It's not just great vegan food, it's great food, period.
As someone who consciously goes vegan for a month out of every year, and who maintains a mostly vegetable- and grain-based diet throughout the rest of the year, I've given more than a little thought to vegan recipes, with ideas for everything from breakfast to soup, salads to main courses, and sandwiches to junk food (I can tell you that you've never tasted vegan nachos complete with gooey cheese sauce or mushroom-based B.L.T. sandwiches like these!).
But there's one thing I haven't tackled, and that's the holiday roast. When Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around, it seems like every magazine and food website (including ours!) is all about turkey, roast beef, and ham. Oh, well why don't you fill up on these side dishes? is the general response you'll get as a vegan at an omnivore holiday spread, never mind the fact that most holiday side dishes aren't even vegan to begin with*
*See if you can convince your family to put this vegan stuffing on the table this year. It kicks some serious butt.
Coming up with a vegan holiday roast is a daunting task! It can't just take the place of the turkey or the prime rib nutritionally, it's got to cover all of those mental bases as well. Not only does it have to taste spectacular, but it's got to look stunning at the center of the table, with rich, deep flavors that scream fall and winter. And I'm sorry to you faux meat lovers, but a Tofurky just don't cut it.
My goal was to come up with a recipe for a vegan roast that is so pretty, so mouth-watering, so packed with flavor and texture that even the hardcore carnivores at the table will want to make room on their plate for a slice, perhaps even instead of that turkey.
It's been a few years in the making and I've had to synthesize techniques cribbed from many of my past vegan recipe experiments, but this year I finally got there. It starts with a central layer of stuffing made with cashews braised in vegetables stock, along with sautéed shiitakes and leeks, garlic, herbs, toasted sunflower seeds and pepitas, and semi-dehydrated white beans. The next layer is roasted carrots bound together with some mushroom duxelles made with fresh creminis, shallots, maple-smoked portobello mushroom crumbles, and just a few breadcrumbs. Finally, a second layer of cashew-bean mixture goes around the outside before it's all wrapped in layers and layers of crispy phyllo dough, brushed with olive oil, sprinkled with coarse sea salt, and baked. I serve it all with a vegan gravy.
I'm not sure what to call this roast quite yet. Perhaps Vegetables Wellington? Does that sound good? Let's go with Vegetables Wellington.
A word of warning: this recipe is a big project. This is quite possibly the most involved recipe I've ever written. It's an all-day recipe that you'll want to grab a couple friends to help out. You'll roast, you'll sauté, you'll simmer, you'll braise, you'll dehydrate, you'll smoke, you'll layer, you'll assemble—you'll use basically every cooking technique I can think of. If you're the kind of person who's content with grabbing a Tofurky and throwing it in the oven, this is not the recipe for you. If you enjoy eating but not cooking, this is not the recipe for you. But if you, like me, love getting your hands dirty, if you find pleasure in seeking out good ingredients and handling them with care, and if picking herbs on a Saturday afternoon is your idea of a good time, then, my friends, come with me; we've got some serious cooking to do.
Initial Inspirations: Carrots Wellington From Narcissa
The basic inspiration for this recipe came from the phenomenal "Carrots Wellington" that Chef John Fraser serves at his Manhattan Restaurant, Narcissa, on the Lower East Side. His vegetarian dish is made with roasted carrots layered with walnuts and sunchokes, all wrapped in buttery puff pastry and served with sautéed bluefoot mushrooms. It's a clever play on a traditional Beef Wellington, and at least to my palate, is actually more interesting and exciting than the meaty original.
In his version, carrots compose the bulk of the interior. In ours, they're just one element, but we'll still treat them with care.
In my article on Roasting Fall Vegetables, I talk about how the trick with carrots is getting them nice and caramelized without letting them lose too much moisture. The key is to start them in water, then finish them in the oven.
You can actually do this all in a single pan. I put my carrots into a skillet, cover them with salted water, then bring it to a hard boil and let them cook down until tender. At this stage, most likely the water will have all evaporated. If not, I just pour off the excess.
Next, I drizzle them with a bit of oil, add a couple sprigs of herbs, and toss them into a hot oven to roast. As they roast they'll intensify in flavor. Then, while that's all going on, I turn to my mushroom layer.
Umami Bomb #1: Mushrooms and Soy
To bind the carrots, I wanted to go with an element that would not only hearken back to the original concept of Beef Wellington—beef tenderloin wrapped in a layer of mushroom duxelles—but would also bring something intensely savory and umami to the mix, an element often missing from vegan recipes.
I started off by making a pretty classic duxelles base by sautéing chopped cremini mushrooms with olive oil and shallots until nicely browned. A small shot of soy sauce gave them a more intense savoriness, while a splash of bourbon livened them up and seemed holiday-appropriate (especially as I took a little splash for myself).
