Throw a dinner party that just happens to have no animal products. You don’t even have to mention to your meat-eating friends that there will be no meat, dairy, eggs, or honey for dinner. If it’s a delicious, hearty enough meal, they might not even notice. Your vegan friends will thank you. Gabriella Mann, chef-owner of Baba Cool, a vegan-friendly café in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood, is no stranger to cooking this way. “The more people try these things, the more they’ll realize they’ll feel full with it and they’ll enjoy it. Vegan food can be flavorful and hearty,” Mann says. She shares what’s worked for her, and how it can work for you.
Opening as a breakfast, lunch, and brunch cafe in 2014, Mann revamped her pint-sized bright and cheery, minimalistic spot in March to include beer, wine, and a new dinner menu that’s vegan and gluten-free. “I wanted there to be things people can share, and that’s important for a dinner party as well,” Mann says. She hosted a personal vegan dinner party for her birthday, although Mann isn’t strictly vegan herself. Mann has preferred a vegetarian diet since she was 6 years old growing up in Scarsdale, a suburb north of Manhattan. At first, it was because she felt bad for animals, but now it’s just habit, no motivated by moral reasons. Running a restaurant has caused her to break the habit for one item, though: “Bacon,” Mann says with a laugh. Understandable.
Mann’s advice on how to throw a vegan dinner party keeps it streamlined, simple, and hearty enough to satisfy even your most robust beef-loving buddies. “I think it’s important to make things simple and not try to make things what they’re not, like fake meat, barbecue chicken that’s not chicken,” Mann says.
Begin with a few dips as appetizers for guests to nibble on as they arrive, Mann says. Hummus, guacamole, and salsa are obvious, so why not try other kinds of dips? Mann loves her white bean dip and lentil dip. If you keep it pretty chunky and less liquid, you can dollop some onto toasted, sliced bread. Miniature toasts are a sweet touch. “Minis are a nice opening bite, a good pop-in-your-mouth type of thing,” Mann says. Make sure that bread is baked with no eggs of course. The harder, crunchier kinds like a baguette or ciabatta are good. Challah and brioche, not so much. You can start on the wine drinking right away, or begin with a signature cocktail that you create just for the evening. Provide a mocktail version as well, if you think you’ll have any takers. We love the blueberry-basil pairing, with ginger soda/beer and liquor of your choice. Swap the basil for mint if you prefer.
Always introduce your main meal with a salad. “I like to incorporate dark leafy greens whenever I can,” Mann says. Here’s where you throw in the kale, arugula, spinach, or less common salad greens such as dandelion and raw Brussels sprouts. You can make a ricotta salata with nuts that’s so good your guests might not be able to tell it’s not cow’s milk ricotta cheese. It’s Mann’s one concession when cooking vegan. “I don’t like trying to make vegan food taste like meat. Just be what you are. It can be satisfying enough,” she says. Throw in some thin apple slices or other seasonal fruit, roasted nuts, crispy fried shallots, and a luscious dressing, and we doubt you’ll hear complaints.
3. Main Meal
Provide one dish that’s heavy, dense, and oozing with umami flavor. Cauliflower steaks are a trend lately, but Mann doesn’t think they’re hearty enough. Eggplant and mushrooms are inherently meaty. Mann ups the savory nature of her blistered eggplant with some miso, and spices it with za’atar, a blend of Persian flavors. Pasta can be cop-out, she says, remembering her childhood days when that was all restaurants had to offer her when she requested vegetarian options. Although, butternut or spaghetti squash pasta is less typical. Mann loves making a sweet potato gnocchi with sautéed eggplant and mizuna. You can amp up your main with fried or sautéed plantains. “It’s like a substitute for fries. It’s familiar, sweet and salty, and neutral enough,” she says. Slice, cook, and serve these golden medallions with almost anything. And then you’ll need more sides, some lighter additions, like that aforementioned cauliflower. Mann makes hers with activated charcoal tahini, goji berries, and turmeric ghee. But you can use other vegetables and simply roast, smash, or sauté them, adding your own favorite spices. Oh, and don’t forget to set out a big bowl of rice, preferably a brown or wild rice of some kind. It’s a good base for everything else, Mann says.
Some peanut butter bars made with agave nectar and vegan coconut ice cream with cacao bonbon nibs are a great combination reminiscent of that brownie a la mode you loved as a child. “The pairing works really well,” Mann says. You can also make vegan brownies, dark chocolate-avocado mousse with coconut cream, or any number of crave-able desserts without dairy, honey, or eggs. It’s actually pretty easy. Serve a great coffee, and provide soy or nut milk in case anyone likes theirs lightened.
Don’t forget this final ingredient, which pulls everything together. Set the mood with some warm lighting from candles, dim bulbs in lamps, or twinkle string lights. Find a bunch of clear vases and stick in some seasonal flowers. You can use leftover jars from food you bought if you peel and scrub off the labels. It’s a nice shabby chic touch. Mann prefers brightly colored flowers in spring and summer, and darker or white flowers and foliage in fall and winter. Use clear or solid-white bowls and plates, which highlight the beautiful colors in the food. And lastly, create a playlist or find a music station that emphasizes the vibe you want for your dinner party. “I like music that makes people want to dance. I don’t believe in dinner parties with soft music,” Mann says.
“Perhaps if they don’t feel so heavy after their vegan meal, they’ll want to go dancing afterwards.”
That’s something to celebrate.
Here’s another: Mann gave us a few of her restaurant recipes to help you achieve this goal.
1. Lentil Dip
Enough with the hummus already. Lentils have more protein and less fat anyway, so get down with this legume, prepared kind of like, dare we say it, hummus. But there’s fresh mint and nutmeg in this dip, further enhancing this Middle Eastern-inspired appetizer. Get our Lentil Dip recipe.
2. Roasted Cauliflower with Tahini and Goji Berries
Turmeric colors everything golden and amps the nutritional roster of this side dish, perfect for a vegan dinner, or any beef, lamb, chicken, pork, or seafood dinner if that’s your thing. That slightly bitter flavor contrasts nicely with tart-sweet goji berries and nutty tahini. Get our Roasted Cauliflower with Tahini and Goji Berries recipe.
3. Chocolate Banana Crunch Muffins
Consider these delights for an appetizer or dessert, or part of a vegan brunch. Sweetened with bananas, grade B maple syrup, and almond extract, these muffins have tons of fiber from oat flour and a crunch from the granola topping. Get our Chocolate Banana Crunch Muffins recipe.