything for a good plate of Japanese-style pickled vegetables. @rupkeheidi
Lindsey Glenn is a designer with a passion for patterns, paper and positivity. (Try saying that five times fast!) Her cheery products, which include stationery, stickers, journals and more, can be found in local gift shops and at several seasonal markets. @lindseyglenndesign
Heidi Rupke spends her days tending chickens and children, and defending her garden against squirrels. Her current food obsession is making the perfect pavlova.