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For those who have been choosing to eat more plant-based meals, holidays like Thanksgiving have always been a balancing act between nostalgia and commitment. However, as food technology continues to develop meat- and dairy-free alternatives that are better and better at mimicking the usual ingredients, it’s becoming easier than ever to enjoy the traditional feast without the meat.
If you feel like flocking to a turkey-free feast this year, try these suggestions for a flavor-packed Thanksgiving meal with all the trimmings. There’s no nemed to put a whole bird on the table when you’ve got this much goodness to share.
Load up the table with lots of sides
Turkey might hog the spotlight when it comes to prep time, but for many people, Thanksgiving sides are the true stars of the meal. If you’re trying more plant-based cooking, side dishes are also fairly easy to adjust for guests who are vegetarian, dairy-free, gluten-free or bringing other food allergies to the party.
Apart from the turkey, “pretty much everything else you make on Thanksgiving is indistinguishable if you make it with vegan butter and ‘no-chicken’ stock,” said Joy Manning, a plant-based recipe developer and food writer in Philadelphia.
The two most beloved sides? Stuffing and mashed potatoes, which vie with the turkey as the most satisfying ways of delivering gravy as well. “In my mind, stuffing is really the Thanksgiving centerpiece,” Manning said.
With a nearly endless buffet of bread choices and add-ins, stuffing can be as simple or as, well, stuffed as you desire. Sourdough bread adds an earthy taste and chewy texture to traditional herb stuffing. It’s also the main element in the cult favorite artichoke Parmesan stuffing recipe. A vegetarian cornbread stuffing gets pops of texture from chopped nuts and apples.
Mashed potatoes can also take on a variety of flavors to make them stand out as a starring dish. Garlic is a particularly friendly pairing to potatoes, especially when it’s roasted. Make roasted garlic rosemary mashed potatoes or garlic-olive oil mashed potatoes, or add in another vegetable like cauliflower.
The key to an all-sides Thanksgiving is to serve a diverse lineup of flavors and textures so you’re not leaning too heavily on one element. For a mix-and-match strategy, pick one or two dishes from the following categories:
• stuffing and bready carbs like dinner rolls
• soft and creamy: mashed potatoes, potato gratin, corn pudding, or macaroni and cheese
• roasted or sauteed vegetables: Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, carrots, cauliflower, or green beans
• tangy, snappy and sweet: typically cranberry relish, or salads with ingredients such as cranberries and apples or pomegranate seeds and pears
You can still have great gravy
Find a gentle way to break it to your aunts who have been fussing over the turkey drippings all these years: They’re not essential to the gravy after all.
Make-ahead gravy has been Manning’s (and this writer’s) Thanksgiving standard for years, with no last-minute drippings necessary. This technique gets its rich flavor from a roux base of flour browned in fat (such as olive oil, butter or a vegan butter substitute) along with quality stock. The gravy can be made days in advance and reheated just before the meal is ready.
Mushroom gravy is another tried-and-true plant-based gravy option, which can be made with cream or with vegetable stock for vegan guests. Using dried mushrooms is a two-for-one bonus: Their soaking liquid becomes part of the gravy to double up on the umami flavor. As a gluten-free option, white bean gravy is thick and creamy, with an added boost of protein.
Other main courses
While an all-sides Thanksgiving might sound like a dream dinner for some, it might not feel complete to others. Luckily, you don’t have to forego a main dish entirely when planning a plant-based Thanksgiving.
“Thanksgiving is not my favorite holiday,” admitted Montana Horowitz, a lawyer and mother of two in New Jersey. Though she grew up in a “big Italian family where Thanksgiving is out of control – my dad makes two turkeys and then there’s ham and pasta and rice balls,” she feels free to switch up the menu now that she and her husband follow a plant-based diet.
“I feel like I need some sort of main dish,” Horowitz said, so she pivots to mushroom Wellington, vegetable pot pie or vegan “turk’y” cutlets that can be served as a main course with the same amount of fanfare as a turkey or roast. “On holidays, when I make something like the Wellington or even the cutlets, I don’t at all feel deprived.”
Manning also turns to pre-made seitan cutlets for a small-scale Thanksgiving. “They’re great for putting gravy on; I can make as little or as much as I want; and they’re crammed with those Thanksgiving spices like sage, thyme and rosemary,” she said.
However, if plant-based meat substitutes aren’t your ideal meal, there are a host of equally impressive vegetable-focused main dishes. Stir up a seasonally appropriate pumpkin risotto, or bake a savory galette filled with wild mushrooms or caramelized leeks.
Remember, it’s a holiday for sharing
Deciding to do Thanksgiving without a turkey might ruffle the feathers of some family members, so if someone else wants to cook a smaller cut of meat (or even fish), now’s not the time to start a family feud.
“I’m doing Thanksgiving collaboratively with my brother-in-law and he’s going to do turkey breast,” Manning said. She is bringing her vegan cutlets to the six-person celebration, where family members who are curious can try them if they choose.
Offering a plant-based option gives people a chance to expand their palate, and if it’s one choice of many dishes on the table, it’s more likely to increase the odds of sampling and decrease resistance to a new way of eating.
Casey Barber is a food writer, illustrator and photographer; the author of “Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food” and “Classic Snacks Made from Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats”; and editor of the website Good. Food. Stories.