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Catering a wedding, need vegetarian main course

Sigh... if only if were as simple as the title. As I said, I will be catering a friend's wedding - at the end of October. The work is to be split between myself and another of the bride's friends - he's dead-set on keeping an upscale North African theme (flavors that aren't too much of a stretch are okay - south Mediterranean, maybe some Spanish or Portuguese, but NOT the American, Mexican, Korean, and Japanese dishes I'm more practiced with).

~150 attendees. Most of whom are not vegetarian, but all will be welcome to try the vegetarian entree of course.

We have pitifully few resources available for the day of the wedding - the venue lost its kitchen to a caved-in roof this winter. Nothing left to use on-site, save a few refrigerators. So we are renting (and bringing) grills for the meat-based entrees. We can rent more equipment, but the whole point was to keep costs down for the bride, so I'm hesitant to do so. So far, no chafing dishes, but that may change.

I will be making vegetarian (hot) butternut squash soup and the other guy will be making some sort of (cold?) bean salad along with various vegetarian desserts, so all I need is an entree idea to start test-kitchening. Ideally, it would be something I can make in advance and either serve cold or reheat quickly on the day of without sacrificing quality. There is no need for it to be vegan. I want it to be filling and substantial.

I've considered a couscous based dish, but haven't much idea of how to engineer couscous to hold up when made in advance. I'm open to any suggestions.

I should add, neither of us have catering experience, though we are both pretty solid home cooks. And I can manage sous vide preparations (enormously useful in a situation like this) if that helps, though I don't normally do much vegetable cookery sous-vide.

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  1. Since you will have a grill, how about some colorful veggie kabobs? You could also add tofu. Or some Eggplant Parm? That should hold up well to a quick reheat.

    2 Replies
    1. re: boyzoma

      Skewered lamb is already one of the meat mains, so I was leaning away from kabobs. And also away from tofu due to the North African theme. Will have to give the eggplant parm some consideration. Thanks for the suggestion.

      1. re: cowboyardee

        I'd give a second look at tofu. It doesn't sound like the wedding couple are going to be hardcore about the North African requirements and if you marinate the tofu in harissa - BAM you have North African tofu. I'm actually a bit bewildered by the concerns about couscous holding up. I've used it as a pasta salad grain and it's sat around for hours without any discernible drop in quality.

    2. ok, so more Mediterranean than North African, but could u get away with polenta or risotto? maybe find a way to make falafel more upscale? also, I have seen couscous at a wedding before, so hopefully it could be done somehow... maybe a veggie stew with North African flavors?

      9 Replies
      1. re: PotatoPuff

        Any of those are plausible. The problem is how to execute them without a large amount of last-minute preparation and still have them turn out okay. I could definitely come up with ways to upscale the humble falafel, and i like how filling it is. But I don't know how far in advance I can make it and how well it holds (or even how best to hold it and reheat). I almost certainly will not be able to do any deep-frying at the time of service.

        1. re: cowboyardee

          i love polenta as a vegetarian offering, but i'd stay away from risotto - the texture and quality will definitely suffer. same goes for couscous.

          quinoa would be a good option...

          1. re: goodhealthgourmet

            I've heard recommendations of cooking a risotto to VERY al-dente in advance, refrigerating, and then finishing with more broth at the time of service. I haven't tried this though, so I don't know how the texture compares to risotto that's made start-to-finish for service. If anyone's tried this, please do tell. I don't have much experience with couscous.

            I could also use suggestions for making vegetarian risotto or polenta feel like more of a main course than a side dish. Failure of imagination on my part right now.

            1. re: cowboyardee

              "I could also use suggestions for making vegetarian risotto or polenta feel like more of a main course than a side dish. "
              serve the polenta with a hearty mushroom ragout. these are my two favorite recipes...

              1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                Yes! I knew chowhound would come through for me.

                This is the type of thing I would not have thought of. I could do a risotto, taken half-way and finished at the wedding, a mushroom ragout, and maybe some grilled veg with it for color. Sounds good. Sounds like a vegetarian main course.

                How would you recommend doing the risotto, if I'm serving it with the ragout - a straight stock/white wine/Parmesan cheese version, mushroom risotto (this might make the dish too one-note?), or something else entirely?

                1. re: cowboyardee

                  how are you planning to finish the risotto? in a pan on the grill? honestly, i think the risotto is going to be a huge pain in the rear for you to deal with at this event. even under ideal circumstances with a fully functional kitchen there's a chance you could end up with a gluey mess on your hands if something goes awry, and risotto needs to be served at the right temperature to be really, really good. personally, i'd go with mushroom ragout served over polenta...but if you're really wedded to the idea of risotto (sorry, i couldn't resist!), how about serving the ragout over baked or fried risotto cakes instead? they'll be more forgiving in terms of texture, and less of a hassle for you.

                  if you go with risotto (loose or in cake/patty form), i'd tweak the ragout - use white wine instead of red, & add some heavy cream...and maybe white wine, toasted pine nuts & good Parm for the risotto.

