Not easy being vegan -- at least not at Thanksgiving

It's not easy being vegan, especially this week.

A diet that excludes meat and dairy presents special challenges at Thanksgiving, a holiday whose central piece of symbolism is a roasted animal, side dishes redolent with butter, punctuated by pumpkin pie -- with all-butter crust, of course, and vanilla-scented whipped cream.

But these days, a gathering meant to bring families together can sometimes devolve into a food fight between the carnivorous brother-in-law, the meatless mom, the non-dairy nieces and the gluten-free boyfriends, not to mention your eccentric grandma who's decided she only eats raw foods.

Exhibit A: "Turkey Eater in Texas" wrote Dear Abby in 2010 complaining about having to have an all-vegan Thanksgiving for 13 people to accommodate two family members. Readers responded with a collective "duh" -- just have enough different dishes for everyone at the table.

Responsible, "mindful" eaters come in many varieties, as does the vegan philosophy: There are those who do it for health and those who do it for ethical reasons, often a combination of both. Some do it to protest industrial farming, others simply reject eating any food derived from animals, including honey.

Whatever the reason, veganism is entering the mainstream, if the flow of cookbooks into the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in recent months is any barometer. So is its cousin, the raw diet.

A quick sampling of titles: "Quick and Easy Vegan Slow Cooking" "The 30-Day Vegan Challenge" "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Low-Fat Vegan Cooking" "Simple Vegan!" "Raw Awakening" "Easy Sexy Raw" and my personal favorite, "The Tipsy Vegan."

Then there's "Vegan for the Holidays" (Book Publishing Co., $19.95), whose author, Zel Allen, publishes an online vegetarian magazine, Vegetarians in Paradise, with her husband, Reuben.

Her enthusiasm is contagious: "My aim is to offer vegan holiday foods that are just as delicious, innovative and elegant as their hallowed meat-based counterparts," she notes in her introduction.

With a daughter who is a vegan, I have some experience with this kind of cooking. So, with Thanksgiving in mind, I decided to tackle a recipe that might serve as an entree -- a "torte" of pistachios, peas, onions, carrots, celery, ginger, garlic, red pepper, brown rice, oatmeal, soured cashew milk and plenty of spices.

It took all day to make -- lots of food prep, assemblage, and baking, but not what I would call "cooking" in the Julia Child sense. No browning of aromatic meats, no caramelizing of carrots in butter, no egg whites whipped into the Indian pudding souffle.

One interesting aspect: I was instructed to put cashews in a food processor with water, to create cashew milk, an indispensable ingredient in vegan cooking, because it creates a creamy "mouth feel," although this recipe adds a tablespoon of vinegar to the mix, for cashew "sour cream."

Still, I wasn't wild about the result -- think a high-quality, homemade veggie burger (total cost of ingredients purchased from Whole Foods: $62, although it would be cheaper if you had cumin, coriander, turmeric, poultry seasoning, etc., on hand). But the Roasted-Tomato Aioli sauce was a keeper, with a nice smoky finish thanks to a dash of Spanish paprika.

And I took comfort from Leah Zerbe, an online editor at, the organic book publishing giant based in eastern Pennsylvania, who told me she is married to "a huge carnivore." She counsels "flexibility. You need to think a little bit outside the box."

She basically separates vegans into two types: those who eat no processed food of any kind, and "french-fry vegans," who occasionally indulge in that salty, crunchy treat -- although not from a fast-food place using genetically engineered corn oil.

That doesn't mean rushing out and buying "Tofurkey," either, or other processed tofu products meant to mimic meat or poultry. Ms. Zerbe's homemade sweet potato and black bean chili is hearty enough, she says, to be the centerpiece of any Thanksgiving celebration. Plus, there's no tryptophan to worry about. "Turkey can leave you a little drowsy afterwards, but this gives you more of an energy lift."

In the end, heft is what matters to Leah Lizarondo, whose veggie-centric food blog, Brazen Kitchen (, also has some Thanksgiving recipes that make a big impact.

"I'm not a big fan of fake meats, but I do cook substantial, filling dishes at Thanksgiving," including one made with black-eyed peas that she found in Bryant Terry's "Vegan Soul Food" cookbook. "It's deep-fried, but vegans consume so little fat, it's not a health issue."

