The holiday season is often filled with rich and savory foods, but many times vegetarian diners get overlooked during the menu creation. All too often, the vegetarian offerings are an afterthought and are something less than a main dish that ends up looking like a square peg not quite fitting in that holiday tree hole.
This year give your menu some new options for those vegetarian diners. Seasonal tastes and cooking techniques are easily translated into appealing vegetarian dishes that are exciting not just to vegetarians but also those diners looking for a healthier option among the indulgent dishes. Dinner specials, private party and catering menus, or special holiday luncheons, all are vehicles for you to serve up holiday cheer on a plate.
From turkey to quail, a roasted bird with a drizzle of gravy might be the quintessential holiday dish. Try replacing these roasted meats with a mushroom such as the maitake, or hen-of-the-woods, that is prized for its deeply rich flavors and meaty mouthfeel. As the centerpiece on the plate, it’s a winner that can pair well with seasonal sides and not lose its place.
Another option is to roast a head of cabbage. Treat it like you would if you were roasting a bird, in a pan surrounded by mirepoix, seasonings, and a little vegetable stock. As it roasts, baste to keep the outer skin nice and moist as it caramelizes to a deep mahogany brown—just like your roasted fowl might. Finish with a creamy mushroom gravy, easily vegetarian or even vegan, and you have a flavorful dish that is the perfect replacement for a couple of turkey slices
For a slightly more unique flavor, ferment your cabbage to bolden its taste. Try processes similar to those used for kraut or kimchi but leave the head intact or as full leaves. Quick, cold fermentation will leave them crispy while leaving the cabbage whole, instead of finely slicing, will lead to a presentation that will wow on the plate. Simply char before serving to add a smoky flavor.
If you’re looking for an Instagrammable dish (and who isn’t?) consider roasting a head of cauliflower. You could go exotic and coat the head in yogurt with Moroccan za’atar spices or stay familiar with a balsamic glaze. Either way, there will be a pause at the table while your guests search for the best angle to snap their pictures.
Although Wellington is not typically vegetarian friendly, don’t forget to include an option for your diners. Replace the beef center with long whole carrots and parsnips and sub the foie gras for ground cashews and cannellini beans all wrapped in phyllo dough. Finish it off with a drizzle of vegetable stock reduction and now your Beef Wellington has some competition. It’s also a visually stunning dish when it’s sliced open to reveal the brightly contrasting orange and white of the vegetables in the center.
Rice & Pasta
A mushroom risotto or noodles with steamed or sautéed vegetables have long been the default vegetarian dish in a pinch. A rich risotto or pasta primavera can be wonderful if done right, but it is the holidays and both dishes can be elevated to match the season. Saffron added to the risotto can provide a little festive flair, especially when paired with bright green asparagus. Alternatively, let more winter root specimens to bring life to the dish. Roasted sweet potatoes, squash, or other hearty root vegetables are all perfect to pair with pasta and rice. Many of these vegetables play well with freshly grated nutmeg, making them the perfect addition to your holiday menu.
Don’t be afraid to draw on regional favorites and flavor profiles to create your dish. The southern favorite, shrimp and grits, is always popular and the holiday season is no different. This deeply rich and delicious flavor combination manages to be both a refined dish and homestyle comfort food. Try replacing the shrimp with wild mushrooms to give your vegetarian diners a taste of comfort. Porcini is a great option, and the king oyster mushroom, often used as a vegetarian substitute for scallops, can add just the right mouth feel for the dish. And don’t skimp on the sherry, it’s integral to bring it all together!
Fried chicken is one of those simple dishes that can provide so much to joy your diners. So how can you translate that crispy crust and juicy meaty center into a vegetarian dish?
Whole items like tofu and even jackfruit can be fashioned to look like chicken, wings or strips, and then fried in the same batter as your regular fried chicken. Tofu can be more easily flavored while the jackfruit has a better texture—if using canned, make sure it’s not packed in syrup.
If you have the time and skill, you can make something even closer using different combinations of vegetables, chickpeas and vital gluten to bind it all together. The key is getting it to the right moisture level. Too dry and you might end up extra crispy, too wet and it may not hold its shape and come apart during frying. Get it right and you might just find yourself an unintended vegetarian destination.
The holiday season is a time for gathering friends and family together. As reservations and table sizes get larger, chances are there’s one or more vegetarian in the group. Providing flavorful and hearty options for vegetarians might make the difference between you getting that table for their holiday meal, not someone down the street.