                  1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                    I'm not really married to risotto - I just found it engaging. Truth is I have some arborio rice in my pantry right now so one of the upsides of risotto is simply that I could test-kitchen it with stuff I already have.

                    I like the pine nuts idea - I often cook with nuts as it is. I imagine risotto cakes are pretty straight forward, like polenta - cook risotto, spread it, cool it, cut it, fry/bake it?

                    You're right that I'd likely be finishing it in a (or several) pan[s] over a grill. Sounds like a pain in the butt. But do you think polenta will be less of a pain? How do you recommend pulling it off. I've made hard and soft polentas, but always to serve, never to hold.

                2. re: goodhealthgourmet

                  For goodhealthgourmet, or anyone else interested, last night i made a risotto (veg stock, white wine, butter, Parmesan cheese, and toasted macadamia nuts - taken to very al-dente, refrigerated, and finished at meal time) and both versions of the mushroom ragout you posted above. Basically.

                  Actually, I made the tomato-based one pretty straight up but mounted with butter, and the chowhoud-posted recipe spiced in a vaguely North-African manner (cumin, cinnamon, paprika, bit of ginger), also mounted with butter, and with a tiny extra splash of white vinegar added.

                  I presented both to the couple to be engaged and the other guy cooking with me. The non-tomato (second link) was the clear winner for our purposes, with a much stronger mushroom flavor and less tendency to over-acidify and overwhelm the risotto. Really delicious and FILLING. Very much what I was looking for as a vegetarian main course. Thanks.

                  I'm going in this direction, I believe, but I may switch to a couscous with similar flavor profiles. So now I need tips on best way to prepare and hold(?) said couscous.


                  1. re: cowboyardee

                    cowboy, i'm so sorry i missed your earlier question about the risotto cakes - i just noticed it. but i guess you don't need me to walk you through them now anyway since you're going with couscous and the African spice influence!

                    i'm so glad the ragout recipe worked out for you - whether done to the letter or tweaked for personal tastes, that one is always a hit. as for the couscous, you really should just make it at the wedding right before serving. it's super simple - just get the instant stuff, add boiling water, cover until the water absorbs, and fluff with a fork...doing it fresh on-site will actually be less of a hassle than trying to reheat cooked couscous and maintain the proper consistency. (you can also steam couscous for a wonderfully fluffy texture, but that requires more care & attention, so i wouldn't go that route for this occasion.)

        2. How about a grilled ratatouille? Eggplant is very filling, especially if you've got some vegetarian sides. The only prep is cutting veggies. And the flavors should go well with everything else. Bobby Flay has a recipe: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/bo... and there are a few others on Epicurious.

          1. I'll think about the food for a while and post later. As to the problem of keeping the food warm. I know it's not ideal or maybe not as classy as the bride might wish to have (sounds like she is on a little bit of a budget though) but electric roasters would work. You know the usually white 18 quart or so roasters. Here in Minnesota many households have them and you could borrow a few to keep the food warm. It's a little church-basement, funeral food way to go, but it works.

            1. It's not quite North Africa, but what about something Ethiopian. There are fantastic vegetarian offerings in that cuisine and since most are stew-ish (lentil, etc. based) they should be easy to reheat after making ahead. I would think it would be okay to serve with something more universal, like say rice, rather than the traditional injera. Just a thought ...

              4 Replies
              1. re: LNG212

                Is injera something you can make in advance and hold?

                And do you have any specific vegetarian Ethiopian recipes or dishes to recommend? I've only eaten Ethiopian once and never cooked it.

                1. re: cowboyardee

                  hmmm, I'm really not sure about the injera. I only made it once in a cooking class and have never made it at home (we just buy it from local restaurants). Sorry I'm no help there.

                  I do have a couple of Ethiopian recipes that I like and I will dig those out and post back. I also know that there have been a number of threads here on Home Cooking about Ethiopian food and recipes and that may also help you out or give you ideas.

                  1. re: cowboyardee

                    Injera is a large unleavened crepelike flatbread affair; when finished it looks like a huge thin rubber sponge, with a spongy texture as well, and it's made with fermented teff batter (or sometimes buckwheat) so the finished product is quite sour. I've had injera in NY via an Ethiopian friend, and it was, um, more sour than the most sour sourdough I've ever eaten. The injera was stuffed with curried goat, small bones and all, and a very tasty spiced beef filling. Injera is an experience, taste and texture-wise. I don't think they'd hold very well, and are a bit of a PITA to make, as well, authentically speaking; with a specific technique, the temperature has to be just right, etc. Enuff said?