Still, she roasts turkey for the rest of her family. "I don't impose my diet on anyone. That's my rule. There are a lot of traditions attached with Thanksgiving, and some of my relatives are really attached to having a turkey," but only one raised humanely on a local farm, she adds.

Rebecca Gilbert, a Squirrel Hill resident, started a vegan food website a few years ago,, anxious to spread the word about the health benefits of a vegan diet. Formerly a competitive figure skater, she had to stop in 1998 because of knee injuries. "I could hardly walk. I was in constant physical pain."

But when she cut out meat from her diet and underwent acupuncture, the pain disappeared.

For Thanksgiving, she will serve her favorite dish -- kamut berries, a type of wheat that can be found at Whole Foods, the East End Food Co-op and other stores -- that are cooked with butternut squash and porcini mushrooms. And her website has other Thanksgiving recipes she and her mother, Shandel Gilbert, a writer, have worked on together. (They both prefer Rapunzel bouillon cubes, available at Trader Joe's, which impart more flavor than some vegetable broths on the market). There's even a whole section on gravy.

On Thanksgiving, Ms. Gilbert will, she admits, serve turkey to her father and her brother -- purchased from Whole Foods, not cooked in her house.

"I don't make a big political deal out of it. They haven't stopped loving me because I'm vegan, and I haven't stopped loving my dad and my brother because they like turkey. If they want to bring it because it makes them happy, that's what Thanksgiving means to me."

Words to live by, on this most savory of holidays.

Black Bean and Sweet Potato Chili

"This is delicious served over brown rice," Alex Jamieson writes. "Freeze individual portions for great leftovers!"

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium red onion, chopped
  • 1 red pepper, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1 large sweet potato, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • Zest and juice of 1 lime
  • 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 4 15-ounce cans black beans, rinsed and drained (or 6 cups freshly cooked)
  • 1 jalapeno chile pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon cumin
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder
  • 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
  • 1 lime, cut into wedges
  • 1 cup chopped cilantro leaves, washed and dried

Warm the oil in a large pan over medium heat and add the onion, red pepper, garlic and salt. Saute until soft, about 4 minutes.

Add the sweet potato and lime zest and cook 10 to 15 minutes more, continuing to stir occasionally.

Add the tomatoes, black beans, jalapeno, lime juice, cumin, chili powder and cocoa, bring to a simmer, cover and cook for 10 minutes.

Serve over brown rice with lime wedges and cilantro.

Yields 11 cups.

-- "The Great American Detox Diet" by Alex Jamieson (Rodale Press, 2005)


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"Vegan Thanksgiving yearns for a classic signature dish that becomes a cherished must-have for the main course," writes Zel Allen. "Deliciously seasoned with flamboyant flavors, captivatingly aromatic, and visually appealing, this unique torte is a first-rate holiday entree that delivers plenty of pizzazz. If you favor sauces to dress up the presentation, include the irresistible Roasted Tomato Aioli, an elegant complement to the torte. Both the torte and the aioli can be prepared a day ahead."

For the Torte
  • 1 1/2 cups water, divided
  • 1/2 cup raw cashews
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon white vinegar or rice vinegar, divided
  • 2 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons coarsely ground roasted pistachios, divided
  • 2 onions, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 1 stalk celery, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, diced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and grated
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, coarsely ground with a mortar and pestle
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • Pinch cayenne
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 3 cups cooked short-grain brown rice
  • 1 pound frozen peas, thawed
  • 1 carrot, shredded, for garnish
  • 3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley, for garnish

Cover the base of a 9-inch springform pan with a piece of parchment paper 2 inches larger. Snap the collar back onto the base, and cut away the excess paper with scissors. Lightly oil the sides of the pan, place it on a baking sheet, and set aside.

To make the torte, pour 1 cup of the water and the cashews into a blender. Process on high speed until smooth and milky. Transfer to a small bowl, stir in the vinegar and set aside to sour.

Combine the oats, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl and mix well. Stir in 1/2 cup of the ground pistachios.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Combine the remaining 1/2 cup of water, onions, carrots, celery, red bell pepper, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, poultry seasoning, fennel seeds, oregano, marjoram, turmeric, cayenne, and pepper in a large skillet. Cook and stir over medium-high heat for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the vegetables are softened. Add 1 or more tablespoons of water as needed to prevent burning.

