Chef Palak's Pro Guide to a Vegan Thanksgiving
How to make a showstopping spread free of animal products this holiday.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m more excited about the sides than I am about turkey. A traditional Thanksgiving meal consists of turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cornbread, cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole and some type of dessert. Luckily, I’ve found the best vegan recipes to replace all of these traditional dishes.
A few years ago, I started veganizing my Thanksgiving menu and only served turkey to appease a few family members that couldn’t let go of the tradition. I’m certain that without a turkey, your table will still be complete and bountiful at Thanksgiving.
Making a vegan dinner requires more than simply trading in the turkey for tofu or another plant-based protein. It also means any milk or egg ingredients have to be replaced. Once you take the leap to a plant-based menu, somehow everyone’s dietary preferences are met without fuss.
Here’s my five-step plan to veganize a Thanksgiving meal.
- Let your sides shine and put vegetables at the center of the meal.
Fall is in full swing and there is nothing more beautiful than hearty squash, pumpkins, gourds and yams. I take inspiration from nature, imagining a table with vibrant colors and textures. My favorite thing to do is to use a whole squash or pumpkin as a vessel to stuff with delectable grains or stuffing and then roast to perfection. I’ve also done a traditional roast (with squash) stuffed with a meat-free substitute and served with seitan and white beans and seasoned with sage, thyme and rosemary tied with kitchen twine for the full effect of Thanksgiving. Nothing beats a stuffed whole pumpkin or a whole roasted cauliflower bouquet as a blank canvas waiting to be painted with spices, herbs, oils and a mixture of seeds and nuts. (As a bonus, you can carve this dish.)
- Plan ahead and pre-cook vegetables dishes to minimize stress.
Start the weekend before Thanksgiving to carefully plan out the menu, shopping and to-do lists. This helps me avoid the overwhelming feeling when shopping. Unlike turkey, vegetables take a little more time to prepare and cook faster than meat. So three days before, I clean and dry herbs, wash vegetables, prep and peel onions and garlic, chop carrots and peel potatoes. These small tasks make cooking easier and more enjoyable. Start by making stuffing and gravy the night before — these dishes taste best after spices and flavors have time to mingle. As they cool, they tighten to an incredible texture.
- Get full-bodied flavor with unique ingredients.
My go-to ingredients that add a little more oomph to veggie sides are a dab of miso and a dash of tamari — but not enough to change the direction of the dish. For green beans I often use yuzu, a Japanese citrus, to brighten the dish even more. A small hint of umami in the background of savory sauces, gravies and stuffing brings out something special from the other ingredients.
- There’s still room for simple, straightforward preparations.
A Thanksgiving table is never complete without a good roasted mushroom side and Brussels sprouts. Find local, fresh mushrooms; clean them gently; toss with shallot and garlic in olive oil, white wine, a little sherry vinegar, salt, pepper and thyme; and then roast on high heat to lock in the juices. Sometimes I prefer to finish the dish with vegan butter. For Brussels sprouts, roast at high heat with a dash of maple syrup, salt and pepper to get that golden caramelization.
- Most dairy has a vegan replacement for classic dishes.
No Thanksgiving is complete without macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, gravy and pumpkin pie. It’s fairly simple to make swaps on these classic dishes using the following list as a guide when recipes call for dairy products.
- Cheese: There are plenty of vegan cheeses on the market. Make a nut-based ricotta by soaking cashews or shelled almonds overnight and blending in a food processor with nutritional yeast, lemon juice and sea salt.
- Heavy cream: Use cashew cream or coconut cream — both whip to the consistency of heavy cream and easily substitute.
- Butter: Vegan butter, coconut cream or coconut oil all work for recipes calling for butter.
- Milk and buttermilk: There's no shortage of alternative milk options ranging from soy, rice and hemp to almond, hazelnut, oat and cashew. Any alternative milk mixed with lemon juice makes buttermilk in minutes. An easy recipe is 1 cup buttermilk = 1 tablespoon lemon juice + enough milk to measure 1 cup.
Try something new this Thanksgiving. Your friends and family will love these easy crowdpleasers that are all plant-based and delicious — no one will even notice the absence of butter.
