Having vegan on the menu is no longer optional – here’s how to easily add animal product-free dishes to keep diners coming back for more.
By JL Fields
Do you have a vegan option?
How many times have you been asked this question in 2018? Likely more than ever, because plant-based eating is a top trend. (Just ask Google: the search for “vegan food” increased by 90 percent in one year.) And, believe it or not, meat-eaters are driving the movement toward vegetable forward meals – over 80 percent of U.S. consumers are adding vegan food to their diets for their health and weight loss.
Many years ago, it was fairly common to read a quote from a renowned chef who proclaimed something along the lines of, “If you don’t like what I serve, don’t bother eating here.” Thankfully, today’s chefs and restaurants have their fingers on the pulse of their diners and their own pocketbooks. Say no to the vegan option request, and you may be losing a table of six because their one vegan friend can’t dine with you.
So how can you add vegan options to your menu – or at least easily respond to a vegan request upon ordering – that keeps the aesthetic of your menu and doesn’t burden the back of the house?
1. Think global. If you tend toward Mediterranean or Middle Eastern influences, keep canned chickpeas on hand. Chickpeas can easily be pureed into a bean dip or hummus and serve in a wrap sandwich or as a simple appetizer with raw vegetables. Elevate it with a side vegan tzatziki sauce. (See recipe below.)
2. Think local. Focus on what’s in season, around you, right now. Today’s diner is motivated by locally sourced and grown food, and letting a vegetable sing with simple preparation can go a long way. Cauliflower “steak” and watermelon “ham” are part of the current veggie-centric rage.
3. Sub beans and vegetables for “meat.” Lentils, the quickest-cooking legume, can stand in for ground beef. Sauté cooked lentils with onion, garlic, peppers and tomatoes and use in tacos or enchiladas, housemade veggie burgers, or even in a hearty bean soup. Stir coarsely chopped shiitake mushrooms – braised with a little liquid smoke – into a pot of navy or great northern beans for a vegan version of ham and beans.
4. Develop a “Hippie Bowl” formula unique to your cuisine. Also known as “BuddhaBowls,” this simple formula can have you ready for any vegan request. The elements are easy: beans, greens and grains. Thinking broadly, beans could be traditional canned or cooked legumes but also tofu, tempeh or even edamame. Serve them over steamed, sautéed, roasted or raw greens or root vegetables and round out the plate with cost-effective grains (brown rice, farro, quinoa or millet). Use the flavor profile of each evening’s special to switch things up for your vegan regulars.
5. Join the plant-based burger craze. Beyond Burger started things off for consumers, but Impossible Foods has ramped up the vegan burger and then some. Both burger brands boast, “It bleeds like meat.” and they both carry a texture and color that just might fool an omnivore or two. Beyond Burger can be found at your local grocer; Impossible Foods is exclusive to food service through food redistributor DOT Foods.
If all else fails, do what every vegan diner dreams of. Go out to the table, introduce yourself and ask, “What would you like me to make for you tonight?” and rattle off the produce you have on hand. Collaborative meals practically guarantee a return customer, and you just might have a little fun.
Recipe by JL Fields
Use tofu instead of yogurt in this traditional Greek recipe to make it vegan and to pack it with plant-based protein.
2 packages firm tofu, drained
Juice of 2 large lemons
1 tbsp. vinegar
2 tbsp. water
1/4 tsp. sea salt
1 tbsp. fresh dill
2 cups diced cucumber, halved
More dill, for garnish
1. Add tofu, lemon juice, vinegar, water, salt, dill and 1 cup of diced cucumber to a blender. Blend for 20 to 30 seconds, long enough to blend everything and maintain a thick, yogurt-like consistency. Add more water, if needed.
2. Pour into a large bowl.
3. Finely dice the remaining cup of diced cucumber. Add the cucumber to the bowl and mix well.
4. Pour tzatziki into an airtight container and refrigerate, ideally one day before using. If you make this on the same day you plan to use it, place it in the freezer for about an hour.
5. Serve with a sprinkling of fresh dill.
Want to know more about serving vegan?
JL Fields will be appearing at the seventh annual Atlanta Veg Fest November 10 at the Cobb County Civic Center in Marietta. The daylong celebration of all things vegan features speakers, chefs, food and vendors for a crowd of thousands. Learn more at atlantavegfest.com.
JL Fields is the founder and culinary director of the Colorado Springs Vegan Cooking Academy. She is a chef instructor in the culinary program at the University of New Mexico-Taos and a personal chef. She is the author of several cookbooks, including Vegan Pressure Cooking: Delicious Beans, Grains and One-Pot Meals in Minutes and The Vegan Air Fryer: The Healthier Way to Enjoy Deep-Fried Flavors. She is the producer and host of the radio program “Easy Vegan” and writes the monthly vegan dining review for the Colorado Springs Gazette.