An invitation showed up in my e-mail back in January: "Hey, friends! I've just watched 'Forks Over Knives,' and I'm interested in trying to adopt a more plant-based diet. One problem: lack of tasty vegetarian main dishes. This is where you come in! Bring a vegetarian main dish (I'm not interested in dropping dairy!) to share and its recipe, and we will all have some delicious meals to incorporate into a healthy lifestyle."
In other words, a party cloaked as something nobler.
The backstory: My friend's Air Force hubby was deployed for three months, and she chased away the blues by scheduling fun times with her friends and her kids' friends.
The invitation went out to women only, so we ended up with a cluster of women laughing around the table and a gaggle of kids yukking it up in the basement. I showed up with Kraft macaroni and cheese, which hardly can be described as healthy but seemed likely to appeal to the kids, as well as a lentil soup that I once wrote about (search for "Lentil and Swiss Chard Soup with Pesto" at post-gazette.com or pgplate.com).
But the other women took the cake. Our hostess turned this into a competition, allowing us all to vote for our favorites (see recipes).
My favorite was the eventual top finisher -- a kale salad from Deb Perelman's "Smitten Kitchen Cookbook." It was the one item I took a second helping of.
But the second-place recipe, "Kid-friendly Fried Rice," is the one I've repeated most often since then. It's quick and simple, and it's a great way to use up those chunks of random veggies in the bottom of the crisper.
The third-place dish, "Lazy Man's Vietnamese Spring Roll Salad," arrived in a gigantic wooden bowl that the cook's young daughter hugged while standing at the counter. It's her favorite dish, and she wasn't too interested in sharing at first.
We did not watch "Forks Over Knives" at the party, but I checked it out of the library later. It's the standard talking-heads documentary, but it does make some compelling points about the unhealthiness of the American diet. I probably ought to watch it once a month or so to propagandize myself.
The party was fun when we had it -- in February -- but adopting a more plant-based diet would be easier now, when local fruits and veggies are in season. If you're looking for vegetarian menu inspiration, why not replicate this party format in your own home?
Meanwhile, my friend's hubby has returned, though he hasn't yet made good on his promise.
When he got wind of the vegetarian party his wife was cooking up in his absence, he quipped, "When I get home, I'm havin' a 'Steaks and Knives' party."
Ellwood City Arts, Crafts and Food Festival: More than 200 arts and crafts booths, live entertainment and more than 30 food and drink booths. Friday through Sunday in Ewing Park, Ellwood City. ellwood-city-festival.net.
Washington County Fair Recipe Competitions: Register by July 19 for cooking and baking competitions to be held at the Washington County Fair on Aug. 10. Categories include the Great American SPAM Championship (9 a.m.), Fleischmann's Yeast Best Baking Contest (12:30 p.m.), and Family Favorites Recipe Contest (1 p.m.).
Find out more at washingtonfair.org or 724-225-7718.
Biscoff's Spread the Love Challenge: From Monday through July 28, upload photos showing ways to "spread the love" of Biscoff Spread snacks to facebook.com/biscoff. Examples: Put Biscoff Spread on a bagel or make brownies made with the spread. Facebook fans will vote on the photos from Aug. 5-25. The top winner, announced Aug. 30, will receive a trip for two to Belgium. Second- and third-prize winners will get $1,500 and $1,000 respectively. The spread -- "Europe's alternative to peanut butter" -- is a sweet and creamy one made with the famous cookies in it.
Kale, Apple & Goat Cheese Salad
This recipe won top honors for Darcy Robblee at our party.
For the salad
1/2 cup pecans
8 ounces kale
4 to 5 medium radishes
1/2 cup dried cranberries or cherries
1 medium Granny Smith apple
2 ounces soft goat cheese, chilled
For the dressing
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon smooth Dijon mustard
1 1/2 teaspoons honey
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spread pecans on a baking tray. Toast until lightly golden and fragrant, about 5 to 10 minutes, tossing once or twice to make sure they bake evenly. Remove tray from oven and set aside to cool.
Pull kale leaves from the tough stems and discard stems. Use a chef's knife to chop the kale into small, bite-sized pieces. Transfer kale to a big salad bowl. Sprinkle a small pinch of sea salt over the kale and massage the leaves with your hands by lightly scrunching big handfuls at a time, until the leaves are darker in color and fragrant.
Thinly slice radishes (this is easier to do if you first chop off the root end so you can place the base of the radish flat against your cutting board). Add to the bowl.
Coarsely chop the pecans and cherries and add to the bowl. Chop the apple into small, bite-sized pieces and add to the bowl as well. Crumble goat cheese over the top.
In a small bowl, whisk the dressing ingredients together and pour the dressing over the salad. Toss until salad is evenly coated with dressing.
Serve immediately, or for even better flavor, let the salad marinate in the dressing for 10 to 20 minutes beforehand.
-- "The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook" by Deb Perelman (Knopf, 2012)
Kid-friendly Fried Rice
The second-place finisher.
3 to 4 cups of cooked white rice (sticky rice works better than an Uncle Ben's or Minute Rice)
3 to 4 tablespoons butter
1/2 onion, diced
3 to 4 eggs
2 to 3 tablespoons soy sauce or to taste
1/3 block firm tofu (optional)
Veggies of choice
Green onions, chopped (optional)
Melt butter over medium-high heat and saute onion. Add rice and then eggs one at a time and stir-fry together. Add soy sauce to your liking. Add frozen vegetables or steamed fresh with tofu and stir-fry a couple minutes longer. Remove from heat and sprinkle green onions over the top.
-- Tamiko Ritschel
Lazy Man's Vietnamese Spring Roll Salad
This third-place dish is prepared by its creator entirely by "eyeballing." So we give some approximate measurements.
For the salad
Rice noodles, cooked according to package directions and rinsed under cold water
Sliced scallions (white and green parts)
Pan-fried tofu or protein of choice (shrimp, chicken or combination)
Layer in a bowl the above ingredients in quantities desired.
For the dressing
Large chunk of fresh ginger, minced
4 to 5 garlic cloves
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 to 2 cups milk, coconut milk or water
1/2 cup fish sauce
Rice vinegar and soy sauce, to taste
A little honey or brown sugar, if desired
Saute ginger and garlic cloves in sesame oil. Add peanut butter until melted a bit, then add milk (or coconut milk or water). Finish melting the peanut butter and then add fish sauce. Add rice vinegar, soy sauce, and honey or brown sugar. Remove from heat and add the juice of 1 lime.
Drizzle dressing over salad and toss. If desired, garnish salad with crushed peanuts and slices of lime.
-- Michelle Greenrecipes - foodcolumn
Rebecca Sodergren: email@example.com or on Twitter @pgfoodevents.