Empowering all palates

HOLIDAY PICKLES: Plant chef and co-owner Jason Sellers suggests pickling the vegetables that are traditionally served roasted at Thanksgiving to add a refreshing accent to the meal. photo by Nichole Civiello
HOLIDAY PICKLES: Plant chef and co-owner Jason Sellers suggests pickling the vegetables that are traditionally served roasted at Thanksgiving to add a refreshing accent to the meal. photo by Nichole Civiello

For vegans, vegetarians and those who are gluten-free, Thanksgiving meals can be somewhat challenging. The national holiday comes with clear cultural expectations about food and what should be placed on the table — a big, golden bird; buttery mashed potatoes; bread-based stuffing and wobbly cranberry jelly.

For many individuals, however — for health, environmental or ethical reasons — these societal norms are just not working. From there, questions emerge: Does one have to follow tradition to create a true Thanksgiving meal? And if the meal is not centered around a bird, then what is it really about? How can we keep up with the spirit of the day, minus the meat, butter and bread?

Thankfully, in Asheville, local chefs are dedicated to providing traditional, yet absolutely unique methods to empower all palates. Are you vegan, vegetarian or gluten-free? Not a problem. Three local chefs are here to help. Peter Pollay of Posana Cafe, Jason Sellers of Plant and Rose Hardesty of Laughing Seed Cafe each submitted two recipes from their personal collection, and it looks like sweet potatoes are at the top of the menu!

Peter Pollay of Posana Cafe

Pollay offers gluten-free solutions that will dazzle any Thanksgiving table. His restaurant is acclaimed for providing 100 percent gluten-free dishes while focusing on locally sourced ingredients.

When asked if his loyalty lies with tradition, or whether he's more compelled to be creative, Pollay answers without hesitation: "I think it's a lot of fun to use tradition as the basis to work off of, and then I put my own twist on it."

He pauses for a moment, and then offers this: "We always go to my in-laws house for Thanksgiving, and they have a small vegetable garden on their property. One year, my wife's nephew was in charge of the Brussels sprouts. [We went out to the garden and saw] the great leaves that come off the stock of the Brussels sprouts, so I took the leaves. [They have] a kind of cabbagy taste, but with the hardiness of collar greens. We just made up a dish of sauteed Brussels sprout leaves, and it turned out great. So, that's a different twist to a traditional menu, but not too far-fetched."

Certainly food is a large component of the holiday, but it's not everything. Whatever you decide to serve, "Thanksgiving is really about getting together and having another great meal with family and friends," says Pollay. "Of course we cook on and off all day … but it's all about finding time for family that you don't see everyday."

Jason Sellers of Plant

For Sellers, the chef and co-owner of Plant, a restaurant dedicated to the art of vegan cuisine, the main challenge at Thanksgiving is not forfeiting meat but balancing time in the kitchen and time with family. "The only challenge I face during Thanksgiving meal planning is the same one that we all face: how to keep things simple enough to execute well while also entertaining," he says.

His advice? "Plan well, put a lot of thought into everything you want to serve, and let the food and gathering stand as signifiers of the tradition.

“Speaking of traditions without what (animal-rights advocate) Carol Adams would call 'valued proteins,’ or animal products, one of the first-ever recorded recipes was for a loaf of bread. So the ethics involved with eating plant-based foods can actually be honored during celebratory times like this, because a good home cook can show off his or her skills for the whole family."

For the past seven years, Sellers has hosted a Thanksgiving dinner and fundraiser for Animal Haven at Plant. The ticketed event, to be held this year on Wednesday, Nov. 27, offers a three-course meal of plant-based delights (visit plantisfood.com for reservations).

When asked how his meal at home might differ from the Thanksgiving meal prepared at the restaurant, Sellers says, "I assume other cooks ask themselves the same thing I do at times like Thanksgiving: How much of the professional cook is going to go into this meal, and how much of that is just self-indulgent and unnecessary? Well, my meal will feature foods that I could serve at the restaurant but probably would not. At home, I just want to invoke tradition and comfort, then season everything properly.

“The nice thing about holidays is that you can test-run dishes on your family without feeling like the menu has to match a certain expectation. This time, my advice is to ask those with whom you’ll be eating what they would like.  When they see it on the table, they’ll feel more in touch with the effort it takes to pull off a big meal. This year, I’ll definitely be making the easy recipes that follow” (see sidebar, p. 40).

Rose Hardesty of Laughing Seed Cafe

Rose Hardesty, pastry chef at one of Asheville's founding vegetarian restaurants, Laughing Seed Cafe, is all about creating delicious vegan and gluten-free desserts. When it comes to a Thanksgiving-day dish, she's interested in experimentation. "Tradition," says Hardesty, "is pretty inspiring, and I see it as a springboard for creativity. I collect old recipe books, and sometimes I find amazing, innovative vegan or gluten-free recipes in a book from 1850. Those recipes can take you anywhere."

For Hardesty, creating a vegan or gluten-free dessert is about more than finding an egg replacement. Instead, it's an ongoing investigation. "One of the exciting things about making vegan and gluten-free desserts is the array of available ingredients," she says. "It's easy to get overwhelmed with all the choices, but you have to try and just have fun.”

“With vegan baking,” she continues, “I don't think there is one superior product for replacing eggs, or that one vegan milk is inherently better than another. A lot of times, the best results come from blending multiple ingredients together to replace one. That's also true with gluten-free baking. For me, the best flavor and texture are the result of blending several bean or grain flours together. There are a couple good pre-made blends on the market. Bob's Red Mill makes a nice all-purpose, gluten-free blend that's good to start with."

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About Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt
Aiyanna grew up on the island of Kauai, Hawaii. She was educated at The Cambridge School of Weston, Sarah Lawrence College, and Oxford University. Aiyanna lives in Asheville, North Carolina where she proudly works for Mountain Xpress, the city’s independent local newspaper.

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