While a classic duxelles would get bound with cream, I knew I'd need something a little more substantial (and more to the point, plant-based) than that. Japanese-style panko breadcrumbs did the trick.
Now I just needed some aromatics to bump up flavor. Although sage, rosemary, thyme, and parsley might be more classic Thanksgiving flavors, I decided to take this one in a slightly different direction, instead opting to use fines herbes—a mix of parsley, chives, tarragon, and chervil. (You can honestly use whatever herb mix you'd like).
Umami Bomb #2: Mushrooms and Smoke
The mushrooms duxelles was pretty darn tasty on its own, but this roast is not meant to be just darn tasty, it's meant to be a complete showstopper, and that meant at least doubling up on umami mushroom flavor. For the second type of mushroom I used a technique I developed last year for making mushroom bacon.
First, I thinly sliced portobello mushrooms (any kind of mushrooms work, actually), tossed them with some olive oil, and laid them out in a single layer on a baking sheet. After roasting them until almost fully dehydrated and crisped, I smoked them.
It's actually pretty easy to smoke things yourself indoors without any particularly special tools. The easiest tool-free method is to place a wood chunk directly over the flame of a gas burner until it smolders. Drop it into a heavy pot, place your food-to-be-smoked in a wire mesh strainer on top, then seal it all up with aluminum foil for 10 to 15 minutes. Alternatively, you can place wood chips or sawdust in the bottom of a pot or wok, set it over a burner, and heat until it starts smoldering before adding the food-filled strainer and the foil.
If you, like me, have yourself a kitchen torch, then it's even easier. Just add your chips or wood chunks to the bottom of a heat-proof bowl or pot and light 'em up with a torch...
...then place your mushroom chips in a strainer above and cover it up with foil.
For my standard mushroom bacon recipe, I toss the mushrooms with salt, sugar, garlic, paprika, and black pepper. Here, I replaced the sugar with maple syrup for a more intense, Thanksgiving-themed flavor.
Be careful, these things are incredibly delicious and addictive and you may find yourself eating the whole batch before you get a chance to finish the recipe. Greater (wo)men have fallen into lesser traps.
Finally, I chop it all up into mushroom bacon bits and fold it into the duxelles.
Bring the Soup to the Nuts
From other testing, way back when I developed these Vegan Burgers that Don't Suck, I knew that cashews are a great way to bring texture and flavor to a vegan mix like this. But I wanted to improve their texture this go-round, using a technique that I first tasted as part of a vegan tasting menu at Del Posto. There, Chef Mark Ladner cooks raw dried nuts as if they're beans, simmering them for a long time. You end up with a texture that becomes juicy and tender, while still retaining a unique crunch that you don't get with beans.
Instead of the plain salted water Ladner uses, I went with a batch of my Hearty Vegetable Stock.
The cashews were coming out okay time after time, but it wasn't until I accidentally left them on the stovetop for a little too long that I discovered the secret: Instead of cooking the nuts until tender and straining them, what if I were to let them cook until that stock is reduced down to almost nothing?
I tried it and the flavor is simply incredible. As the stock slowly reduces, it intensifies in flavor. That flavor works itself into the nuts and eventually ends up as an intense glaze that coats each one. It's really incredible how delicious they are.
I transferred them to the food processor for a couple of quick pulses.
A rough-chopped texture should be easy to incorporate into my final mix.
Let's move on to the beans. Typically I recommend cooking dried beans in stock to get the best flavor out of them, but this time I decided to employ a method I developed when working on my Really Awesome Black Bean Burgers. (Yes, that's what I called them. You heard me.)
I start with canned beans (in this case cannellini), drain them, and spread them out on a sheet tray before setting them in a 350°F oven to roast.
The big problem with bean-based burgers and roasts is that in their normal, fully-cooked state, beans are far too wet and mushy. You end up with a squishy, textureless roast. Dehydrating fully cooked beans by roasting them in the oven solves that problem, giving them a more intense flavor and a nice, meaty texture.*
*For the record, cooking dried beans half way does not accomplish the same goal. Dried beans don't tenderize until fully cooked, so to get similar results, you'd need to fully cook the beans first, then partially dehydrate them.
As the beans roast, I sauté a mix of leeks, celery, shiitake mushrooms, and garlic.
It all gets pulsed together in the food processor, and then added to the bowl with the chopped braised cashews.
For a final hit of texture, I briefly pulse toasted sunflower seeds and pepitas.
The resulting mix ain't the prettiest thing in the world as-is, but darned if it ain't tasty.
With the two fillings constructed and the carrots roasted, it's time to put it all together.
