For about 15 years, my vegetarianism was a persistent annoyance at Thanksgiving. There were the pescatarian days, when I refused turkey but happily ate goblets of shrimp (much to the chagrin of those who hoped the shrimp would make it to the other end of the table). There was the time I made a carrot cake with tofu frosting. Much darker were the strict vegan days, when I ended up with one of those Tofurky dinners-in-a-box, including leaden mashed potatoes, starchy gravy, bland stuffing and, of course, turkey-shaped “vital wheat gluten.” I still don’t know what that is.
But at some point, it was collectively acknowledged that my vegetarianism was not a fad and that Thanksgiving meals should adjust accordingly. Armed with that knowledge—along with such killer vegan cookbooks as Isa Does It, Food52 Vegan, Chloe’s Kitchen and Chloe’s Vegan Italian Kitchen—my recent Thanksgivings have featured savory dishes that everyone eats. Imagine maple-roasted brussels sprouts and stuffed mushrooms, plus such desserts as a vegan pumpkin pie that ended up being the only pumpkin pie on the table (to no one’s objection) and an ice cream cake that fooled a carnivore uncle (every vegetarian has a carnivore uncle). How does a vegan go from being the most hated person at the table to the most loved?
First, ditch the idea that meat is the center of the meal. Meat substitutes are gross. After all, would you rather grab a falafel sandwich for lunch or some textured soy protein? Has anyone, ever, been fooled by a veggie “burger” that tries to taste like meat? A friend of mine still complains about the “bacon” tempeh she ordered at my suggestion. High-end vegan restaurants like Dirt Candy in New York City and Modern Love in Omaha have embraced a founding tenet of no meat substitutes. You won’t find chick’n made of tofu on their menus.
Nor should you, because vegetables are delicious. Start your Thanksgiving menu simply, with what’s in season. In the Northeast, that means hearty greens such as brussels sprouts and kale, as well as root vegetables, including butternut and acorn squashes, beets and sweet potatoes. I love Chef Chloe’s maple-roasted brussels sprouts with toasted hazelnuts, but you can’t go wrong just dressing sprouts simply in olive oil, salt and pepper before roasting.
To spotlight your root vegetables, Isa’s roasted-butternut alfredo is a trusted, no-fail recipe. The sauce base is cashews, soaked overnight until soft and blendable. Puree them with the squash, along with an onion cooked in spices and wine, let it all thicken, and serve it atop fettucine for a dish that tastes like the all best parts of fall. Another much-loved pasta is Chef Chloe’s avocado pesto. Bright and filling and spotted with sun-dried tomatoes, this has become another family staple. Make extra pesto as a dip for carrots and celery.
No, you won’t have one “star” main dish—remember, we’re not replacing turkey with Tofurky—but if there were a star, it would be Chef Chloe’s portobello mushrooms stuffed to the brim with lentils and cashews, then topped with a tomato slice. Thick and hearty, they’re as messy as they are delicious, with mushroom jus spilling out from each cut. Make extra stuffing to serve as yet another side dish. For more vegetable dishes and soups, Food52 and Mark Bittman provide straightforward, clear recipes with an emphasis on fresh ingredients.
Finally, the dessert: I’ve made Chef Chloe’s pumpkin tiramisu, which was delicious but left me with tons of dishes because I decided each guest deserved a tiramisu served in its own tiny mason jar. (Why? No idea. But the recipe left us with leftover amaretto, which no one complained about.) Even Smitten Kitchen offers options for vegan desserts, with butterscotch pudding that can easily be made with coconut milk rather than heavy cream. I also love Isa’s pecan pie recipe, which I made in a pique of loneliness one afternoon when I was living in Jack Kerouac’s old house.
Because after all, why do we cook for one another? To stave off loneliness. To show love. Real people deserve real food. Treat your vegetables like stars, and they will respond in kind. For protein and fat, use lentils, chickpeas, avocados, hazelnuts and cashews, leaving out any ingredient you can’t picture (I’m looking at you, vital wheat gluten). And make extras! Your family will indeed be coming back for seconds.
Feature Photo: Flickr