A few years ago, Andrea Mason and a vegetarian friend attended a wedding and found that there were hardly any meatless dishes there. "She ended up eating spinach pies all night," says Mason. That prompted a shift in focus for her catering company, Dinner is Served. "There was a need for someone who could offer vegetarians and vegans good-quality, nourishing foods."
About a year later, Mason was dishing out soy meatballs with almond sauce at her booth at the Boston Vegetarian Food Festival and "somehow word spread that I was the veggie caterer." Her company was launched.
Mason, 54, is neither vegetarian nor vegan - although she did give up meat for one year in the 1970s - but rather calls herself a "flexitarian" who enjoys both vegetarian dishes and meat. Vegetarian and vegan events now make up the majority of her catering business. After the flurry of weddings in the warm months, she does dinner parties at clients' homes, charity events, and a few bar mitzvahs where the boy, and sometimes his family, is vegetarian.
The self-taught cook, who had been a personal chef, figured out how to make vegetable-based dishes interesting and flavorful. Mason acknowledges that it was a challenge. "You have to start with high-quality, fresh ingredients," she says. She buys from local, mostly organic, farms for as long as New England's seasons allow and from good purveyors during colder months. In the summer, she grows herbs in her garden and dries them herself for winter. "It's the seasoning that makes food interesting," says Mason. Cumin, a favorite spice, flavors many Middle Eastern and Mediterranean dishes, which are popular in her repertoire. "These cuisines are based on fresh vegetables and I like the seasonings," she says.
For a recent event, Mason and sous chef Julia Farley prepared baby eggplant stuffed with tomato, the scooped-out eggplant flesh, and Israeli couscous, all seasoned with cumin, currants, and orange. "It's a Tunisian recipe," says Mason. She also makes vegetarian moussaka, Italian-style layered casseroles, Moroccan vegetable tagine, and vegetable pot pies. Among her popular hors d'oeuvres are vegetable and bean spreads, stuffed grape leaves, sweet-potato pancakes, and quesadillas. Vegan baklava might be on the dessert table. To make it, dried cranberries and walnuts are baked between layers of phyllo dough (brushed with oil instead of butter) and soaked with maple syrup rather than honey (vegans don't eat honey).
For protein, the veggie caterer uses quinoa, nuts, and bean and grain combinations. Cheese and eggs go into vegetarian dishes. Soy products - milk, cheese, and tofu - are her building blocks. "You can throw tofu into practically anything," she says.
One recipe that tofu goes into is a carrot spread seasoned with orange rind, red miso, cinnamon, and nutmeg, which she serves with homemade pita chips. Mason also cooks for people with special dietary needs. One party host with celiac disease was thrilled that for his 30th birthday celebration he could, for once, eat everything on the menu. "You'd be surprised how many processed foods contain gluten," says the caterer.
When she's creating a recipe, she's always on the lookout for appetizing products to replace items that are taboo for vegans. Egg Replacer, from Ener-G Foods, is a powder made from potato starch; Annie's Naturals' Organic Worcestershire Sauce is a vegan product (it contains no anchovies); and Koda Farms' Mochiko Sweet Rice Flour can be used in place of flour or cornstarch as a thickening agent for gluten-free dishes.
It often takes a few trials, but the veggie caterer is usually happy with her innovations. This summer, she simmered a pot of corn chowder made of soy milk, silken tofu, and soy bacon, along with corn and potatoes. She's still working on ways to eliminate eggs from a zucchini tofu pie, which is essentially a crustless quiche, in order to make it vegan.
For the vegetarian, it's allowable. For the meat-eater, it's tasty. For Mason, dinner is served.