Vegan Mac & Cheese
- 8 ounces macaroni elbows (or other pasta)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small yellow onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
- 1 cup potato (4 ounces, about 1 small or 1/2 medium potato), peeled and chopped, preferably organic
- 1 small carrot, peeled and chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon paprika
- 1 pinch Aleppo pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard powder
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, to taste
- 2/3 cup raw cashews
- 1 cup water, more as necessary
- 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
- 2 to 3 teaspoons of apple cider vinegar, to taste
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for the pasta. Cook according to package directions. Drain, and transfer the contents to a large serving bowl.
- Meanwhile, in a medium-to-large saucepan, warm the oil over medium heat. Add garlic and onion, pinch of salt and cook, stirring often, until onion is tender and turning translucent, about 5 minutes.
- In a large saucepan, add potatoes and carrots and boil until fork tender. Drain and add to blender with cashews, nutritional yeast, apple cider vinegar, mustard powder, paprika and Aleppo pepper. Puree. If the mixture won’t blend easily or if you would prefer a thinner consistency, add water in 1/4 cup increments, blending after each one.
- Taste, and blend in additional salt until the sauce is seasoned (I typically add at least another 1/2 teaspoon). If it needs a little more zip, add the remaining teaspoon of vinegar.
- Blend again.
- Place puree back in a saucepan. Let the mixture come to a simmer. Continue simmering, stirring frequently and reduce heat to low.
- Pour the sauce into the bowl of pasta. Stir until well combined, and serve immediately.
- Leftovers keep well, chilled and covered, for 3 to 4 days. Gentle reheat, adding a tiny splash of water if necessary to loosen up the sauce.
Vegan Mashed Potatoes
- 6-8 medium Yukon gold potatoes (if large, cut in half)
- 1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt (divided)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 5-6 cloves roasted garlic (or sub minced garlic sautéed for 3 minutes in olive oil)
- 3-4 tablespoons vegan butter (such as Earth Balance), melted/softened
- 1/4 cup fresh chives, for topping
- Place potatoes in a large saucepan or pot and cover with water. Bring to a light boil over medium-high heat, add 1 tsp of sea salt (as original recipe is written // adjust if altering batch size), cover and cook for 25-30 minutes or until very tender. They should effortlessly slide off a knife when pierced with a knife.
- While the potatoes are cooking, chop up your chives and measure your butter. Once tender, drain your potatoes and place them back in the hot pot off the heat for 1 minute to evaporate any additional water. Then transfer to a large mixing bowl.
- Mash your potatoes using either a potato masher or a hand mixer until fluffy. Note: Be careful using a hand mixer as you can overmix the potatoes and they can become gluey. It’s the method I prefer as I don’t own a potato masher. I just make sure not to overmix.
- Add in butter, garlic, salt, and black pepper and stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.
- Lastly top with chives, stir and serve as is or with your favorite gravy
- Leftovers will keep in the fridge covered for up to a few days.
Vegan Sweet Potato Casserole
- 6 cups cubed sweet potatoes, about 3 large potatoes
- 1/2 cup non-dairy milk
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons vegan butter
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon cardamom
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
For the pecan topping:
- 3/4 cup walnuts
- 1/3 cup gluten-free flour
- 1/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoon vegan butter, melted
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- In a large saucepan, bring 8 cups of water to a boil. While water is heating up, peel and chop the sweet potatoes into half-inch cubes. Place in boiling water and boil for about 10 minutes until potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork.
- While potatoes are cooking, prepare the pecan crust. Place pecans, flour, sugar, cinnamon and salt in a food processor and pulse a few times to combine. Once pecans have broken into uniform pieces, add the melted butter while the motor is still running. Pulse a few more times until the crust is fully hydrated. Set aside.
- Drain the water from the cooked sweet potatoes and let cool 10 minutes. Mash potatoes with a masher or large fork. Add the remaining sweet potato ingredients and blend together with an immersion blender.
- Combine pecan topping ingredients.
- Transfer sweet potatoes to a baking dish, top evenly with the pecan topping and bake for 20-25 minutes until topping is golden brown.
- Remove from heat and let cool 10 minutes before serving.
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