Vegan Revisited!

Ratatouille from San Francisco’s Fogcutter features a colorful mélange of roasted summer peppers, cherry tomatoes, okra and eggplant with fresh herbs. Photo by Margaret Austin Photography

Caterers are responding to rising requests with surprisingly delectable dishes

By Deanne Moskowitz

The vegan population in the United States last year reached 6 percent, according to a report published in June by GlobalData, a U.K. research company. That percentage may not seem noteworthy, until you realize that the number was 1 percent in 2014—a 500 percent increase in a period of only three years.

Not the anti-establishment rebellion of the hippie era, this vegan uprising is coming to caterers from various quarters, including young professionals. Demand is strong for corporate and social occasions, whether motivated by health concerns, humane or environmental consciousness, or simply the suddenly alluring trendiness of the lifestyle.

Leslie Nilsson, founder and creative director of Bartleby & Sage Catering in New York, says that she includes vegan dishes on every proposal now. “It used to be a one-off,” she recalls, with a vegan guest at about one in every 20 events. Now there are at least 5 to 10 vegans at every event.

Two Chicks and a Pot Catering, based in Rockledge, Fla., with satellites in Orlando and Vero Beach, has added a vegetarian/vegan page to its website, because the category is “so important to people,” according to Beth Hazley, owner/operator. She’s “absolutely” seen an increase in vegan demand during the last five years. “There are requests every day,” she adds.

Tony Rea, chef and owner—with Frank Vara—of Creations in Cuisine Catering in Phoenix, sees five times as many vegan requests than he did five years ago, so the company has introduced a vegetarian/vegan menu. It has become “customary for us to automatically ask if any vegan meals are required,” he adds.

Kayla Retzlaff, director of sales and events at Upstairs Downstairs Catering in Madison, Wis., also has observed a “significant increase in vegan clients” in the last five years. “There seems to be a vegan at each event we cater,” she says.

And at San Francisco’s Fogcutter, about 5 percent of clients are vegan, according to Caroline Hummer, co-founder with executive chef Guillermo Perez. Located in a city where a large percentage of the population follows some lifestyle diet, she feels “uniquely qualified to help vegans craft a great menu,” since the company has “had a pretty solid vegan base” since its inception in 2013.

With evidence building that veganism, once regarded as an oddball niche, is going mainstream (reportedly, McDonald’s is testing a vegan burger at one Finland location, for example), caterers are giving vegan food a new spin. Armed with a wealth of organic and locally grown ingredients, unavailable to the vegans of the ’60s, and leaning on a world of vegan-friendly ethnic cuisines, they’re developing meat-, dairy- and egg-free dishes remarkable for their deliciousness—not their deprivation.

At Upstairs Downstairs in Madison, Wis., the quinoa-stuffed bell pepper is a bestseller, with mushrooms, onions and spices tossed together in a roasted red pepper sauce and topped with vegan cheese.

Venerating Vegetables

In their vegan cooking, most caterers concentrate on celebrating the incredible diversity and color range of vegetables. But some chefs also strive to mimic meat’s texture and taste using plant-based ingredients.

“Most of the vegans we work with don’t want faux meat,” says Bartleby’s Nilsson. “They’re vegans because they love vegetables…and there are so many beautiful ones that we do.”

One striking example, usually served as a first course or side, is a cruciferous dish consisting of purple, yellow and white cauliflower, and green Romanesco, marinated in a caper vinaigrette, and tossed with toasted pine nuts and golden raisins. “It’s so delicious!” Nilsson exclaims.

She likes to pair it with Cajun-style eggplant étouffée, an impressive-looking main dish presented in an eggplant boat. Its spicy filling starts with the “holy trinity” (sautéed onions, bell peppers and celery), and includes eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, tomatoes and garlic.

Fogcutter isn’t a huge fan of vegan meat substitutes either, according to Hummer. “We prefer to highlight awesome, seasonal vegetables and fruits in our vegan dishes and make them shine,” she explains. The ponzu-charred carrot that Perez piles on a crispy vegan wonton topped with sesame-oil-and-yuzu-flavored edamame puree is a huge hit with vegans and non-vegans alike, she claims.

Hazley from Two Chicks is not an advocate of soy meat substitutes or seitan, and cooks only with ingredients that are “grown and all-natural.” She believes in legumes and grains to add substance, as in her lemony chickpea piccata, for instance.

