2019 has been a tough year for meat. The Impossible Whopper, Burger King’s signature sandwich featuring Impossible Foods’ hyped-up vegan patty, conquered the drive-through. And Beyond Meat’s products — burgers, plant-based ground meat, sausages — are displayed in the meat case at the supermarket, much to the consternation of cattle ranchers.
Now, turkey might be in trouble, too. Increasingly, as people embrace plant-based diets for ethical, environmental, and health reasons, it’s not so unusual to hear about a bird-free Thanksgiving. Even meat-lover and cookbook author Chrissy Teigen is considering a Tofurkey for her holiday table.
After years of cooking a giant turkey, with the typical butter- and cream-heavy assortment of side dishes, this year, I have decided to throw a plant-based holiday. Most of my guests are omnivores, and though they may be more skeptical than they’re letting on, everyone is willing to give vegan Thanksgiving a chance.
“Trust me, they’ll all appreciate not having the food coma that gets you after the usual Thanksgiving dinner,” says Monica DeRosa of Springfield Township. She’s been making vegan Thanksgivings for her immediate family for about a decade. “I opted out of my extended family’s meal at my mother’s house. We invited everyone, but no one came. They really wanted that turkey,” she says.
But in 2012, DeRosa’s mother, the family’s perennial Thanksgiving cook, was recovering from surgery and not up to the job.
“Everyone came to my house that year — reluctantly — because they had nowhere else to go!” says DeRosa.
But since then, every Thanksgiving has been at her house. Her family now comes voluntarily. “People were surprised how much they liked it, how much it felt like Thanksgiving even without the turkey, and now they look forward to it and even brag about it to their friends. We call it our compassion feast,” says DeRosa.
Her advice to me in preparation for my own first meatless Thanksgiving is to honor the traditions as much as possible. “Make the stuffing, make gravy, make sure the house smells like rosemary and sage,” she suggests.
That advice was echoed by vegan cooking authorities as well. Rich Landau, chef of Vedge and V Street restaurants, is Philadelphia’s foremost expert on vegan cooking and he, too, hews to classic dishes for the Thanksgiving meal he makes his own extended family every year.
“Family expects tradition. The meal is still rich and indulgent. It’s vegan, but not necessarily all that healthy,” he says.
He uses plenty of vegan butter products, including Miyoko’s and Earth Balance, to mimic the flavors and textures everyone wants at a holiday meal.
As you might expect, Landau focuses on the vegetables. “People forget the original Thanksgiving wasn’t about a turkey. It was about the harvest. This is the last hurrah before the crops are gone,” he says. He has a formula for choosing which vegetables will make up the majority of the menu: “One brassica, one root vegetable, one green vegetable, and something raw. That keeps things from getting redundant.”
Even with a fantastic array of vegetable dishes, on Thanksgiving, it can feel incomplete. The sides need something to orbit around. “What do you put on the table where the turkey used to be?” says Landau. He’s had different answers over the years, including a mushroom pot roast featuring large mushrooms, like portobellos, roasted whole so they can be carved at the table. He’s also done oversized winter squashes stuffed with braised cabbage.
“Whatever it is, when you put it on the table, you want people to say, ‘Wow.’”
This year, as a first-timer at this plant-based Thanksgiving dinner thing, I’m too nervous to attempt a show-stopping vegetarian main dish on my own, so I ordered a seitan roast from Rachel Klein, whose vegan catering business, Miss Rachel’s Pantry, has filled thousands of orders for Thanksgiving dishes for the past 11 years. In addition, Klein cooks and hosts a holiday dinner for her own family.
Her best advice for assembling a plant-based spread applies to traditional meals, too: “Do as much as you possibly can in advance,” she says.
Like DeRosa and Landau, Klein says making a menu of Thanksgiving favorites means guests will likely be happy and satisfied even without a turkey. She makes an aromatic bread stuffing with carrots, celery, onion, and herbs. Her version of the beloved green bean casserole is bound with a thick mushroom gravy and topped with crunchy onions, just like the original. And her mashed potatoes are every bit as rich, fluffy, and satisfying as those filled with dairy.
Given that some mashed potato recipes call for as much butter and cream as they do potatoes, a vegan version that anyone would love is easier than you might think, according to Klein. “Start with Yukon golds—they naturally have a buttery flavor.”
She suggests cutting them into quarters instead of boiling the potatoes whole to ensure even cooking. And make sure you mash the potatoes when they are nice and hot. Klein’s spuds are enriched with dairy-free butter and nondairy milk and seasoned well with salt.
“I also encourage you to just buy dessert if you don’t want to make it — there are a lot of great vegan bakeries in Philly,” she says. And most grocery stores stock Klein’s own favorite Thanksgiving dessert — nondairy ice cream.
If you are feeling ambitious and want to make (vegan) dessert, though, that’s absolutely possible. Most stores stock pre-made vegan pie crust, and the internet abounds with vegan pumpkin pie recipes.
But why not think a little outside of the box? That’s what vegan pastry maven, cooking teacher, and cookbook author Fran Costigan does. She deletes pumpkin from the dessert menu in favorite of her preferred ingredient: Chocolate. She especially loves pecan-cranberry cocoa cake, which has a layer of tart berries, crunchy pecans, rolled oats sandwiched into a vegan chocolate cake.
“Dessert is personal. People want something that reads party, this particular cake is easy to make. It can be made ahead and frozen without any loss of flavor, and it has Thanksgiving components — cranberry, pecans, and everyone loves chocolate,” she says.
For those wanting to make their own favorite recipes vegan, Costigan says it’s easier than ever. “Today, we have ready-made egg replacers. Aquafaba [the liquid inside a can of chickpeas] makes a lot of vegan desserts possible. And the new dairy-free butters, like Miyoko’s, are excellent,” she says. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Like Klein, she endorses store-bought vegan ice cream. “A make-your-own sundae bar is a nice option for those who don’t want to labor over dessert,” says Costigan.
At my house, we’ll have my homemade vegan pumpkin pie to end the meal. I’ve served it before, without explaining its lack of dairy and eggs, and no one could tell the difference. After dinner, instead of reclining before the football game or complaining of stomachaches, I’m hoping we can all go for a walk.