Thanksgiving is just around the proverbial corner, which means turkey-day hosts are planning their menus. But if you’re a traditionalist, and you’ve got vegans coming to dinner, what do you do?
As a seasoned veg-friendly cook, I think you have two choices: entry-level vegan food, or something more adventurous.
You see, I look at vegan foods as having two different levels of vegan-ness. Level One, for when you’re sharing a vegan dish among omnivores, vegetarians, and vegans, means sticking to vegan foods that no one thinks of as vegan — familiar dishes such as a rice pilaf or stuffing made with vegetable stock instead of meat stock, or a hefty salad garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. Your diners will not care (or think it unusual) if you serve a loaf of crusty brown bread (generally dairy- and egg-free) or put out a marinated bean salad.
On the other hand, if your crowd is made up primarily of vegans, or vegans plus adventuresome eaters, try Level Two, which features less familiar foods, such as seitan. A longtime turkey lover may even surprise you by wanting to try the seitan mock-turkey loaf, so make sure there is plenty for everyone.
For this loaf — a non-turkey vegan main course — I made a few umami-building and texture-enhancing changes to a standard seitan. Seitan, for the uninitiated, is an ancient food made from wheat gluten. The mock duck you see in Chinese restaurants is seitan, artfully formed to give it a meatlike “stringy” texture and even pressed in a mold to make it look like feathers were pulled from its “skin.”
In the old days, seitan was made by making a wheat-flour-and-water dough, kneading it to stimulate the gluten fibers, then rinsing all the starch out while kneading the dough under cool water. If that sounds like a lot of work, it was, and that was usually followed by a long simmer and marination in flavorful broth.
These days, we have gluten flour. Sometimes called vital wheat gluten, this is the concentrated protein part of wheat flour, starches removed. It’s commonly used in breadmaking, as a tablespoon or two added to a recipe will give some structure to a soft or whole-wheat flour. Gluten flour makes it easy to make homemade versions of seitan; just add liquids, and it makes a springy, high-protein dough.
Many renditions of the vegan non-turkey have come down the pike, made with tofu, tempeh, seitan, and more. The commercial version is the Tofurky, a popular roast that you can buy frozen and simply heat and serve. It’s really popular with vegetarians, so I modeled my seitan roast on that idea. I wanted it to be more tender in texture, so I cut the gluten with tofu and garbanzo flour.
To make it meaty-tasting, I went to my umami toolbox, adding nutritional yeast and tamari. Garbanzo flour adds an eggy, nutty taste, and vegetable stock brings complexity and some sweetness. Sautéing the onions adds more depth of flavor, carried in olive oil.
The roast can be formed in a bowl, to make a round “breast” of seitan, or it can be made in a loaf pan, with a stuffing center.
Seitan is best served with all the traditional sides, since, after all, the holiday is all about nostalgia. Mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, more stuffing, cranberry sauce, and peas make the plate look just like the old days — just vegan.
Finally, sweet potatoes are a classic seasonal ingredient, so I took the idea of shortcakes, which we usually make with spring and summer berries, and translated them to fall. My sweet-potato shortcakes with cranberries are always a big hit, with tender, fluffy orange shortcakes filled with maple-sweet cranberry sauce, then topped with your choice of toppings, from a non-dairy whip to an “ice cream.” It’s familiar, with a twist, and easy to make ahead of time, too.
Robin Asbell is author of the newly published Big Vegan. A chef, she teaches cooking and writes in Minneapolis.
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