But James Bloodsaw, executive chef at Upstairs Downstairs, who is vegan himself, has done well with some enticingly “meaty” entrees he developed by combining vegetables with Bob’s Red Mill Vital Wheat Gluten. One is a build-your-own “Corned Beef Ruben” made with house-made seitan as the beef substitute, with pickled beets for color, and fresh dill and pickle juice as a marinade. It’s served on vegan rye with traditional topping choices, including vegan Swiss cheese. Another is vegan ribs—made with wheat, seitan, liquid smoke, peanut butter, spices, soy sauce and veggies—drenched in raspberry barbecue sauce.

Creations in Cuisine’s Rea sometimes relies on mushrooms to pack a meaty flavor. His wild mushroom pate on crostini hors d’oeuvre is satisfying to non-vegans, too, he reports. Other leading vegan hors d’oeuvres there include hot and cold soup shooters such as tomato bisque, watermelon gazpacho and apple celeriac with a drizzle of chili oil.

So as not to ostracize vegan guests, when developing the vegan selection Rea tries to stay with the theme of the non-vegan meal, perhaps Italian or Southwestern. He has had great success with a signature portobello napoleon on rosemary polenta, and with handmade pumpkin ravioli with butternut squash and arugula pesto.

Glorifying Grains

Chefs are capitalizing on grains, especially quinoa (that gluten-free, go-to protein powerhouse) to stand-in for meat in their vegan dishes.

Vegetables with grain fillings are favorites in many places. Two Chicks tosses quinoa or other ancient grains with grilled carrots, onions, squashes and aromatics, and stuffs the mixture into portobello mushrooms or bakes it in a casserole. Bartleby & Sage presents poblano chiles stuffed with quinoa and vegetables, sparked by a moderately spicy ancho chile sauce; and Upstairs Downstairs has turned quinoa-stuffed bell peppers into bestsellers.

Toasted quinoa and lacinato kale with butternut squash, whole-grain mustard and fresh thyme is a go-to dish from Fogcutter’s menu that happens to be vegan.

Beans and other legumes also are evident on menus as meat substitutes. Lentil shepherd’s pie, with a filling of lentils, vegetables and thickened vegetable broth replacing ground beef or lamb, and a topping of red potatoes mashed with cashew milk, is a much-ordered entree or appetizer at Two Chicks.

Portobello black bean sliders are among the most appreciated vegan entrees at Creations in Cuisine. Also successful are sweet potato sliders with spicy pumpkin seed and chipotle aioli.

Dairy-Free Indulgences

Chefs are producing all sorts of velvety vegan concoctions, in which nut milks and coconut milk instead of dairy contribute richness. Hazley chooses cashew milk if the dish is savory but coconut milk if it’s sweet.

Bloodsaw often turns to almond, coconut and cashew milk as cream replacements. One of his decadent dairy-free offerings, cashew pasta with truffle cream sauce, contains a blend of coconut milk, soaked cashews, garlic, basil and truffle oil. Coconut milk also is the secret to his tomato bisque shooter, which is paired with a mini grilled cheese sandwich made with vegan cheese for a fun hors d’oeuvre.

Almond milk Alfredo on casarecce pasta is one luxuriant people-pleaser from Fogcutter’s Perez. It is produced by combining thin cauliflower soup with almond milk and nutritional yeast, incorporating kale pesto and braised fennel, and garnishing with large kale chips.

Pantry Pluses

As the vegan market expands, companies are getting increasingly creative with substitutions. Tofu and brown rice, central in the ’60s, are less evident, but the reverence for natural and preservative-free ingredients survives.

Nut “cheeses,” often house-made, are up-and-coming. Bartleby produces a cashew “cheese” with a creamy consistency by combining the nuts with garlic, Dijon and umami-rich nutritional yeast.

Creations in Cuisine makes its own vegan nut cheese, too, and Rea recently tried a tofu “gouda,” made with soy milk and potatoes, which he pronounces “very good.” As egg replacements, he likes flax and smashed bananas or apples.

At Fogcutter, avocado is a common cheese substitute, and at Bartleby jackfruit sometimes lends the texture of meat to tacos. It’s a “happening” replacement that carries whatever flavor you give it, notes Nilsson, although it’s not always easy to find.

Since the brewer of Guinness recently changed the product’s preparation process, making the stout vegan, Guinness-spiced cupcakes are a new vegan dessert leader at Fogcutter, according to Hummer. They also contain safflower oil and Valrhona chocolate, and are frosted with “super smooth” bittersweet chocolate water ganache.