                    Ethiopians have vegetarian stews (Wat) that the Ethiopian Copts eat on (meatless) fast days, mostly fairly simple mixed vegetable stews flavored with spices, and legume dishes. These dishes are certainly reheatable. Google Ethiopian vegetable alicha or vegetable stews and Ethiopian legume dishes for quite a few recipe sources.

                    Here's a link to a very recent Ethiopian restaurant review posted at chow; I include it not for the review itself, but for it's lengthy and fairly in-depth menu descriptons. Possibly you can glean something from it:


                  2. re: LNG212

                    I totally thought "Ethiopian" too when I read the title. All those wonderful wats (?). They're just humble stews, but the exotic spices and ingredients make them seem special and luxurious. Also, I LOVE injera. I know traditionally it's served under the food. But I've also gotten it just rolled up to go. It could be made ahead and served on the side.

                    I've never made injera. I don't think it looks difficult - but I can't say for sure. The reason being that the only tefe flour I've seen in my area is outrageously expensive. But if you lived in a more metropolitan area I'm sure it could be had for reasonable prices.

                    I think the North African theme is terrific! There are a lot of vegetarian options to choose from. The last Ethopian restaurant I went to was totally vegan even.

                    Another (annoying?) suggestion from a non-caterer (so I probably have no idea what I'm talking about - lol.) The wedding I went to with the best food ever (and was mostly veg), didn't have one MAIN dish. They just had several stations with lots of different things. That way, everyone could find something they liked.

                  3. You could do vegetarian stuffed grape leaves. Those are often served cold and are always better a couple days after cooking. They also look beautiful piled up on a big platter with fresh lemon slices.

                    Do some veggie kebabs to go with the meat kebabs (everyone will like those), have some hummus, yogurt sauce, garlic sauce, babaganoush, tabouli salad, tomato-cucumber salad, a variety of olives, pitas.

                    All of this will go well with the soup and bean salad, and if arranged right, can look beautiful and colorful on a buffet table (or set each table with it's own set of plates to serve "family style"). It can all be made ahead as well, except for the kabobs.

                    I love these photos as table ideas:

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Jen76

                      Man - those pics! Mediterranean folk know how to eat - huh? All those different dishes - surely there will be something to please everyone.

                      Yeah - Turkey has an amazing culinary history. I know it's not North African per se - but close. I'm sure there are many shared recipes.

                    2. Perhaps a vegetarian moussaka? A few pans of that could feed a crowd. And, unless I'm mistaken, it could be made ahead and transported with relative ease. Just a question of warming it.

                      1. Do any of the meat offerings include a sauce that could be vegetarian? If so, maybe consider a veggie dish using the same sauce. For example bulghar kofte 'meatballs' fried till brown then baked in a spiced tomato sauce.
                        Ref an earlier post - if you are on a tight budget then pine-nuts are out for the time being, as there is a shortage pushing the price up.
                        One important question - how many vegetarians are expected to attend? If only one or two then the chosen dish could be more elaborate than if say 20 servings are needed.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: Peg

                          i use chopped almonds all the time in these sorts of dishes and that would be appropriate here.

                          cous cous, if not made with boiling water, just warm stock or 1/2 water-1/2 juice, will hold up just fine. i make it for parties quite often and serve it room temp.

                          with your equipment challenges, i'd think interms of what can be served cold or room temp and stop stressing over last minute finishes, especially if you are not practiced at this sort of thing.

                        2. Heaven deliver vegetarians from the wholesale assault by Butternut Squash!

                          What is it about cooks who believe vegetarians can never have enough of Butternut Squash stuffed pasta or soup?

                          Why not do Spanakopitas instead-they're delicious hot or cold and can be prepared in advance.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: Sam Salmon

                            Because Butternut Squash is mild and fairly non-offensive, whereas feta cheese is a strong taste that not everybody likes (including, as I found out this weekend, my vegetarian sister-in-law and my non-vegetarian mother, both not adventurous eaters.) If you're catering and want a dish that is more likely to go over well with a non-Greek audience, feta cheese is not the way to go.

                            1. re: Chris VR

                              lol, i've worked 100s of weddings. we've done passed apps of spanakopita at many, many of them and they disappear. the asian spoons of butternut squash mostly get thrown away.

                              1. re: hotoynoodle

                                Hey, I'd be munching both down. But I was reminded after a weekend with my family how many foods that I just think of as normal (like feta) are strange and weird-tasting to other people. To be fair, I don't think either of them would go searching out butternut squash anything either, but I can see how there would be less to object to if presented with it as a meal option.

                            2. re: Sam Salmon

                              I like your thinking. So much so that butternut squash soup is already on the menu. I make, if I say so myself, a really awesome butternut squash soup. I expect vegetarians and carnivores alike to enjoy it.

