Empowering all palates: A vegan, vegetarian and glutten-free Thanksgiving

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

SWEET ALTERNATIVE: Chef Peter Pollay's sweet potato biscuits offer classic Thanksgiving flavors without the gluten. Photo courtesy of Posana Cafe
SWEET ALTERNATIVE: Chef Peter Pollay’s sweet potato biscuits offer classic Thanksgiving flavors without the gluten. Photo courtesy 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.”

Posana’s Pot de Creme (vegan)

3 cans (42 ounces) coconut milk
36 ounces chocolate
1/4 teaspoon agar agar
1 teaspoon vanilla

To make: Heat coconut milk on stovetop on low heat, then add the chocolate. Once melted, add remaining ingredients. Remove from heat and place in individual serving dishes. Refrigerate until set (about four hours). Enjoy!

Yield: 15 pots.

Peter Pollay’s Sweet Potato Biscuits (gluten-free)
No. 1
7 cups Bette’s Gourmet Featherlight Rice Flour Blend
8 heaping tablespoons brown sugar
10 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
Salt to taste

No. 2
12 ounces chilled, cubed butter

No. 3
4 cups mashed, roasted sweet potatoes
1 1/3 cups buttermilk

To make: Roast, peel and mash sweet potatoes. Take No. 1 ingredients and mix. Cut No. 2 ingredients into No. 1 mixture. Fold in buttermilk. Bake biscuits at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.

Jason Sellers of Plant

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 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.”

Jason Sellers’ Pickled Vegetables (vegan, gluten-free)

Sellers says: “Once I became a cook, I realized that pickled something was always missing from our Thanksgiving meals. So I began to pickle the same vegetables we were used to eating roasted. Their piquant acidity is refreshing against the heavier flavors of stuffing, roasted sides and creams.”

4 cups vinegar (white, or a mix of white and apple cider)
2 cups water
1 1/3 cups sugar
1/4 cup salt
Optional spices: coriander, black pepper, chili flakes or whole chilies, orange peel, celery seed, allspice, cinnamon
Vegetables of your choice: e.g. peeled and chopped beets, carrots, banana peppers, cauliflower, onions

To make: Bring all the ingredients to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce the heat and allow to simmer for about 10 minutes. Add your favorite vegetables during the simmering phase, depending on how much texture you want to preserve. For example, carrots and beets will need to cook longer than banana peppers. I typically pickle onions of any kind (pearl, red, scallions) without cooking them at all; I’ll just add them during the cool-down phase or once the liquid is completely cool. Thanks to the vinegar, pickled vegetables will keep covered in the refrigerator for quite a while. So make plenty, doubling the recipe amounts if necessary.

Jason Sellers’ Spiced Sweet Potatoes (vegan, gluten-free)

Sellers says: “Because I come from the northern Midwest, I never candied sweet potatoes, put marshmallows on them or added sugar to them. So when I think of sweet potatoes, I think savory, and a little heat. This simple recipe takes less than an hour total to prepare.”

2 pounds sweet potatoes (1 or 2 potatoes, depending on size), washed and cut into 1-inch cubes, peeled
2 tablespoons good-quality oil (safflower, olive, coconut)
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
About 1 tablespoon lime juice, or to taste

To make: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toss the sweet potatoes in the oil, yeast and spices and season with salt and pepper. Bake the sweet potatoes on a sheet tray or cookie sheet for 25 to 35 minutes, until tender, but not mushy. When placing the sweet potatoes on the baking sheet, leave some room between them so they cook evenly. Once tender, toss with lime juice to taste and serve warm.

Feeds 4 as a side.

Rose Hardesty of Laughing Seed Cafe

NEW TRADITIONS: Rose Hardesty, pastry chef at Laughing Seed Cafe, offers sweet-potato pie and cranberry sorbet as vegan and gluten-free dessert choices for Thanksgiving. Photo by Nicole Civiello
NEW TRADITIONS: Rose Hardesty, pastry chef at Laughing Seed Cafe, offers sweet-potato pie and cranberry sorbet as vegan and gluten-free dessert choices for Thanksgiving. Photo by Nicole Civiello

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.”

Rose Hardesty’s Sweet Potato Pie with Cornmeal Crust (vegan)

First, prepare your crust.

Vegan Cornmeal Pie Crust (makes one crust for a 9-inch deep-dish pan):

1/4 cup Earth Balance, or other margarine of choice, chilled
1/4 cup vegetable shortening, chilled (I like Spectrum Organics because it is not hydrogenated)
1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
3-4 tablespoons cold water

To make: 1) Blend flour, cornmeal, salt and sugar together.
2) Cut shortening and Earth Balance in, either using a food processor (pulsing only), pastry blender, two knives cutting against each other, or your fingers. The texture should resemble a coarse meal.
3) Add 3 tablespoons of cold water and mix lightly. Only add the remaining tablespoon if the dough is too crumbly. Dough should be quite pliable, but not so much that it is really sticky. Form into a flattened disc and wrap tightly in plastic.
4) Chill for at least an hour, but no longer than two days. When ready to roll out, remove from refrigerator 5-10 minutes before rolling.
5) Roll on a generously floured surface to about 1/8-inch thick. Cut into a circle at 2 inches larger than your pie pan on all sides. This gives you plenty of room to roll the sides over and decorate however you like.

Filling:
1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, boiled whole in their skins (about 2 1/2 cups mashed)
1/2 cup Earth Balance, or other margarine of choice
1 cup sugar
1 1/4 cups full-fat coconut milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons tapioca starch
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

To make: 1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2) Choose sweet potatoes that are about the same size/shape so they’ll cook evenly. Wash any dirt off skins, cover in water and bring to a low boil. Cook until tender when tested with a fork, anywhere from 25-45 minutes depending on the size of the potatoes. Drain.
3) While potatoes are cooling, roll out your crust and line pie pan with it.
4) Mix cornstarch, tapioca starch, cinnamon and nutmeg together. Add this mixture to the coconut milk and stir to remove lumps.
5) As soon as the sweet potatoes have cooled enough to touch, remove and discard skins. Add Earth Balance and blend until smooth with a fork or a mixer.
6) Add sugar, blend a little, then add coconut milk slurry and vanilla. Blend well.
7) Pour into pie shell and bake for 45-55 minutes.
8) It’s done when the filling puffs up around the edges, and only the very center wobbles when gently shaken. If the crust browns before the pie is cooked through, tent with foil. Be careful: If the foil is too close to the pie filling, it will stick to it when it rises as it bakes. Cool completely before cutting.

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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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