if you’re cooking dinner and everyone’s got a DR
that’s a Dietary Restriction, my friends!
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This newsletter starts the way many brilliant pieces of content start: with a text from your friend asking you for advice. And you know me and advice, I love to give it.
Last weekend I was visiting some friends in LA at their gorgeous home that gave me allergies and real estate envy. It’s a long story and a not very funny inside joke, but whenever we are together we end up grilling a leg of lamb, so to remind them what a good and funny friend they left behind when they moved to LA, I decided I’d bring over a leg of lamb to grill. Everything else (grilled broccolini, grilled snap peas with lemon, labne with scallions, rice we forgot to eat) would fall into place as it does when you can simply grill a leg of lamb.
Monday night I cooked for some family and only part of my brain was working (I was jet-lagged from a red-eye back from LA– never again) and knew that even if I fell asleep in the middle of it, I could still roast a chicken so that’s what I decided. Everything else (leeks roasted alongside, vinegar-roasted potatoes, salad with a pile of herbs, bagna cauda and aioli for dressing and dipping) would fall into place as it does when you can simply roast a chicken.
Neither of these examples are helpful to my friend, of course.
While I don’t eat meat that often when I’m alone, when I cook for others I absolutely use it as a (very delicious) crutch. But that got me thinking, when cooking for a meat-free audience, do I really need to replace the leg of lamb with something equally large and impressive? Does the roast chicken need to become a chicken-sized pot of INSERT VEGETARIAN THING HERE? This is how we end up with things like cauliflower steaks, and if there’s one thing I’m never going to suggest, it’s that someone make a “cauliflower steak.”
I consider myself a true omnivore, and some of my favorite recipes I’ve written are vegetable-based, almost always accidentally or easily made vegan. When I say in a recipe that the cheese is optional, I mean it. Consider that my solemn promise that whatever it is, it’s as good without cheese as it is with. Same goes when I suggest nuts (use bread crumbs instead) and crushed red pepper flakes (leave it out or dial it back) are optional.
This may seem obvious to some of us, but also some of us can’t remember where we parked our car and convince ourselves it was stolen or towed away (me, I did that), so maybe a reminder of obvious things can be helpful. When you’re cooking for a variety of diets and come across a recipe you love, ask yourself: can I easily keep the bones intact and simply make this INSERT ALLERGY HERE free/optional? Could I leave out the prohibited ingredient or serve it on the side without turning my whole menu planning world upside down?
I’m in a relationship with a man who is tragically lactose intolerant and instead of leaving out the butter and whole-milk yogurt, I grind Lactaid into his food because I’d rather do literally anything else than give up my dairy. Just kidding (!), but now I leave out the knob of butter in our pantry pastas, serve the cheese on the side of our caesar salads and buy Lactose-free sour cream (honestly, I can’t tell the difference). Relationships are all about compromise, or so I’m told!
All this to say, you don’t need to panic. You’re more equipped to cook for someone who doesn’t eat something than you think. Some of my favorite meals I’ve made have been for friends that have can’ts and won’ts, as they all end up being a version of my favorite way to eat anyway: Vegetable heavy small plates. Have you dined with us before? We do things a little differently here. We recommend 3–4 plates per person and the food comes out as it’s ready. Can I offer you complimentary still or sparkling water?
Anyway, that was my advice. Channel that side of yourself that has a flair for improvisation and passion for flexibility. Free yourself of the “main course” dilemma and go forth with a table full of herby vegetables and legumes with toasted nuts, grilled bread, cheese, yogurt or labne (all on the side, rather than on top, with or under (respectively). Sounds like an absolute dream dinner, and nothing about that bounty feels “modified” or “restrictive.” It feels inclusive and intentional, the way all our menus should feel.
Here are some spring-y ideas to get you started, and please, feel free to drop your favorite ways to modify in the comments below. And, as always, if you have ny number, feel free to text!
Most people’s snack plates rely heavily on cured meats, cheeses, and bread, which is… not ideal for dietary restrictions. But sometimes all of that ends up being too heavy anyway, so know that everyone will be thrilled with some just-tangy-enough marinated artichoke hearts, big vinegary butter beans on cute toothpicks, and fancy citrusy olives–which can easily be made without spice or with the herbs of your choice.
V / GF / DF
For being so simple, this salad does a lot of heavy lifting. It goes with everything and suits everyone. It’s delicious enough to hold its own on the table, and the bitterness of the escarole lends itself to a nice, bright, palette cleansing side. It’s our pick for best supporting actress.
V / GF / DF
A baked potato bar is a wonderful option when you’re cooking for people with different dietary restrictions for a few reasons: it’s very fun, highly customizable, and no one I know is allergic to potatoes. This is a great way to allow people to cater to their own needs–can some of your guests have dairy? Set out a little bowl of sour cream and some butter for those who can, and get some good olive oil for those who can’t. You could also opt for a lactose-free sour cream if your guests are lactose intolerant, or a dairy-free version for the vegans in the group. Nice roe or crispy bacon for the non-vegans, scallions and herbs for everyone.
V / GF / DF optional
There’s no time like the present to get the most gorgeous asparagus the market has to offer. So elegant! This preparation is a little spicy, very springy, and worth using the good olive oil (you already have it for the baked potato bar, how convenient).
V / GF / DF
These leeks are like the crispy, creamy leeks from spring chicken dinner, without the chicken. They’re tossed with harissa paste and olive oil and when roasted, become frizzled and crunchy as a potato chip at the ends while staying impossibly tender in the middle.
V / GF / DF
Beans and beans, two of our favorite things. You can use a pot of brothy beans as your base, but canned beans work well too. Like most things, these are better with anchovies, but a splash of soy sauce or tamari is also great.
V / GF / DF
This salad is pretty much acidic enough to qualify as a big bowl of pickles, making it the ideal salad.
V / GF / DF
With a little work on the front-end, your guests can enjoy these artichokes with ease, and you can always omit the butter for more olive oil. These are such a nice dinner party dish, and I love serving them with labne or aioli.
V / GF / DF optional
Raw peas, green garlic, and peppery, beautiful radishes are some of the best things about spring, and this side has them all. If you need, leave the anchovy out of the dressing and serve them in a tin on the side instead. If you want, add some shaved parmesan.
GF / DF / V optional
This is a hearty grain salad that will agree with anything you’re serving, and it uses every part of the fennel, which we love to see. It’s lovely with any grain, so feel free to swap out the farro for rice-boiled-like-pasta if your guests are GF (sometimes now I just default to rice instead of another grain if I’m not sure what the guest list will be, it’s a hit every time).
V / DF / GF optional
Often called “the sleeper hit” of Nothing Fancy, this dish of equal parts chickpeas, frizzled onions and olive oil is hearty enough to be “a main course,” honestly. If needed, you can serve the feta on the side, but you’ll be glad it’s there.
GF / DF optional / V optional