                              I was looking for more of a main course to supplement it.

                            3. Thank you for all the responses. As I just stated in a post above, I tried some things out and presented them to the couple.

                              I will be making, if possible, a couscous with veg stock, white wine, butter, parmesan cheese, and toasted nuts topped with a North African spiced wild mushroom ragout. The link to the basic recipe (with some of the spices changed for my purposes) as provided by goodhealthgourmet above is

                              So as i have less experience with couscous, I now need suggestions as to the best way to prepare it for this type of event. If making in advance, do I leave it al-dente and add more liquid while reheating? Will it hold perfectly well just made and reheated in a day or two? Is this a bad idea altogether?

                              Thanks for the help so far and TIA.

                              10 Replies
                              1. re: cowboyardee

                                Couscous only takes ~10 minutes to steam/rehydrate (assuming you're using the commonly available "instant" type). I realize that you're trying to minimize last-minute prep, but you can fix the couscous fresh in the same time you would spend to reheat it (and the same time you spend reheating your ragout). Just have all your ingredients/additions packed and organized so you can throw it all together. Have to you tried out the couscous portion of your dish? It should come together really quickly.

                                1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                  Haven't tried it yet, but thanks. If it proves feasible, I may well just prepare it for service.

                                  Of course time is not the only factor- i'm also trying to minimize the number of things I have to pay close attention to when it comes time to serve food.

                                  1. re: cowboyardee

                                    I actually think doing it fresh would take less attention than trying to reheat evenly, because all you need to do is pour the boiling liquid (+salt) over the couscous, stir up, cover, and let do its thing, then fluff and stir in any additions. If you did it in a roasting pan or something else wide, you wouldn't need to worry about clumping (you could cover with a sheet pan). Mix your stock and wine in advance, have your nuts, etc. in a container to throw in, etc. I suggest stirring in chopped parsley, too, for a bit of color, if it's not too much trouble.

                                    1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                                      I will try this out soon. Thanks.

                                      Already there with you on the parsley. Either that or some roasted vegetables for color, or likely both.

                                      1. re: cowboyardee

                                        May I also suggest trying some fine citrus zest in your couscous? I find that it perks up even boring couscous. I've done both lime and lemon depending on the rest of the flavors. But even orange might work well. Sometimes I cheat and finely chop up a couple of quarters of preserved lemon from the fridge instead of fresh zest. In that case, I add those to the water or stock while it's heating up. Much easier to distribute the sticky paste that way than trying to rub it into prepared couscous.

                                        1. re: sweetTooth

                                          May do the zest. I'll try it both ways when I test kitchen the couscous.

                                        2. re: cowboyardee

                                          instead of boiling liquid, just use room temp to hydrate the cous cous. let it sit, then fluff it and serve it room temp instead of re-heating. do not refrigerate and it holds very well. i use it for parties all the time.

                                  2. re: cowboyardee

                                    cowboyardee, your couscous and ragout sound lovely. Good luck with it. (I won't post the Ethiopian recipes since you've chosen to go a different way.)

                                    1. re: LNG212


                                      Well, I hope the Ethiopian recipes show up somewhere on chowhound at some point. I would hate for an arbitrary decision I made to cost everyone a delicious recipe.

                                    2. re: cowboyardee

                                      If I were doing the catering, I would test this for myself.

                                    3. I was a vegetarian for a year and created a couple of great main-course dishes, and though they are Italian by nature, could easily be spiced to lean towards mediterranean. The first is a veggie pesto lasagna and the other is an eggplant "trifle" (what I called it anyway)

                                      Veggie pesto lasagna (make and par-cook the day before, each pan serves 20)
                                      slice and saute a pound of mushrooms, 2 zucchini and 2 yellow squash with crushed garlic (to taste)
                                      toss in a large bowl with a bag of uncooked spinach (the heat will slightly wilt the spinach)
                                      add a pound of shredded mozzarella and 6-8 ounces of fresh (real!) pesto.
                                      In a lasagne pan, layer noodles, crushed Italian-style tomatoes (about 2 cans per layer), ricotta (or feta - to go with your theme), the veggie pesto mixture and parmesan.
                                      Cover tightly and bake at 400 for 45 minutes, then another 15 minutes at 400 uncovered (sprinkle more cheese on top first) right before serving.

                                      For the eggplant, it's much simpler. Thinly slice an eggplant and grill the slices. Saute mushrooms, garlic, fresh parsely and onions. In a lasagna pan, layer grilled eggplant, cheese (I prefer sliced provolone for this, but pick what you like), mushroom mixture, cheese, sliced tomatoes, then start again with the eggplant. If done right, you should have three layers in all. Add your seasonings of choice to make it your own.

                                      Hope that helps!