Add the cooked vegetables and the rice to the oat mixture and combine well.

Put the peas in a food processor. Process until creamy, stopping occasionally to scrape down the work bowl. Add the peas and the soured cashew milk to the vegetable mixture and mix well.

Spoon the mixture into the prepared springform pan and spread to the edges, packing the mixture firmly. Smooth the top and sprinkle with the remaining 3 tablespoons of pistachios. Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, or until the torte is firm when gently pressed. Let cool at least 30 minutes before serving.

To serve, place the springform pan on a large serving platter. To unmold, run a knife around the edge to loosen the torte. Carefully lift off the collar. Garnish the edge of the platter with the shredded carrot and minced parsley, if desired. Cut the torte into serving-size wedges and serve with aioli (recipe below) on the side.

Roasted Tomato Aioli

PG tested

  • 1 pound Roma tomatoes, cut in half lengthwise
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup cashews
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground smoked paprika or liquid smoke

Place tomatoes on a baking sheet, cut side up, and broil about 3 inches from the heat until completely soft (but not too charred).

Put water, cashews and garlic in a blender, process until smooth, stopping to scrape down the blender jar. Add broiled tomatoes, lemon juice, salt and paprika to cashew mixture. Process until smooth and creamy, stopping occasionally to scrape down the blender jar. Transfer the sauce to a 1 quart saucepan and simmer over medium heat for about 5 minutes.

This sauce is also good served cold.

-- "Vegan for the Holidays" by Zel Allen (Book Publishing Co., July 2012, $19.95)

Sicilian Collard Greens with Pine Nuts and Raisins

  • 1 bunch collard greens
  • 2 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons raisins
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Use a sharp knife to cut out the central rib and stem from each collard leaf. Rinse leaves in a sink of cool water, lifting them into a colander to drain a bit (you want some water to remain on the leaves).

Toast the pine nuts over medium heat in a dry skillet for about 5 minutes or until golden. Shake pan often to keep pine nuts from burning. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Place the garlic and oil in a large skillet, and saute over medium heat for 1 minute or until the garlic is fragrant. Add the damp collards and stir, then cover the pan and cook for 2 minutes longer. Add the raisins and pine nuts, and stir. Cover and cook for 2 minutes. Stir in the balsamic vinegar, cover, and continue to cook for 1 to 2 minutes longer.

Serves 2 or 3.

-- "The Kind Diet" by Alicia Silverstone (Rodale, 2009)

Kamut Berries with Porcini Mushrooms and Butternut Squash

Rebecca Gilbert notes that the kamut will take almost 2 hours to cook, so you may want to prepare the kamut the night before and store in the refrigerator until you are ready to make the rest of the dish.

  • 2 cups kamut berries
  • 1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 3/4-inch cubes (about 2 pounds)
  • 1 small onion
  • 4 shallots
  • 1/2 cup dried porcini mushrooms
  • Olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons mustard seeds
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of curry powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of cumin
  • 4 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 cup minced fresh parsley leaves

Rinse the kamut berries under cold running water for several minutes. Place the kamut berries in a medium saucepan. Add 6 cups of water and the dried porcini mushroons. Salt the water generously. Cook over medium heat and bring to a boil. Then reduce heat and simmer until tender. It will take about 2 hours until the kamut is tender. Add water as necessary throughout the cooking process. The porcini mushrooms will create a nice "gravy" in the pot. Make sure the kamut does not dry out.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and prepare the squash. Lightly coat the cubed squash with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and place on baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper and bake for 30 minutes.

Coat a large saucepan with 4 tablespoons olive oil and heat over a medium flame. Once the oil is heated, add the chopped onions and shallots and season with salt and pepper. Cook for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden.

Add the mustard seeds, curry powder and cumin, stirring well, and continue cooking for about 1 minute or until fragrant. Add the vinegar. Stir well to deglaze, reduce the heat to low, and cook 2 minutes more. Remove from heat. Add the cooked kamut berries and all the remaining porcini mushroom liquid. Stir well.

Transfer the kamut berries and mushroom sauce to a large bowl. Add the butternut squash and toss to combine. Season with salt and pepper. Just before serving, garnish with the minced parsley leaves. May be served hot or at room temperature.

Serves 4 as an entree or l8 as a side dish.

-- Rebecca Gilbert,

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