Vegetarian food, after years of growing acceptance a everyday fare, still has an image problem when it comes time to feed company.
As a test, invite someone over for the holidays, announce that dinner will be vegetarian and watch their faces freeze. They might not come right out and admit that they think they're going to starve to death while there sitting at your table, but you can practically see the images of soybean burgers and tofu turkey rolling past their eyes.
"It's not necessarily an unjustified fear," says food writer Diana Shaw. "During that first wave of vegetarian food -- I call it the stone-soup age -- a lot of it was really bad. Even now, whenever I have a party or have someone special over, my mother says, 'Don't feed them rabbit food.' "
L But times -- and vegetarian meals -- have changed, she says.
Now when Ms. Shaw creates an all-vegetable menu for company -- as she does over and over both at home and in her new book, "Vegetarian Entertaining" (Harmony Books, hardcover, $25) -- she fills it with wonderful things: potato tortes and marinated wild mushrooms, espresso souffles and eggplant timbales.
She dresses cherry tomatoes in walnut pesto; she offers bowls of chilled cantaloupe soup; she serves up gnocchi with three sauces.
"My approach is not to think of what is not going to go into the dish but just to concentrate on what is going in it," she says.
She makes the meal so elegant and tasty that no one feels deprived. "That will help dispel the fear that vegetarianism is about not liking food or not serving enough."
One reason that vegetarian food gained its reputation for earnestness to the detriment of flavor was the belief that the cook had to serve balanced proteins at each meal.
"For a long time vegetarians believed that there was a formula you had to follow, like so many legumes balanced with so much grain balanced with so much dairy," she says. "Apparently it doesn't really have to be balanced to the extent we thought before."
Ms. Shaw is not, by definition, a strict vegetarian. "I eat fish and occasionally poultry," she says.
While Ms. Shaw leans toward vegetarianism for political reasons -- she believes grain is put to better use feeding people directly rather than feeding cattle or pigs first -- she doesn't believe that everyone has to declare themselves a vegetarian in order to benefit from all-vegetable meals.
"People can broaden their repertoire by considering making meatless meals a few nights a week. Because they're having a vegetarian meal a couple of nights doesn't mean they're dedicating themselves to a whole new way of life and ruling out the meat dishes they really enjoy," she says.
She learned to cook from both her mother and her grandfather, her mother's father, who came from Armenia. Because of this, she says, her cooking shows the strong influences of Middle Eastern cuisine.
Her early cooking efforts took a serious turn when, at the age of 17, she had her bicycle stolen. "I couldn't live without it. I was trying to think of the fastest way to make money to be able to replace it."
Because she had a baby-sitting business, she knew a lot of neighborhood children, so she decided to offer them cooking classes. "I had to learn a lot about cooking in order to teach."
But she got her new bike within three weeks. "I had a lot of kids that I taught. And bicycles weren't as expensive back then."
After graduating from Harvard/Radcliffe with a degree in American history, she moved to Los Angeles and started her own business doing research for film companies. But her income wasn't quite large enough to cover her gourmet shop expenditures, she says. "I was entertaining a lot. I could always justify entertaining -- you'd get people together, you make everybody happy, that's a nice thing to do -- but I was going broke."
To subsidize her food bills, she submitted an article on vegetarian entertaining to the Los Angeles Times and ended up writing a weekly column on vegetarian food that ran in that newspaper for four years.
She just moved back to Boston where she divides her time between research, writing books for young adults (she has five already published) and writing more cookbooks.
With such a busy schedule, she's found one advantage of vegetarian entertaining is that dishes can often be prepared in advance. And throughout her book she emphasizes this. "That's something that I learned from watching my mother. My mother entertained often and she never sat down. It still echoes through my head, the guests saying, 'Iris, please. Sit down.' "
Ms. Shaw also found that cooking vegetarian for company saves money, because one of the biggest expenses in entertaining is the cost of the meat.