I am accustomed to being unpopular around the holidays, that's of course, until people taste my culinary creations. But that doesn't happen until you are lounging at my oversized dinner table — which is themed and decorated — with a complementing soundscape playlist and ambiance enhanced by (anything but vanilla) scented candles affixing a schmorgasbord for the eyes and sniffer.
Yet it's in the planning stages that conflicts arise, as some of my guests demand that anything without butter, cream, the most costly shellfish and bacon can't possibly be worthy of any celebration's tablescape. Bull, I say.
But they will try to argue with me, claiming that anything without these and other similar ingredients will taste like moldy, grainy, fluted cardboard. And that was the debate that drove me to near insanity prior to our Thanksgiving celebration. My food tastes just as lovely as theirs, if not better, and it doesn't require the ritual sacrifice of anything that ever lived, so everyone, and everything, can live happily ever after.
Spa, manicures, pedicures, weekend getaways to Saint Tropez, pilates, genteel prosecco happy hours, acupuncture, aromatherapy. . . that's how I imagined my turkey's time on earth.
Vegans get a bad rep, particularly on occasions that center around traditional foods where animal protein is the main event. Thanksgiving rhymes with turkey, Fourth of July with hot dogs and burgers, Easter and ham and Mardi Gras with crawfish boils and Jambalaya.
It's not acceptable for me, but I recognize that food is that important. It's part of our culture as much as it's a primal urge. Like sex.
I was faced with a conundrum: If I wanted to be close to my loved ones, the foul fowl issue could not be avoided. If I didn't provide it, they would bring it. No turkey was a deal breaker. And when it came to choosing between spending time with them or solo with my convictions, I chose the former.
My adventure was only beginning. Out-of-towners that they were, they had no oven. They would either have to procure a bird precooked, which probably meant it wouldn't come from the most reputable of sources —places where the birds are succumbed to a tragic existence — or it would be up to me. So I made turkey my business.
Guess who made the bird this Thanksgiving? Me, the vegan. If there was any consolation, I could guarantee that the bird came from the most ethical of sources, or as close to that as possible, whatever that even meant.
I accepted my challenge: To find, secure, prepare and cook the bird.
The guilt of choosing the right turkey was almost more than I could handle. It hurt, it really did.
Filled with self-condemnation, the kind that could only be experienced by the son of a Catholic-born Jewish-convert mom and a Jewish dad, I was determined to find a turkey that would have lived the highest quality of life, at least until it didn't.
Spa, manicures, pedicures, weekend getaways to Saint Tropez, pilates, genteel prosecco happy hours, acupuncture, aromatherapy. . . that's how I imagined my turkey's time on earth. In poultry terms, that translates to pasture-raised, happily meandering through a green meadow, noshing on freshly plucked grass where no other feathery creature could poke fun at its droopy snood.
I found it quite primal thrusting countless pounds of butterfat infused with rosemary, thyme, lemon and garlic in between the skin and the breast, alongside the occasional bacon slab and pieces of disassembled Andouille sausage. I felt like a dude.
I was picturing somewhere in California, where the temperate whether and rolling hills are kissed by the fresh aroma of sea waters. The closest I could find was a hundred or so miles east of San Francisco, between Sacramento and Fresno.
Diestel Family Turkey Ranch, via Whole Foods, came to my rescue offering me a bird, which I named Ursula, that was sustainably farmed, certified organic, range grown and humanely raised. It was the best I could do.
Ordering Ursula wasn't easy; I wasn't kidding myself and was aware of what I had done. Her fate was sealed.
Picking her up was traumatic, though the box she came in helped me overcome my initial disdain. At the cash register, I felt judged. The man who took my cash knew who and what I was — a fallen vegan.
I wasn't ready for what would happen next. Yes, I was an avid meat eater prior to becoming vegan, so I had practical know how on brining, trussing, dressing, roasting and carving. Once I got over my distaste for the seasoning process, which included putting my hands all over Ursula, I found it quite primal thrusting countless pounds of butterfat infused with rosemary, thyme, lemon and garlic in between the skin and the breast, alongside the occasional bacon slab and pieces of disassembled Andouille sausage.
I felt like a dude.
It used to be my never-fail recipe, and it didn't disappoint on Thanksgiving. My guests raved about her juiciness and flavor. I hadn't lost my touch, although when all was said and done it didn't feel good that, as one of my vegan guests pointed out, I had veered from my beliefs and convictions.
Lesson learned: It was my green bean casserole that received the most award nominations. And it happened to be vegan.
Was the universe trying to teach me something? That there's always an option without meat, one that's both healthful and satisfies the omnivores? That people should be more important than food. And that one should never be shy to start new traditions.
Make this one, my green bean casserole with shiitake mushrooms and cashew cream, your next holiday tradition:
- 1 1/2 pounds French green beans, steamed and roughly chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, chopped
- 1 medium sweet onion, chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1 cup unsalted cashews, soaked one hour in water
- 1 cup mushroom stock
- 1 teaspoon corn starch
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried parsley
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Paprika, herbs and French onions for garnish
Begin by blending the cashews, stock and corn starch for five minutes until the mixture reaches a creamy and smooth consistency. Set aside.
Sauté the onions in oil until caramelized. Add the garlic and cook for a minute or two. Add the mushrooms and cook down, then deglaze with white wine. Season with salt, pepper, thyme and parsley and mix in the cashew cream. Depending on the sodium content of the mushroom stock, you may have to adjust the seasoning.
Heat it up so the corn starch has a chance to thicken the mixture. Remove from the burner and mix in the chopped green beans. Arrange on a baking dish, using paprika, French onions and more thyme to decorate the top. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes and serve.