Tapping the Graze Craze

Vegetarian grazing used to be a method of dining survival; now you can take it further and make it a vegetarian delight.

Grazing is a preferred meal assembly method for many customers, allowing them to assert their independence and design personally tailored meals or snacks to eat in or take away. It often works well in high-volume serveries with multiple stations but not one dedicated to vegetarian foods.

Many vegetarian customers may have been grazing for years, constructing entire meals from appetizers, accompaniment dishes, side orders and desserts. The good news about grazers is they tend to purchase more menu items than are contained in a set meal. And, according to Chef Claire Dell, head of food services for the Long Beach (Calf.) Museum of Art, many grazers “shop” for take-home meals in addition to eating in-house meals.

Morning grazing: If you offer a breakfast buffet you probably already have many items on your menu to tempt vegetarian and vegan grazers. Cooked cereal (prepared with soy or rice milk and margarine for vegans and those watching their saturated fat intake), cold cereal (such as shredded wheat, whole grain flakes or puffed wheat or rice), many breads and crackers, fresh, canned and dried fruit, cooked grains (such as white or brown rice, cornmeal or kasha), fresh, canned and frozen fruit and vegetable juices, nondairy creamers, jelly and preserves, peanut and other nut butters, nuts (chopped walnuts and almonds make good cereal toppers), seeds (think sesame, poppy or pumpkin) and some bagels (not the egg or cheese variety) will make morning grazers of many of your customers.

Here are some additional items to add to your morning grazing list: assorted hot cereals, steamed sweet or savory tofu (try some of the pre-flavored tofus, available as a refrigerated item), hash browns with sautéed onions and peppers, assorted mini-muffins (carrot, apple, zucchini), assorted bread for toasting, stewed fruit compote, fresh whole fruit bowl (apples, pears, oranges, bananas), assorted veggie milks (think low-fat soy, fat-free rice, or chocolate-flavored almond), hot cocoa and flavored hot teas.

For spice-seeking customers, offer three-bean chili and salsa and tortillas instead of toast, breakfast burritos filled with mashed pinto beans and chopped chilies and tomatoes, or hot miso soup and pickled vegetables.

Label and graze: When offering grazing opportunities, be sure that vegan foods (cut fruit and veggies, vinaigrette salad dressing, baked potatoes, steamed veggies) are separate and equal for your vegan guests. Arrange items in such a way that veggie and non-veggie items do not mingle. For example, have a cheese platter and a fruit platter, not a cheese and fruit platter. Survey your vegan clients to see if they would appreciate vegan sour cream and cream cheese, soy- or rice-based sliced or grated cheese, or soy yogurt.

The more versatile a menu item, the easier it is to serve to a large audience. Consider if you can prepare many items as vegan, without additional cost or labor or loss of general appeal. Items which lend themselves to vegan preparation include: fresh vegetable and fruit salads (such as seasonal fruit salad, three-bean salad, garbanzo bean salad or spinach and orange salad); baked white and sweet potatoes; un-sauced pasta (prepared with vegetable oil, not dairy-based margarine); oven-roasted vegetables (such as rosemary Red Rose potatoes, herbed eggplant, winter squash, carrots, sweet onions, tomatoes and carrots); slowly simmered beans; marinara sauce (tomato sauce flavored with vegetables, herbs and spices); and steamed fresh and frozen vegetables.

Many “add-ins” suit everyone, as in vegan, vegetarian and omnivore. Construct potato or pasta bars, breakfast bars, snack bars or dessert bars by offering an unseasoned base, such as baked white or sweet potatoes, un-sauced pasta, hot cereal or fruit salad to which the customer can add on.

Here are just some of the items you may want to have available for customers to “signaturize” their meals: chopped walnuts, peanuts, pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds; sliced black or green olives; herbed croutons; chopped fresh sweet onion or green onion and bell pepper; sliced fresh mushrooms; fresh or canned citrus sections; unflavored dairy or soy yogurt; fresh salsas; diced fresh or canned pineapple; in-season diced fresh summer squash or tomatoes; seedless grapes; diced dried fruit, such as apples, peaches or apricots; and black or golden raisins.

Something for everybody: It’s best to offer different grazing opportunities throughout the year. Here are some ideas, based on vegan ingredients. If your customers eat dairy products, you can add dairy cheeses, sour cream and yogurt.

Light Dining: Sliced and wedged seasonal fruit with soy yogurt dressing; crudités with garlic vinaigrette and Thai peanut dressing; cold lentil salad; assortment of bread sticks with dipping sauces; assorted canapés (cold, marinated tofu on French bread rounds, tofu “egg” salad on Melba toast, chopped marinated vegetables on focaccia, etc.); dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with herbed rice) hot satay veggies (carrots, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, green beans threaded on short skewers and grilled) with tamari dipping sauce; assorted fruit tarts; and cold beverages (such as pink lemonade, sparkling juices and cider, chilled and iced mint, ginger and green tea and assorted chilled veggie milks.

Hot Selections: Hot hors d’oeuvres, such as tempura vegetables, stuffed mushrooms (and stuffed cherry tomatoes if you have the time and the concentration), vegan egg rolls and spring rolls. Light entrées, such as vegetable stir-fries and pastas (you can have these pre-made in chafing dishes or have a la minute stations where customers can select add-in ingredients). Specialty items, such as tamales (savory made with chilies or sweet made with raisins and pineapple), enchiladas, Asian steam buns, mini-stuffed cabbage, stuffed zucchini blossoms, filled pastas (such as gnocchi, ravioli or tortellini), pierogi (pasta stuffed with potato and sauerkraut or with prune filling), knishes (pastry stuffed with potato or kasha) or blintzes (crepes with fruit filling).

Entrées: Veggie pizza (pile on the tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, onions); veggie burgers and veggie dogs (remember the condiments: include relish, catsup, veggie mayo, onions, etc.); foot-long (or longer) subs with a base of vegan meats and vegan cheese and heaped with sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers, shredded lettuce and carrots and onions; mushroom or pasta bakes; stuffed baked potatoes.

Desserts/Fruit: Sliced melons (honeydew, cantaloupe, Persian, watermelon, muskmelon, casaba etc.); grape clusters; fruit brochettes (short skewers of strawberries, pineapple wedges, grapes, etc.).

Desserts/Baked Goods: Assorted cookies (if purchasing, check for non-vegan ingredients, such as refined sugar or honey); gingerbread squares; assorted fruit tarts (purchase individual puff pastry or tart shells and fill with pie filling); carrot cake slices; sliced fruit breads (cranberry, zucchini, blueberry, etc.) served with fruit preserves.

The build-your-own dessert “club” is also a popular choice. Assemble the club by placing a cookie on a dessert plate, top with vegan ice cream, add a layer of peanut butter mixed with granola, put on a second layer of ice cream and top with a cookie.