It’s not all about roasted veggies. Here are four meat-free tips for pleasing even the pickiest carnivores on your guest list.

By Kelsey Ogletree
December 15, 2020
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Plants have never been so in vogue. Nearly 10 million Americans are now following a plant-based diet, according to a recent survey, and that number continues to grow. Meanwhile, it’s no surprise that Americans are also eating less meat—one in four report eating less meat than they had previously, says a Gallup poll. But with the holidays upon us, who can say no to juicy turkey, succulent ham, and that enticing Christmas morning brunch (looking at you, egg-and-bacon casserole)? It turns out, it’s not that hard when you make the right swaps. “I recommend focusing on traditional flavors that you already love and building a meal around the center of the plate,” says chef Matthew Kenney, founder of PlantMade foods. Read on for the best chef-approved plant-based swaps for your favorite holiday dishes.

Credit: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

Reconsider Your Main

Whether your family typically enjoys a main like turkey or ham, or perhaps even a Christmas rib roast or filet mignon, we get that you want to carry on the tradition with meat. But you can get creative with ingredients and still enthrall everyone with a plant-based main. “There are ways to revel in a vegetable-centric main course that’s worth focusing on,” says Ken Rubin, chief culinary officer at online culinary school Rouxbe. A few of his ideas: miniature pot pies served with white beans and topped with a golden, flaky crust (try these); a forest-inspired risotto platter with wild mushrooms (more on those below); and a pretty roasted root vegetable galette topped with a smoky Romesco or chile verde sauce.

Or, may we suggest a take on tenderloin: herby crusted butternut squash, a creation by Derek Sarno, chef and founder of U.K. plant-based food brand Wicked Foods (launching in the U.S. in 2021).  To make it, roast a long-neck whole butternut squash (leave the skin on) for about an hour. When it’s cool, cut off both ends, remove the seeds and carefully peel away the skin. Pan-fry the tender whole pieces of squash with olive oil and a little seasoning before plating and serving with gravy (plant-based, of course) like you would a steak.

Say Yes to Mushrooms

We get it—fungi can be polarizing. But if you’ve only known the button mushrooms that taste like the plastic they’re wrapped in from the supermarket, you might be missing the power of these plants to transform a meal. “Mushrooms make the perfect all-natural animal alternative,” says Sarno. “You’d be hard-pressed to know the difference, as textures and mouth feel of certain mushrooms lend themselves to all kinds of meat-free applications.” For instance, he recommends using shredded king oyster mushrooms to make gravy, as they’ll help it to both look and taste like the real thing. (Get the recipe and watch a video on how to do this here.) You can also make your own mushroom stock—using a mix of dried and fresh mushrooms—like you would a vegetable stock, which will be perfect for making plant-based gravy, adds Rubin.

Nuts Are Your Friend

You’ve heard of using walnuts in burgers—this substitute works great because it lends a hearty, chewy texture that mimics meat. Similarly, you can use pecans, or even chestnuts to make a toothsome dressing that won’t leave anyone missing the sausage. “I love beefing out any dressing or stuffing with lots of hearty nuts and cranberries rather than traditional ground pork to make more of a nut roast,” says Charlie Layton, executive chef at Basic Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina. To ensure there’s enough to tantalize your tastebuds without the animal fat, be generous with your spices. Use what Layton calls a “trusty pinch” of celery salt and a spoonful or two of Marmite ($14, Walmart)—yes, that odd yeasty spread from the U.K.—to add rich flavor. Similarly, you can load up your stuffing with more veggies and an assortment of mushrooms to add earthy flavor and texture. Try cremini, oyster, maitake, or shiitake mushrooms, says Rubin.

Switch Up Your Sides

OK, so mashed potatoes—a Christmas dinner essential—are already meat-free (unless you’re adding bacon, that is). But if you have vegan guests at the table, you’ll want to swap out the butter and cream for neutral non-dairy substitutes, like almond or macadamia nut milk (just be sure to get the unsweetened, unflavored variety) and add a few tablespoons of cashew cream to still get that creamy taste and texture. No matter what side you’re tweaking, “keep the focus on amazing flavors, a range of textures, and plenty of variety to keep interest piqued,” says Rubin. Other simple swaps for veggie-focused sides, like using maple syrup in place of honey for something like glazed Brussels sprouts or carrots, are easy and delicious, and keeps the dish vegan, says Layton. You can also round out the meal with interesting pasta or grain sides. Kenney suggests wild rice, quinoa, farro, or less-common fregula, a semolina-based pasta in a fun round shape. Don’t forget to add in loads of fresh herbs and spices, too.

The best part of making a plant-based Christmas meal this year? Your dishes will still be packed with so much flavor and texture, your guests won’t even miss the meat.

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