The cruciferous salad at Bartleby & Sage in New York boasts a healthy mix of Romanesco, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprout leaves, micro radish leaves and puffed amaranth in a caper vinaigrette.

Vegan Unlimited

Vegans aren’t the only ones eating vegan food these days. Since even meat-eaters are warming to the pleasures of plant-based dining, and many dishes are naturally vegan, some carnivores are intentionally choosing vegan options, while others are enjoying vegan dishes without realizing the truth.

“Almost everything we make is good for everyone,” Hazley insists. She underscores the point by revealing that she served the pumpkin risotto from her catering menu, made with coconut milk, cranberries and diced jalapeños, at her family Thanksgiving without mentioning that it was vegan.

Non-vegans don’t seem to notice that fruit and vegetable skewers and bruschetta topped with tapenade or tomato/basil are vegan, Hazley points out. And “nobody would think twice” if you served meat-and-cheese-free nachos topped with beans, olives and jalapeños. “Everybody…not just vegans” loves her sauteed vegetables on toast or flatbread with sweet balsamic glaze, she adds.

Hummer talks about the “happy coincidences” on her menu. Among them, she lists cumin-roasted carrots and beets with avocado, sunflower sprouts and pepitas; and kale and farro salad with hazelnuts and whole-grain mustard vinaigrette.

Nilsson calls avocado toast, which is “still trending,” a perfect vegan hors d’oeuvre and notes some other options that need little adjustment. Duxelles of wild mushrooms on polenta cubes is made with vegetable stock and without butter or cheese; carrot latkes with apple/jalapeño chutney are fried in vegetable oil.

Eventfully Vegan

Caterers are being called on more frequently now to produce all-vegan or partially vegan events. The diet is so acceptable and the food so good that hosts don’t feel the need to make special accommodations for carnivores.

Excited to convince their families that a meat-and-dairy-free dinner could be “amazing,” one couple gave Fogcutter (and its menu planner and lead coordinator Natalie Nesbit) the extra challenge of catering an all-vegan and gluten-free wedding, and the outcome was mind-changing. Even one extremely skeptical father, “a staunch meat-eater,” was astounded that the meal was so “filling and delicious.” Among the satisfying selections were roasted cauliflower and quinoa with wild arugula, olives, golden raisins, smoked chile oil and ras el hanout; butternut squash risotto, made with coconut milk, maitake mushrooms, herb pistou and a side of smoked tempeh; and braised spinach and baked tofu “saag paneer,” its flavor and creaminess intensified by the addition of garam masala and coconut milk.

Called on to cater the wedding of a vegan, gluten-free ballerina from New York, Two Chicks came up with a multicultural menu and presented it in such a fun action-station format that “nobody missed the meat,” according to Hazley. All vegan with some gluten-free elements, the stops included an Americana station serving paninis with hummus and marinated vegetables, corn on the cob and veggie skewers; an Asian station boasting dumplings, summer rolls and a chef-attended noodle bar; and a Greek station serving lemon-rice stuffed grape leaves, cucumber salad, olives and more.

For a vegan bride and groom, Blacksaw created an all-vegan wedding buffet serving 120 guests, including carnivores. Among the tempting dishes were mushroom appetizers stuffed with vegan cream cheese and vegan bacon; “sausage” manicotti, cashew pasta and quinoa-stuffed pepper entrees; and steamed broccoli and moussaka sides.

Rea came to the rescue of a young couple hoping for a vegan wedding dinner with a colorful menu. Among the appetizers were roasted purple and golden beets on pine nut ricotta with arugula pesto, followed by an entree of pumpkin ravioli with crisp sage leaves on butternut squash bisque. “Hands down the stars” were his vegan cupcakes in such extraordinary flavors as tiramisu, orange pudding and mucho margarita, says Rea.

Nilsson hasn’t catered any all-vegan events, but she has done 50/50 menus and created an all-vegan station for the wedding of a vegan groom and an Italian-American bride. In the process now of developing two pescatarian/vegan events, she marvels that the families are in complete agreement about the menus, rather than fighting about the food as they would have 10 years ago. She calls it “remarkable” that clients “are becoming more and more considerate about people’s lifestyles and eating choices.” That’s a development that seems to be gaining ground and that is likely to lead to even more vegan events in the future.