“Over the last months I’ve been on a serious hunt for the very best entertaining tips. I’ve joined lavish parties, visited rural restaurants and traveled extensively to discover what makes a good party. The most engaging dinner parties had one thing in common: an authentic host.”
While everyone entertains in their own unique way, the perfect party boils down to personality. It shines through in the food we serve and how we choose to gather. In this series, we peek into the lives of Canadian chefs who love and create food and how they share it. Here’s their entertaining style.
I first met Erin Ireland, food reporter and owner of To Die For, at a farmer’s market 3 years ago; me selling croissants and she offering her incredible banana bread. Even then, the Vancouver-native was a media force that every foodie religiously trusted. Over the years, I’ve come to understand the reason for her loyal following; it’s her commitment to, and passion for “good” food, in all sense of the word. Not only does she hunt for delicious hidden gems in our city, she is also a true champion for ethical eating. Through her Instagram account and website, she’s managed to excite the appetites of the most committed carnivores, making cauliflower look like gastronomic art. And she entertains in the same fashion, with a palette for vegetarian and vegan dishes, transformed into “extravagant dining experiences.”
How did you first learn to cook?
At age six, my dad pulled a stool up to the stove and taught me how to cook scrambled eggs. Both my parents cooked a lot and observing them was lesson number one. Before every meal, I was given one “prep job”; most often it was mincing the garlic and ginger. Since a love of food runs in the family, my parents made cooking fun and I enjoyed learning.
How would you describe your entertaining style?
I believe in going over the top with dinner parties in regards to the food and drink — there must always be leftovers. Never should a serving platter be empty at the end of a meal.
Just like a restaurant dining experience might begin, I enjoy serving a pre-dinner cocktail, along with an appetizer or two, wine pairings with dinner and port or ice wine with dessert. Between courses I love pulling out little surprises, like special olives, something pickled and maybe even a second dessert option.
Dinner parties are about spending as much time together as possible. This is why I prep as much as possible beforehand. Menu selections are often based on the “prep-ability” of a dish so you won’t find me in the kitchen cooking while my guests twiddle their thumbs.
Why did you focus on vegetarian and vegan eating?
After watching food-focused documentaries like Forks Over Knives, Earthlings and Vegucated, I couldn’t ignore the many benefits of a plant-based diet and the horrors of factory farming. When I realized the depth of responsibility I carried in my role as a food reporter, I decided to centre my career passions on well-informed, healthful, and ethical broadcasting. As a result, I’ve fallen in love with the plant-based diet, largely for the way it makes me feel physically. My message to others isn’t necessarily to become a vegetarian or a vegan; it’s to encourage others to learn about the realities of our food industry, which will hopefully inspire them to focus on eating ethically.
What would people be surprised to find in your kitchen?
A 40kg box of dates! I use them in all my home baking. They are easily my favourite sweetener. When I have a sugar craving, I eat a few dates. They taste just like caramel.
What are your three essential ingredients for vegetarian and vegan cooking?
A good olive oil for finishing (I enjoy Partanna or Domenica Fiore), cashews (they add that rich nuttiness to dressings and sauces) and garlic (I usually quadruple the amount called for in a recipe).
What excites you about entertaining?
There are not too many things I appreciate more than an amazing and memorable evening of food, drink and good friends, where my host has truly gone “above and beyond”. To be able to create that for someone else is incredibly satisfying.
In one word, how do you want your guests to feel after an evening at your home?
Inspired (to cook with plants).
What is one piece of advice for those who want to entertain with vegetarian and vegan cuisine?
Try to avoid cliché vegetarian dishes like veggie lasagna or tofu and rice. Choose hearty dishes your guests can get excited about by using unique ingredients like eggplant, millet, hummus and nuts. Nuts are the cheese of the vegan world!
For those of us who are omnivores, what is one simple thing we can do to incorporate a more vegetarian- and vegan-focused diet into our lives?
Inspire yourself with the help of a trustworthy, beautiful cookbooks like Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi, The Forest Feast by Erin Gleeson or The Oh She Glows Cookbook by Angela Liddon. Reading their recipes and seeing the mouthwatering food photography will leave you antsy to get into the kitchen.
If we do choose to include an animal-based product, what are some tips for choosing the most ethical ones?
The best way to source ethical meat is to know your farmers and their values. Since this is often not possible, look for labels like organic, cage-free and antibiotic and hormone-free. You can also ask your butcher if the animals were raised naturally, what they were fed (grass is ideal, as cows can’t properly digest corn) and whether the pork was raised in gestation crates (one of the biggest red flags).
What is your “go-to” vegetarian and vegan dish for entertaining and what do you love about it?
I’m crazy about Ottolenghi’s Burnt Eggplant dip with pomegranate seeds. It’s not only gorgeous to look at, but it’s also unique in flavour and utterly delicious with a strong smoky flavour from the burnt eggplant.
Burnt Eggplant Dip (Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty)
A heaping 1/2 cup tahini paste
3 tsp molasses
3 Tbsp fresh squeezed lemon juice
4 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup cilantro or parsley, chopped
4 Tbsp pomegranate seeds
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Lots of salt and pepper
1. Slice your eggplants in half, length-wise.
2. Cook them over a medium-high flame of a gas stovetop for at least 15 minutes (flipping them frequently), until their skins are black and the flesh is moist and dripping.
3. Once cool, scoop the flesh from the eggplant and coarsely chop it. Transfer to a medium-sized bowl; add tahini, molasses, lemon juice, garlic, salt/pepper and cilantro. Mix well with a spatula.
4. Transfer mixture to your serving dish and finish with a sprinkling of pomegranates and extra virgin olive oil. Serve with crackers at room temperature.