WHAT? A vegan and gluten-free dinner party? We’ll get to that. First a little background…
During my senior year of college, I studied abroad in Italy. My school and dormitory were housed in a gorgeous Italian villa just miles outside of Florence in the town of Sesto Fiorentino. The villa itself was filled with beautiful frescoes and Italian artwork that enveloped me in the history of my host country. But it was the grounds of the villa that made it an extraordinary treasure. There were gardens, walking paths, sculptures, fountains, grape vines and fragrant lemon trees to tantalize the senses and calm the mind.
One Saturday afternoon in the fall of 1999, as my friends and I were walking along one of the lush garden paths, we happened upon a celebration taking place in a clearing. We were thrilled to find an al fresco feast happening before our eyes. Men and women were speaking Italian, laughing, drinking, eating….and truly enjoying each others company. There were serving trays filled with the remnants of salads, pastas and roasted vegetables. Children were eyeing up desserts that were being passed from one hand to the next and licking their lips in anticipation. Folding tables were covered with beautifully mismatched floral linens. The villa gardens served as a serene backdrop for the entire event….what a wonderful scene!
When we caught the attention of one of the older women, we were waved over to the gathering. In Italian, she asked us to sit down and join the party. The people around the table suddenly began giving us plates of sweets and pouring glasses of dessert wine. Though we were challenged to communicate through our words – my friends and I were only learning Italian – we had never felt so welcomed to a table. We sat and shared their bounty and communicated largely through body language and gestures.
From what I could understand, this celebration was part of a grape harvesting festival taking place throughout the town. This family had harvested grapes on the villa property and they were celebrating by drinking wines and Grappa (an alcoholic beverage that is made with discarded grape seeds and stems) that had been produced from the land.
It was a magical afternoon that taught me some of the fine details of being a gracious hostess. 1.) If you have a table and you have food, invite others to share! Welcome people into your space as though you have known them forever; 2.) Spread uncorked bottles of wine across the table so that everyone has one within arms reach; 3.) When you can, take a celebration outdoors – and if you can’t be outside, bring elements from nature to your table top; 4.) Don’t let the lack of a common background, or language, prevent you from making new friends; 5.) If you meet someone who is new to your area – a stranger in a strange land – offer them a seat at your table.
Using these principles, I set out to recreate the magic I found in that Italian garden so long ago. I invited a group of friends for an Italian inspired dinner at my home.
This brings us back to the vegan, gluten-free menu…
Because many of us have different dietary needs, as is so common these days, I decided to make the dinner entirely vegan and gluten-free. If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I’m vegan (well, technically pesce-vegan as I do eat sustainable seafood on occasion). I’m excited to share the details with you here.
Theme: Italian Garden Party
Number of Guests: 6
Advanced Notice: 24 hours
For this dinner party, I wanted everything to feel very casual and comfortable, just like it did in the garden all those years ago. My initial plan was to sit in our beautiful yard, but due to some rain passing through we moved the festivities indoors (Entertaining Rule #1: Always Expect the Unexpected). To bring elements of nature inside, I filled bud vases with beautiful summer dahlias. Then, I went to my kitchen window, which is covered in grape vines, and clipped a few bunches of grapes for the arrangements – a nod to the wine festival in Sesto Fiorentino.
For the dinner itself, my aim was to create food that was delicious, in season and incredibly simple. Because we were making an exclusively vegan menu, most of the ingredients could be harvested right from the raised beds in our garden. We were able to pick fresh basil, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers and arugula, which we incorporated into our dishes. The menu consisted of:
Appetizer: Tomato Bruschetta with Gluten-Free Crackers
Side Dish: Roasted Red and Yellow Peppers, Eggplant, and Tomatoes Drizzled With Olive Oil and Sea Salt
Salad: Quick Pickled Cucumbers over Arugula
Main Course: Quinoa Fettuccini with Basil and Arugula Pesto, Cannellini Beans, Salt-Cured Olives, Heirloom Grape Tomatoes and Petite Peppers
Wines: Pinot Grigio & Pinot Noir
Dessert: Peach & Berry Sorbetti
After-Dinner Drink: Limoncello
You certainly don’t need to have meat or seafood at every meal. This vegan dinner was healthy, delicious and FILLING (I’m sure some people don’t believe that these things can happen simultaneously). It included a mix of vegetables, carbohydrates and proteins. You can find the pesto recipe here!
The vibe of the dinner party was just what I had hoped for. The setting was relaxed and the lively conversations were the highlight of the evening, just like the fabulous party I happened upon in the garden. Nothing was off the table. We discussed politics, careers, relationships, art and literature. Everyone’s ideas and opinions were welcomed and valued.
If you are looking for dinner party inspiration, I hope this post will get your creativity flowing. Consider an Italian inspired party with well-made dishes that feature herbs and vegetables fresh from the garden. Make it vegan and gluten-free if you choose. But most importantly, make it an event that is inclusive, celebratory and easy-going.