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In lieu of turkey, Thanksgiving sparks vegetable-inspired creativity

By Madison Park, CNN
  • A vegetarian Thanksgiving doesn't necessarily mean opting for a Tofurkey or tofu log
  • For many iReporters, holiday is all about experimenting with eclectic flavors
  • Vegetarian chef: "It has become easier to cook vegan and vegetarian meals"

(CNN) -- Going vegetarian on Thanksgiving doesn't mean forcing tofu into faux poultry or shaping legumes into meat-like blobs.

Forget tofurkey. Why bother, some vegetarians say, with the pretense?

"That scares me," said Melissa Melcombe, a 25-year-old vegetarian. "If you try to shape a loaf like a turkey, it looks like piles of mush and ends up more comical than traditional. I don't think it's ever occurred to my family. It's kind of like making a piece of tofu look like filet mignon. We don't have to kid ourselves."

Rather than lamenting the lack of a basted bird at the center of the table, vegetarian iReporters like Melcombe relish the opportunity to experiment beyond the traditional side dishes of mashed potatoes and green bean casseroles, on the food-friendly holiday.

If you try to shape a loaf like a turkey, it looks like piles of mush and ends up more comical than traditional.
--Melissa Melcombe, iReporter

Melcombe, a longtime vegetarian from Brentwood, California, said she is frequently asked what she eats for Thanksgiving.

"I thoroughly enjoy setting the record straight -- we vegetarians do appreciate a delicious Thanksgiving meal sans the turkey," she wrote in her iReport. "Turkey has tryptophan anyhow, so the good news is that those of us who don't consume the bird can actually stay awake for dessert."

Thanksgiving is an opportunity for Melcombe, her vegetarian parents and 16-year-old brother to brainstorm an eclectic menu. Usually, they settle on a blend of the traditional -- such as squash and corn dishes, mashed potatoes and a homemade cranberry apple sauce -- and nontraditional side dishes such as sweet potato oven fries and a broccoli dish with basil, pine nut, parmesan and spinach in phyllo pastry.

"Our main dish -- that's always the topic of discussion," Melcombe said. "It's easy for people who eat meat, because they know what they're going to eat. It's fun for us every year, because it's a good time to try a new recipe."

Sometimes they buy a premade protein loaf made of lentils or a wheat protein known as seitan, or they experiment with an elaborate rice dish. But last year's cranberry and pecan wild rice pilaf didn't satisfy everybody's taste buds, so the Melcombes are back at the drawing board.

For many iReporters, Thanksgiving is all about experimenting with eclectic flavors.

Even with vegetarian dishes, there's so many varieties.
--Swathi Krishnam, iReporter

Swathi Krishnam plans to celebrate the holiday by infusing spices and flavors into the food that influenced her childhood in India and Trinidad. The lifelong vegetarian plans to serve an all-vegetarian meal to her Thanksgiving guests in her Glen Allen, Virginia, home.

"Even with vegetarian dishes, there's so many varieties," said Krishnam, 27. "It's not a monotonous menu."

Her Thanksgiving menu considerations include stuffed mushrooms, chili biscuits, spicy cauliflower, banana pie and flavored soya chunks marinated in green chili.

"I've heard turkey is pretty filling," Krishnam said. "My main goal is to have the plate full of variety. Once you have variety, when people put it on their plate, you don't notice the turkey is missing. There's so many things. You give them other options."

Her favorite protein is soya chunks. Click here for her recipe. Also derived from soybeans, soya chunks lock in flavor and seasoning better than tofu, she said. Krishnam submitted several iReports featuring her favorite vegetarian recipes.

Soya's consistency is more similar to vegetarian burger patties than tofu and can be found in ethnic grocery stores. Krishnam knows she has some skepticism to overcome with omnivorous guests.

"Soya is so filled with protein, it fills you up," she said. "It sustains you. They get over it -- the initial skepticism." 25 healthy recipes for a vegetarian Thanksgiving

Experimenting with different cultures' cuisines came naturally after Judith Lautner of San Luis Obispo, California, 63, became vegetarian 25 years ago. Two years ago, she went vegan.

"I started to explore other foods and culture, much more than when I was eating meat. Generally, we stick to what we're comfortable with. This pushed me to cook Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai -- anything that looks interesting. We get more familiarity with spices and different elements of cooking."

I love Thanksgiving. It's the harvest month. ... Squash, different nuts are coming into season.
--Scot Jones, chef

And no, Lautner said, she does not miss the traditional turkey for Thanksgiving. She joins a group of vegans who celebrate Thanksgiving with their annual vegan potluck that includes homemade Tofurkeys, stuffed squash, and a three sisters stew -- made of squash, corn and beans.

Lautner likes to eat vegan ice cream. And to make homemade desserts, she uses applesauce or silken tofu instead of eggs, and margarine instead of butter.

Scot Jones, executive head chef of VegiTerranean, an Akron, Ohio, restaurant owned by rocker Chrissie Hynde, said it has become easier to cook vegan and vegetarian meals. Trained in traditional Italian and French cuisine, Jones said the word vegan "never popped up in culinary school." With growing awareness about animal products, he said, food is becoming more vegan-friendly.

iReporter attends a vegan Thanksgiving

For Thanksgiving, Jones offers special Thanksgiving classes for vegans. The entree: a pot pie made with roasted vegetables, gravy and tofu. He taught the class to make raw honey cheesecake bars with cranberry topping, root vegetable sticks with roasted garlic dip, and a wild field green salad with sun-dried cherries, blueberries and strawberries dressed with a warm blueberry vinaigrette with tofu ricotta.

"I love Thanksgiving," Jones said. "It's the harvest month. You have such wonderful harvest. Squash, different nuts are coming into season, things of that nature -- things that are great, like fresh cranberry."

Instead of a plain potato gratin, he's planning on sweet potatoes, leeks, soy mozzarella and fresh thyme for a vegan-friendly side dish.

"If you concentrate on a side dish, and pack it full of flavor, you don't miss the animal protein," Jones said.