Brunswick mom Tory Ryden faces the ultimate cooking challenge tomorrow when she and her husband prepare Thanksgiving dinner for their seven children.

“We have huge meat eaters and vegans and half and half,” said Ryden, who is a former WMTW-8 news anchor and current head of the community relations office at Parkview Adventist Medical Center. “It makes you think about things.”

With everyone from Bill Clinton to Ellen DeGeneres praising the health benefits of a plant-based diet that steers clear of dairy, eggs, seafood and meat, it’s a safe bet Ryden won’t be alone in crafting a vegan-friendly Thanksgiving meal this year.

If you’re one of the cooks getting ready to try your hand at producing crowd-pleasing vegan eats for the first time tomorrow, you don’t need to worry. While the word “vegan” can seem exotic, the cuisine is actually straight-forward and simple to prepare. Best of all, Thanksgiving is one of the easiest meals to tweak to accommodate diners who don’t eat animal products.

That’s because the Thanksgiving spread is loaded with vegetable sides, which can be quickly modified to make them vegan.

“Start by using a good quality oil in place of butter,” said Jonah Fertig, founder and a worker-owner of the Local Sprouts Cooperative Cafe in Portland, which always offers vegan dishes on the menu.

“Traditional mashed potatoes have a lot of butter and milk,” Fertig said. “But I’ve done them using some oil and the water the potatoes cook in. You could definitely use soy milk, but you don’t have to. You might have to add a little more salt if you normally use salted butter to bring out the flavor.”

This advice applies to any vegetable side dish that calls for butter. Just swap out the butter with extra virgin olive oil (or get really fancy with a walnut or an avocado oil), and you’re on your way to making the recipe vegan. If the dish calls for milk, use an unflavored non-dairy milk (you can find these milks made from soy, rice, almond and hemp, among others) or a little vegetable broth.

Should you need to replace cheese, you might want to try whipping up your own substitute with pureed cashews, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, salt, soy sauce and nutritional yeast flakes. Those yeast flakes are a favorite trick of vegan cooks, and can be sprinkled on a number of dishes to add a rich, savory flavor.

Kitty Johnson of Brunswick, who will teach a series of three vegan cooking classes starting next week with her husband, is a fan of adding nutritional yeast flakes to mashed potatoes.

“Vegan cooking is very simple,” Johnson said. “We use whole grains, fruits and nuts.”

This is the same food philosophy followed by Betsy Carson of South Portland, president of the vegetarian cooking show production company Delicious TV. When I asked her for vegan Thanksgiving suggestions, she quickly reeled off a list that included cranberry-apple chutney, roasted pumpkin bisque, tamari glazed Brussels sprouts and tempeh marsala.

“If you’re venturing into cooking vegan or vegetarian for the first time, start with the kind of dish you’re attracted to,” Carson said. “Think about what kind of dishes you like and make them without the meat. Then go online and Google vegan recipes.”

Back in Ryden’s kitchen, the vegan portion of the menu will be similar.

“We do a lot of sides, but we also do soups,” Ryden said. “We’ll do a stuffing for the bird, and then we’ll do a separate stuffing that’s vegan. I haven’t gotten into the realm of creating a tofu meatloaf or something like that. But we do a nice cranberry sauce from scratch.”

Ryden said other vegan items she’ll prepare include sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes, broccoli casserole, homemade breads and fruit salad.

In recent years, supermarkets have been flooded with processed vegan foods. And while faux meat products such as Tofurky and Celebration Roast can work in a pinch, you’ll satisfy more people at your table when you go the scratch-cooking route.

Using pantry staples such as grains, beans, nuts and seeds, it’s easy to create a vegan main dish. In my own kitchen, I used this formula to craft a recipe for pumpkin seed croquettes, which have a crispy exterior and a taste similar to stuffing. (For the recipe, click the link to the right of this story.)

To make your vegan entree come alive with the quintessential Thanksgiving flavors, use a generous helping of fresh sage, along with thyme, onions and garlic. Fresh mushrooms offer another way to add depth and flavor.

Once you let your creative juices flow, you just may create a vegan dish that becomes part of your standard Thanksgiving repertoire.

Because, as Ryden said, “It’s kind of fun coming up with new traditions.”

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: [email protected]

Follow her on Twitter at: twitter.com/AveryYaleKamila