Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Vegan Thanksgiving Main Dish Ideas

Ah, the old dilemma: how to put your own vegan stamp on a holiday that is very much About the Bird.  There are a few of approaches to take: trying to approximate the original (meaty) dish rather closely in flavor and texture, going for something completely different but nonetheless festive, or meeting somewhere in the middle, with a dish that replicates some of the traditional flavor profiles but has its own unique qualities too.  In the past I’ve gone in all three directions at various times.  They all have their merits; it just comes down to personal taste and the amount of labor you want to put in that year.

In general, I like to make sure the nutrition of my main dish dovetails nicely with the rest of the meal.  If I’m doing the traditional thanksgiving carb-stravagaza, with a half dozen starch heavy side dishes and desserts (stuffing, potatoes, yams, rolls, cranberries, multiple pies, etc.) I like my main dish to be mostly protein to balance it out.  However, if I’m having a simplified meal without the sides, I might want something that’s a balanced meal all by itself.

Here are some nice options for a festive vegan meal:

  1. Tofurkey or other commercial veggie roast
The most obvious choice, right? And one I do chose from time to time, although probably not as often as some carnivores might think. When I do opt for it, I generally jazz it up with a big platter of veggies roasted alongside it, things like wedges of onion, mushrooms, and whole carrots that all caramelize in the oven. Fennel or potatoes would be nice too. And I make a nice glaze out of olive oil, soy sauce, garlic, herbs and spices, and a more unusual ingredient: a jelly or jam of my choosing to sweeten and brighten. I’ve used various types, with marmalade or apricot being the subtlest, and raspberry or pomegranate being a bit bolder. Be sure to brush the sauce lightly over the veggies too.

  1. Homemade veggie roast
Making your own roast has the benefit of being cheaper, and also you can customize it according to your own taste. I personally often find the commercial roasts just a bit too salty, and that’s hard to correct.  There are all kinds of different recipes out there with various preparation methods and ingredients.  Seitan-based ones are probably the most common.  My favorite is a stovetop veggie pot roast that makes it own gravy from a puree of the veggies (onions, garlic, carrots, and a secret ingredient: one sour apple) that are simmered in the same pot, and best of all, frees up the oven for pie, pie, and more pie.
  • And of course you can deconstruct the shape of your roast all you want.  If you make little cutlets you could bread them with cornmeal or ground nuts mixed with thanksgiving spices such as sage, rosemary, parsley and thyme.  Or you could layer a flat length of seitan with various stuffings or sauces and roll it up roulade style.

  1. Veggie Meatloaf
This is typically a bit easier than your homemade roast with the same classic comfort food appeal.  My favorite version is made from a base of half lentils, half TVP, stabilized with a little gluten for structure.  To dress it up I like to spread a thick layer of mashed potatoes over the top before baking.

  1. Pot Pie
This is what I’m going for this year.  There are a lot of different directions you can go in with this one—everything from classic fall herbs to curries, Cajun spices, Latin flavors, or even the French Canadian version with sweet spices like cinnamon, and the sauces can be gravy-like, creamy, tomato-ey, etc.  You can stuff them with meat substitutes or tofu, with beans or lentils (butter beans are particularly nice) or with just plain vegetables and nothing else.
The crust can be anything from classic pastry to biscuits, cornbread, polenta, or even just potatoes.

Seitan-Mushroom-Pearl Onion Pot Pie with Biscuit topping

Polenta Tamale Pie

  1. Protein-embellished stuffing
Sometimes a side dish can become a main dish with just a little tweaking.  Vegan sausage would go very nicely in a classic cornbread stuffing.  Meatballs, cubes of seitan or baked tofu, and even basic beans or lentils would all make good mix-ins as well.  If you don’t want to mix them in directly, they can be cooked in a gravy-like sauce and spooned over the top of each serving.

  1. Pumpkin Lasagna
If you’ve never tried this combination of flavors before, you’re in for a treat.  Die-hard pumpkin haters should probably steer clear, but for the rest of us the sweet-and-sour combination can be very appealing. To modify a regular lasagna recipe into a pumpkin, replace the tomato sauce with pumpkin puree (canned is fine).  You can either keep the spices the same or modify them by going toward more traditional pumpkin spices like cinnamon or nutmeg. In the latter case I would add a couple tablespoons of sweetener to enhance the effect.  A filling that is tangy would pair best with the sweet pumpkin sauce.
    • Sweet potato lasagna works just as well.
    • Regular lasagna and its variations can be pretty fancy and festive as well.  I have a post different ways to jazz up lasagna; you can check the tags at right.

  1. Stuffed veggies have great presentation, and give a bit of a nod to Thanksgiving traditions as well.  They can be quite impressive if done well.
Things that can be stuffed: peppers, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, winter squash, cabbage rolls, etc. Even apples and other fruits can be stuffed for a sweet/savory effect.  The stuffing may be based on rice or other grains, small shaped pasta, or bread cubes, and have various things mixed in, such as beans/lentils, faux meats, other veggies and herbs and even occasionally dried fruit.

Spaghetti Squash stuffed with beans, veggies, and marinara sauce

  1. Casserole
Certain casseroles are already common at thanksgiving, creamy green bean or pearl onion casseroles being probably the most typical. So any similar dishes would not seem out of place.
To make a high protein vegan substitute for the canned condensed cream soups so often called for in such recipes, sauté whatever vegetable is relevant (e.g. mushrooms for cream of mushroom soup) along with some garlic and seasonings, possibly including a veggie bullion of some kind, then stir in a package of silken tofu, pureed.  Use this mixture like you would the soup, adjusting seasonings (generally they will need increased) as needed.

  1. Soup
Warm and comforting, soup already seems compatible with a thanksgiving meal.  The type can be chosen to match typical holiday ingredients, such as pumpkin or potato, to fit even better. 

  1. Pilaf
The difference between your average pilaf and a rice-based dressing is mainly semantics, particularly if typical thanksgiving flavorings are used.  This can be a good choice for a more consolidated meal with fewer sides (and fewer dishes to wash!)

  1. Miscellaneous awesome dishes
Stroganoff, mac‘n’cheese, gourmet pizza, baked beans, stir-fry—if you’ve got a tour de force vegan recipe, don’t be afraid to use it even if it seemingly has no relevance to the holiday at hand.  All the relevance it needs is that you’re there and you want to eat it. The point of the holiday is to celebrate food, family and the things you’re thankful for.  So if you’re thankful for vegan mac’n’cheese, it applies. :-)

And that is really the final message.  The ideal holiday plan is one that allows for enjoyment, relaxation, and togetherness.  Vegans sometimes feel an increased pressure at holidays—to prove themselves and their choices worthwhile, from expected friction with family on the subject, and from the knowledge that whatever they themselves bring had better be good, because no one else is going to bring anything they can eat.  So there’s nothing wrong with letting go and making yourself happy (and thankful!) in whatever little ways you can, whether or not it follows the rules or impresses anybody.  After all, when celebration is on the menu, perfection doesn’t matter nearly as much as joy and sincerity. So try and have some fun if you can. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

1 comment:

  1. The point about pleasing yourself at a holiday is a good one. There is a ton of pressure, especially at in-laws or acquaintance meals, to have something festive (and yet, there's no room in the oven to bake since the bird's in there), so the pressure to have something cool, that is essentially reheated in the microwave, is tough.

    And another idea for Thanksgiving: apple turkeys. The kids love it and can help assemble it: an apple with feathers and head made out of candy & raisins poked into a fresh apple (on 3 toothpicks for legs).