Caribbean Beat Magazine

No bread, no ham: Christmas lunch for guests who don’t eat meat

Christmas lunch for guests who don’t eat meat? Relax, Franka Philip has some sensible suggestions

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

For some, the routine of Christmas cooking has become a series of actions, performed with military precision, that begins months in advance. I still hear some sensible friends speaking about putting their fruits to soak in September, and putting grated ginger to “draw” in October. Not me — I don’t believe in starting to prepare so early. But I do give myself some time, if only because I know that my Christmas meal will include some interesting, i.e. complicated, dishes.

Another factor I’ve had to consider when putting together a Christmas meal is the ever-growing issue of people’s dietary concerns. A few years ago, it was simply a case of meat-eaters versus vegetarians, but now more people are aware of their sensitivities, like nut and dairy allergies. If you don’t plan well when catering for people with different dietary habits, the best-laid dinner plans will go awry — and you don’t want unhappy diners at your Christmas lunch or dinner.

When I trod the path of vegetarianism, I would often warn those who invited me to their homes at Christmas time that I’d like more than salad and peas, please. As a vegetarian cooking dinner for a load of meat-eaters, my main concern was finding balance in the meal. I wanted to fulfil their needs, but I also needed to enjoy the meal too. Luckily, I ate fish and seafood, so one of my mains would often be salmon Wellington, an exquisitely presented fillet of salmon coated with finely chopped spinach and encased in decadent puff pastry.

Another dish that’s become a “go-to” when cooking for vegetarians at Christmas is mushroom lasagne. I found this dish when a friend once suggested that a vegetable lasagne is a great option for both vegetarians and meat-eaters. Some people swear by it, but I absolutely hate the tart mix of vegetables (especially if there’s eggplant in there) and tomato sauce. In mushroom lasagne you can use a variety of mushrooms, including portabella and porcini. Porcini mushrooms are a little more expensive than white mushrooms, but have an absolutely divine flavour that adds bounce to the dish. Cook the mushrooms with a dash of soy sauce and a generous glug of sherry to bring out their character. A sinfully cheesy sauce made with parmesan and cheddar, replacing the tomato sauce found in meat lasagne, is so delicious that your guests will end up licking their plates.

Vegetarians are easy, but what about people who have more complex dietary issues? In recent years, I’ve met people who for some reason don’t or can’t eat gluten, which of course is found in all the wheat-based products we eat. This includes not only the obvious pasta and bread, but also unexpected things like sauces, sausages, cake, and ice cream. You can use flours made from corn, potatoes, rice, or cassava when you’re cooking for people with gluten issues. Gram flour (derived from chickpeas), bean, soybean, and nut flours are also sometimes used in gluten-free products to add protein and dietary fibre.

My friend Brian, who once tried a gluten-free diet, explains that he had no problem eating all kinds of meat, vegetables, and salads, but it was difficult to eat out at Christmas time because not many people use gluten-free products at home. “Gluten is in so many things that even when you think you can eat something, like a cornmeal pastelle, it might not be safe — some people mix some regular flour with the cornmeal to stretch the mixture,” he says.
“When I baked chicken or roasted meat, making the sauce was no problem — I used cornflour instead of regular flour with the juices of the meat, and nobody complained. The real problem area is dessert, because I love cake,” he adds. “I’ve tried making gluten-free cake, but it’s too much hassle. So I usually stick with chocolate or fruit salad to be on the safe side.”

I’ve discovered that gluten-free is not such a problem when making the traditional black cake or Christmas cake that we love in the Caribbean. Unlike sponge and other cakes, where the lightness of the crumb is essential, it’s quite the opposite with black cake, which is meant to be fruity, heavy, and redolent with booze. Trinidadian food blogger Sarina Bland, a.k.a. Trinigourmet, has used a fifty-fifty mixture of rice flour and cassava flour in her black cake recipe, while in his recipe for gluten-free Christmas cake renowned baker Dan Lepard has replaced regular flour with coarse polenta (cornmeal), rice flour, and some xanthan gum.

Another great Christmas staple is ponche a crème, a boozy eggnog-type drink that’s especially loved by Trinidadians. The Puerto Ricans have a variation called coquito which uses coconut milk as its base. I once heard someone say they would love if there could be a dairy-free ponche a crème, which of course sounds like an oxymoron. How could eggnog be dairy-free?

I’ve heard about variations like pumpkin ponche a crème (I won’t even go there), but someone pointed me in the direction of American nutritionist Rose Cole and her website Wellness with Rose, where I found a recipe for chilled holiday nog, her dairy-free version of eggnog. With a little experimentation, this could be an alternative to ponche a crème for those who have dairy issues. Instead of milk, Cole uses almond cream. This is easily made by soaking the almonds in water overnight, blending the soaked almonds in water, and straining the mixture. It’s pretty much the way our mothers and grandmothers made coconut milk before it became available at the supermarket. Almond milk is also now available in some supermarkets and health food shops, but it is pricey.

To the almond milk, Cole adds puréed dates, maple syrup, frozen bananas, vanilla extract, and spices. At this point, to make it like ponche a crème, you have to add generous amounts of rum.

The key to a Christmas meal that satisfies a range of palates and dietary needs is to remember that alternative dishes need not be stodgy or austere. Once they taste good and are presented well, everyone can partake and enjoy the meal. You might be surprised at how many people don’t notice the difference in some of the dishes — and, in fact, they’ll probably be asking for your recipes to try at their next dinner. Good luck!


Mushroom lasagne:

Salmon Wellington:

Trinidad Black cake:

Chilled Holiday Nog: