Saturday, 21 December 2013

The vegan holiday feast guide

When I was a teenager, somehow the torch was passed to me. From age 18 until I was in my late twenties, I had the pleasure--the privilege, even--of feeding my entire family for Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter every year. My family wasn't huge, but when you had 20 people coming for Christmas, and Thanksgiving, and Easter, every year for 10 years, you did learn pretty quickly how to save time, make things easier and feed people delicious food.

I've gotten a lot of requests for this kind of guide. New vegans and young cooks who are entertaining for the holidays for the first time are always asking me for ideas of what they can make to impress their omnivorous guests. So here I'm including some tips from personal experience and a full menu (complete with recipes) to help a vegan out.

And if you're having a freak-out that's not covered here, you'll find my contact page right here. It's OK. I'm here for you.

The big disclaimer

You're never going to make vegan food taste like non-vegan food. The reality is that vegan food is amazing, but it's usually way more amazing when you're not trying to emulate something that an omnivore knows the taste of inside-out and when they're not constantly going to be contrasting your meal with something non-vegan that they know and love. A lot of these foods are emulating non-vegan foods that people know and love. They're delicious, but you may encounter some comparisons from your guests.

When I designed this menu and drafted these tips, I was keeping in mind that there are certain food groups we want to get into bellies, certain flavours that are often considered more festive than others, and certain space constraints that have to be considered unless you're cooking in an industrial kitchen. I'm also considering time constraints, and outlining ways that you can do stuff ahead to avoid making your head want to explode the day of the big event.

General tips

When you can keep it simple, keep it simple. These recipes aren't especially difficult, but some of them are more time-consuming than others. If something here doesn't sound spectacular to you and you have a recipe you know and love that will substitute well, do it. It may save you time, energy and money to just be able to use something familiar. And if you are choosing from the options provided, I strongly recommend sticking to only one option per category. If you try to do too much, you'll just add to the stress of the day.

When you can make it ahead, make it ahead. I'll be including ways to do that in the meal plan, so that you have an idea out the gate of what can save you a bunch of time. But you know better than I do what your schedule is, what items are going to work for you and which aren't, and what resources you've got to work with. In other words, you're the expert.

When you can make less, make less. The instinct when we're having guests over is to make a ton of food in case we run out. But the thing is, we always have a ton of leftovers when we do that, and if you're already cooking for a big crowd, being realistic (or even under-estimating) will save you time. My advice? Estimate how much you need to feed everyone, then make only 75% of it (or one full recipe of each thing, whichever is the larger quantity). Then stock up on the store-bought options (either your own classics or the ones I suggest below) to save you a ton of time. No matter what you do, some of your guests are going to fill up on nibbles before you get to dinner anyway, so you might as well use that to your advantage.

The menu

Appetizers & snacks


These items are easy to stick on the coffee table as people are arriving, as you're unwrapping presents and as you're having your pre-dinner catch-up chatting. All of this stuff is either totally possible to make ahead or store-bought, saving you so much time on the actual day.


Dip/spread of your choice
A classic one is hummus (here's a recipe if you want to make it) with crusty bread and veggies (save yourself a bunch of time and use baby carrots). Store-buy this as a time-saver, or make the dip yourself a day or two before.

Sweets
Cookies are helpful, in that they're relatively easy to do homemade and they're always crowd-pleasers. Make either (or both) of these cookie recipes and they'll never know they're vegan (and gluten-free without much hassle). As an added perk, these can be made a week ahead, if need be--assuming you have the willpower to let them last that long.

Crispy Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies (vegan & gluten-free, courtesy of Oh She Glows)
Ginger Cookies (easy to make gluten-free)
Also, Oreos are vegan, and they come in festive colours. Just saying.

If you don't fancy putting cookies out, there are tons of kinds of vegan-friendly candy that you can buy and put out (depending on how choosy you are about your sugar, even Jolly Ranchers are considered vegan by many--just watch out for any jelly candy, because it probably contains gelatine). I don't know why, but sweets go like hot cakes during the holidays, so I always keep some cookies and hard candies (like Camino's candy canes) on hand.

Chips/snacks
I'd buy a few bags of good, vegan potato chips or pretzels (you can often get vegan pretzels at health food stores) and save a bunch of time here. But if you have the time, kale chips are also a delicious option and will keep fresh if stored in an airtight container for a couple of days if you make them ahead.

Also, unless there are nut allergies, plain old roasted nuts are often a hit.

The main event

This part of the menu is pretty rich, full of good flavour. Since this is meant to be a holiday feast that emulates traditional holiday foods, I went all out and left the leaner meals for when I'm not trying to impress anyone. If you have other options here--or have a bunch of family members watching their weight or what have you--this might be a good section to forgo some of my suggestions and substitute some of your own favourite recipes.

The protein/"meat" substitution
For me, hands-down, the best crowd-pleasing vegan option here has always been the Nut Wellington. *

If you have people who can't eat nuts or gluten, or you want to go for a slightly leaner option, you can try the Shepherd's Pie. The only thing with that is that you'll probably want to modify your sides (below) due to the potato topping, and it may not look as fancy when your meal is an all-in-one. It depends on what you're going for. This could definitely be a better option, depending on your needs.

Also, make your guests gravy, please. You'll probably never hear the end of it if you don't. (At least that's my experience.)

* Now, it's not the simplest thing ever to make, and if you can find store-bought vegan pastry, do it to save you some time. It's going to be really rich, but it's also going to be super delicious and impressive. Also, if you have big tourtière fans on the guestlist, you can try making the wellington into a savoury nutty pie. Just use a pie plate, put pastry on the bottom and stack the filling nice and high, then cover with a top crust. (You'll need about 3-4 cups of the nut filling to fill a 9" pie, which is about as much as you'd get out of 1.5 recipes of the Nut Wellington. For the crust, one recipe of the pastry would do it. In other words, you get a little less pastry and a little more filling per portion if you do it in a pie plate.)

The starch sides
These are just guidelines. I usually would pick one of these as my starch side:

Garlic mashed potato**
Roasted sweet potato (keep in mind oven limits--are you already doing Wellington in the oven?)
Kernel corn

** This is way easier than it sounds. When you're boiling your potatoes, throw 1-2 cloves of garlic per pound of potatoes into the water and cook them with the potatoes. Mash them right into the potatoes once you drain the water off, and just add vegan butter and non-dairy milk when mashing, instead of cow's milk and butter. Season to taste with salt & pepper.

This side is almost impossible to make ahead, so that's a consideration. Corn is also usually lumped in with carbohydrates because of its high starch content, and if you're not feeling ambitious enough to actually cook something here, I fully condone just buying a big bag of frozen corn, boiling it the night of and putting a big pad of vegan butter on the table for them. You may have bigger fish to fry than roasting or mashing potatoes...

The veggie sides
These are your vegetables that aren't so starchy. Here are the ones I usually choose between and that go especially well with the Nut Wellington option:

Braised red cabbage (not actually baked, as the recipe says on the site) ***
Green beans with spring onions
Steamed broccoli (just serve with salt & vegan butter option)
Boiled baby carrots (just serve with salt & vegan butter option)

*** This can be made ahead and re-warmed fairly easily, while the other options are not as easy to do that with.


Dessert

You've just had a really rich dinner, most likely, so I've kept the dessert a little lighter on the oil. (If you don't want to go light on the oil, there is the Mince Pie option, which is a heavier dessert that relies on the same pastry as the Nut Wellington. It's ideal to let the mince blend its flavours for longer than a few days, but it's still quite nice if made more or less on the spot. You can also find other fruit pie recipes that are really easy to make the filling vegan, and then just use the pastry given for the Mince Pie recipe.)

Here are my recommendations for slightly lighter finishes:

Winter Stollen (make the day before)
Cranberry-apple upside-down cake (also make the day before) ****
Soft Gingerbread (make the day before)
Mandarin oranges (no, seriously: it's festive and also not a huge task for you if you don't have time to make something)

**** Just use fresh or frozen cranberries and peeled, cored, quartered apples for the fruit on the bottom. Sprinkle some cinnamon over the fruit for some extra pizzazz. If you don't fancy making this gluten-free, just use regular all-purpose flour.

Departing notes

Holidays are just plain stressful when you're cooking, yeah? Don't be super shocked if something goes wrong and you have to adapt, and I encourage you to try to still enjoy time with your guests. It's totally normal for things not to go perfectly (what does "perfectly" even mean, really?), and shit happens to the best of us. You're not alone.

I hope that things do work out well for your event, and if you have any questions, don't be shy to contact me. If we can save a family disaster, then of course we'll save the family disaster. Like, obviously.

Happy holidays!

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