MEATLESS MARVELS The how-tos of planning a vegetarian wedding meal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sarah Bradley's mom was so nervous about the vegetarian meal that was going to be served at Sarah's wedding reception that she ate a turkey sandwich beforehand.

But she needn't have worried. As it turned out, everyone, including Sarah's mom, thought the Asian-style vegetarian food was great. Many people even asked to take home leftovers.

What was viewed by Ms. Bradley's initially skeptical family as a "West Coast phenomenon" is becoming more commonplace in Baltimore and around the country, according to caterers and restaurateurs.

As vegetarianism moves into the mainstream -- with many restaurants offering at least one vegetarian entree each day, for instance -- more couples are also choosing to serve vegetarian food at their wedding receptions.

But the trend is larger than just vegetarianism. It's part of an overall move in this country toward health-conscious diets. So it's not surprising that more couples are choosing low-fat foods and alcohol-free drinks at their receptions.

All of these changes are easier than before "because today's bride and groom are planning their own wedding" and they are more likely to have developed a particular entertaining style, says Shelley Pedersen, president of the National Association of Catering Executives.

Couples getting married now "may be older and have traveled more. They may cook as a hobby so their palates are a little more well-trained than [those of couples] 20 years ago," she says.

As for the all-important issue of etiquette, even in the face of considerable family opposition, it is perfectly appropriate to plan whatever kind of food the bride and groom want, says Letitia Baldrige, author of "Letitia Baldrige's Complete Guide to New Manners for the '90s."

"You don't go to a wedding for the food -- you go for the company and to celebrate a new union. A wedding is a time of joy and the food is secondary," says Ms. Baldrige.

And the hosts of the party demonstrate their combined entertaining style by the type, quality and style of food they serve.

Just as a hostess chooses foods she likes for a dinner party, "if you are planning a wedding that's a reflection of who you are, you want a wedding to reflect your taste," says Martha Rose Schulman, author of many mostly vegetarian cookbooks, including "Provencal Light," recent recipient of the Julia Child Cookbook Award.

And for some couples, the gesture of serving vegetarian food is more than just a matter of showing their particular taste. They have even more compelling reasons for serving vegetarian food.

"Being vegetarians is much better for the world ecologically, and we felt better about serving it to our guests," says Sarah Bradley, who married Michael Hyman of Baltimore in September 1993.

"If you feel strongly about something, why are you going to change it for someone else? It would be wrong for us to serve meat," she says.

Besides, adds Mr. Hyman, "we knew that the food was going to be really, really good."

Ms. Bradley says friends and relatives alike were delighted with the buffet, which included a colorful sculpture made of vegetable sushi; steamed dumplings stuffed with mushrooms; a seaweed salad in a peppery sauce, and several different courses of stir-fry vegetables. The highlight was something that guests thought was an orange-chicken dish, but which was really tofu. The wedding meal was catered by Mr. Chan's, a Chinese restaurant in Pikesville.

"Everyone thought the appetizers were the main course, and then the next eight courses arrived," says Mr. Hyman.

"Both Jewish and Chinese traditions involve having a lot of food," he adds. (Both he and Ms. Bradley are Jewish.)

Since many people associate vegetarianism with less food, wedding planners may need to take more care than usual to provide plenty of food, so no one leaves the reception hungry. "You can have what you darn please, provided you give them enough," advises Ms. Baldrige.

Serving Asian or Mediterranean cuisine can help ensure that guests will like what they eat, says Ms. Schulman, because both of these popular cuisines generally place more emphasis on produce and less on meat.

The author's suggestions for hors d'oeuvres include mini quiches, Spanish tapas and Greek phyllo pastries.

Of course, appetizers are the easy part. The real test is getting meat eaters to accept as an entree what appears to them as just a side dish.

Middle Eastern couscous dishes and Mediterranean pasta dishes are two examples of foods that can be made colorful and filling enough to stand on their own.

There are a number of other options. Just as there are different types of vegetarians -- from those who consider themselves vegetarians because they only rarely eat red meat to those called vegans, who do not eat any animal products -- there are also different types of vegetarian wedding meals.

Even when vegetarian couples eschew fish, they often will offer it at their wedding party as an option for guests.

"I had fish because I wanted people who weren't comfortable with a vegetarian diet to have a main dish that they would enjoy," says Mara Kaplan, speaking of the meal that followed her 1993 marriage to Jonathan Sepsenwol. Even though Ms. Kaplan does not eat fish, she believes the compromise worked out well.

Serving a vegetarian meal also meant that those of Ms. Kaplan's relatives who follow a kosher diet could enjoy the food. "I didn't want my grandmother to have to worry about anything," says Ms. Kaplan.

Kosher-food laws proscribe the mixing of meat and dairy products, so a meal that had neither would satisfy those who keep kosher.

Roughly half of Ms. Kaplan's guests chose the vegetarian entree and were treated to stuffed eggplant, roasted vegetables and an assortment of gourmet specialties prepared by Culinary Capers of Baltimore.

Couples wanting to provide a stricter vegetarian meal may find that it is difficult to pull off, but not an impossible feat.

At their 1990 wedding reception at the Columbia Hilton, John and Kathleen Shoemaker served an almost exclusively vegan meal. The exceptions were a pasta primavera entree (made with eggs, cream and butter) and the traditional bride's cake, which was made using butter, eggs and milk. For their cake-loving vegan friends, however, there was a groom's cake, made without any animal products.

Because many chefs are not particularly knowledgeable about vegan diets, the Shoemakers gave the hotel chef their recipe for spinach tofu lasagna and he prepared it.

"It did taste a little different, but everyone said they liked it," says Ms. Shoemaker.

While most couples serving vegetarian meals are doing so because of their personal convictions, some are offering them because they realize that while everyone can usually eat vegetarian entrees, not everyone can eat entrees with meat.

In an effort to please everyone, many couples are offering both a meat entree and a vegetarian entree for their guests, says Connie Conner, director of catering at Harbor Court Hotel.

This is probably the biggest trend in weddings, she adds, because it allows hosts to be considerate of their guests' dietary restrictions.

Be aware, though, that while vegetarian cooking is becoming more common, it can be difficult to find a cook up to the task of preparing a beautiful meatless meal for such a special occasion. Many cooks say they can, but they don't have the skill, imagination or experience required. Because few caterers and restaurants can afford to specialize in vegetarian entrees, the next best option is finding someone who does it often and does it well.

That challenge might require couples to go above and beyond the usual ways of finding a caterer -- word-of-mouth and references from friends, for example. For a large wedding, any professional caterer should be willing to provide a tasting so prospective clients can make sure the caterer is adept at preparing a wonderful vegetarian meal for that most important day.

A SAMPLE VEGETARIAN MEAL

Here's a sample gourmet vegetarian meal, prepared by Holly Forbes, Harbor Court Hotel's executive chef:

Assorted Fancy Breads with Butter Rosettes

Vegetable Consomme with Wild Mushroom Raviolini

Field Greens and Roasted Pecans with Herbed Goat Cheese Roulade and Balsamic Vinaigrette

Sorbet Intermezzo

Layered Herbed Crepes with Roasted Vegetables and Roasted Red Pepper Coulis

Grilled Spaghetti Squash

Creme Anglaise and Berries

Chocolate Cake with White Chocolate Mousse Filling and Butter Cream Finish

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