One Feast Fits All

By Anna Thomas / Photography By Victoria Pearson | March 15, 2016
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Prawns Sautéed with Garlic Gambas À La Plancha

A Brief (Personal) History of Hospitality

The way we eat is changing—that’s not news anymore. I remember when, as a budding vegetarian, I couldn’t eat out in Los Angeles—in Los Angeles!—except at a handful of hippie cafés. I became an upstart in the food scene by writing The Vegetarian Epicure in 1972, while I was still a film student at UCLA. I think it was self-defense. Since that time, I’ve cooked a lot, eaten constantly, entertained often and written four more books. And now—good grief—I’m the O.G.

Yes, I believe that what I put on the table is important. But there is one thing more important: Who is at the table?

Gathering my friends around the table has been one of the joys of my life, and I don’t invite people over because they eat the same way I do. I’m willing to bet you don’t either. We invite folks because we love them, or we want to know them better or they tell the best jokes! Or maybe simply because we’re related.

Over the last few years, I have begun to hear more and more laments from people who were afraid to entertain because this one would only eat that, and the other one wouldn’t eat this. The way we eat is changing, but we’re different and we’re in very different places on that larger curve. We need to find a way with food, I thought, that allows us to relax and be flexible, and to just have a good time.

Well, here’s the thing: In our traditional American food culture we have a default setting: meat in the middle, grains and vegetables on the side. Those familiar meals could be adapted, of course, but we’d immediately be taking something away, substituting—compromising. Of course, we could prepare two separate meals, but what a hassle! And let’s face it, then there would be an A meal and a B meal, and who wants to be on the B list?

“We’re doing this backwards,” I thought. “Why not start with the food everyone eats?”

Everyone eats the watermelon at the picnic. It’s not the vegan watermelon, it’s just the watermelon. Everyone eats the minestrone and the focaccia. Everyone eats the roasted potato wedges with mojo verde that I serve with cocktails, and my wild mushroom risotto.

It seemed so simple. Start with the foods everyone eats, create a dish or a meal that works, then add and elaborate … expand with eggs, cheese, fish or meat … make it flexible. Make one meal, but one that can be enjoyed in variations. It became my holy grail: to design meals at which we could sit down together, toast each other and eat happily in my peaceable kingdom.

I made a savory chile verde with fat white beans and added chicken to half of it. I made Lebanese-style stuffed peppers filled with aromatic rice and lentils, but added spiced lamb to half the stuffing. I made meals built around hearty pilafs of farro and black rice, surrounded by roasted vegetables—and slices of pork for the omnivores. My easy fish soup became a dinner party favorite. It begins as a robust vegetable soup and the fish and shellfish are added at the last minute, so it can easily be served in two versions.

And one spring weekend, after my weekly visit to the Ojai Certified Farmers’ Market, I made a delicate, lemon-perfumed risotto with sautéed fresh fava beans. I offered large shavings of Parmigiano, and passed a platter of sautéed shrimp to be added as a garnish for those who wanted it. It was a perfect springtime meal, bright and full of the fresh taste of the season.

Here is that risotto in a menu that can be kept very simple (see for recipes). Make a salad of the first tender lettuces to begin, and finish with a bowl of strawberries. Or make it a dinner party by adding a starter of carrot-top pesto served with roasted young carrots, crostini and tangy goat cheese. For dessert, combine Gaviota strawberries with Ojai tangerines, all drizzled with a light syrup to make a compote that can only be enjoyed at this perfect moment of the year.

And invite everyone you like; call them to the table without fear. We long for that social table—it is a place of sharing of stories and jokes, old friendships and new, a place where we can become our best selves. Let’s not give it up just because we don’t all eat the same way.

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