In my standard Beef Wellington recipe, I use sheets of phyllo dough as a means of keeping various layers of filling tightly bound before wrapping the whole thing up in puff pastry.
Some commercial store-bought puff pastry is made with shortening and fake butter flavoring. While technically vegan, that fake butter flavor is so unappealing to me that I'd rather go with a different option. Simply using more phyllo is the way to go.
Start by laying out a single sheet of store-bought phyllo (keep the rest under plastic wrap to ensure sure it doesn't dry out) and brushing it with olive oil. Place a 2-inch line of the bean/cashew mixture along one edge, giving it a border all around. If you want to be very ambitious at this stage, you can replace this center layer with some of my vegan stuffing.
Next, roll up the filling into the single sheet of phyllo like a burrito, folding in the sides about halfway through rolling.
You should end up with a long, slender cigar-shaped package. Set it aside for now.
For the next phase, you want a triple layer of phyllo, with a bit of olive oil brushed in between each sheet. (I tried it with just one layer and the phyllo fell apart as I was rolling.)
Once the phyllo is laid out, spread half of the the mushroom mixture evenly along the bottom two-thirds of it, leaving a border all around. Then, lay the carrots on top in even rows. Spread the remaining mushroom mixture on top of the carrots with your hands, pressing down to make sure it all forms an even, hole-free layer.
Carefully roll the whole thing up. This time, don't bother tucking in the sides, just let them hang out over the ends. We'll deal with them later.
For the final layer, you're going to need to spread the remaining cashew/bean filling into a thin, even layer that covers almost the entire surface of a sheet of phyllo. This is very, very difficult to do by hand without tearing the phyllo. Instead, I use this method.
Start by spreading the filling onto a sheet of parchment paper set in a rimmed baking sheet.
Place a second sheet of parchment on top and smooth it out to remove any air bubbles between it and the filling.
Next place another tray on top and press down firmly on it with your hands. You'll end up using most of your body weight if you weigh about the same as I do. Slowly work the filling out, pressing on the pan in several locations to squeeze it into a thin, even layer.
When all's said and done, you should be able to lift the top pan and the top sheet of parchment to reveal something that looks like this. From here, we just construct upside down.
Lay the first sheet of phyllo dough on top of the stuffing, then brush it with olive oil and layer on the second. Continue layering the phyllo this way until you've added another 6 layers or so.
To get the thing right-way-up again, place another sheet of parchment on top, sandwich it all between two trays and invert it.
Finally, peel off what is now the top layer of parchment, and you've got yourself a stack of phyllo sheets topped with a thin, even layer of the cashew/bean stuffing.
Place the carrot and mushroom-packed roll on top, then roll it all up into a single large cylinder. Finish it off by laying out a sheet of phyllo, brushing it with olive oil, and rolling the cylinder up in it. Repeat until all the remaining filo sheets have been used.
Place the rolled Wellington on a sheet of parchment, brush it with more olive oil, sprinkle it with coarse sea salt, then slash the top gently with a sharp knife.
Transfer it to a hot oven and bake until the phyllo is puffed, crisp, and golden brown. Remove it from the oven and stare at your creation with joy and admiration.
Those loose ends of phyllo can now be easily trimmed with a sharp serrated bread knife to give the roast a table-ready presentation (and to give you a snack to crunch on while the rest of the family makes its way to the dinner table).
There now, isn't that...Oh shoot! Almost forgot about the gravy! Thanksgiving ain't Thanksgiving without gravy, am I right?
The gravy I use here is pretty darn simple. All it is is my Hearty Vegetable Stock whisked into a roux made with flour and olive oil. I season it heavily with plenty of black pepper and a little extra shot of soy sauce for good measure.
There now. If you can honestly tell me that this isn't a gorgeous slice of food, I'll go back into the kitchen and replace it with a pound of rolled up bacon. But be honest here, okay?
It's got incredibly rich, complex flavor with the roasted carrots; the sautéed, smoked, and crisped mushrooms; the cashews braised in reduced stock; not to mention all of the herbs and aromatics (and bourbon). The texture combines firm, meaty elements (the roasted carrots and the dehydrated beans), crisp elements (the phyllo crust and the seeds), and moist, crunchy elements (the braised cashews and all the mushrooms). Juice it all up with a heavy-handed pour of gravy and there's really not much more you could ask for in a single dish.
Michael Ruhlman once wrote an essay about the dumbing down of recipes, describing how every recipe these days promises superlative results with barely any effort, very little time, and even less practice or skill. This is not one of those recipes.
Like I said: this is a difficult, time consuming recipe that calls for several different cooking methods and techniques, along with a bit of finesse to put it all together. It'll probably take some practice. I can promise you superlative results, but I also make no apologies for what it'll take to get you there. I wish you all good luck, good eating, and (if you happen to be vegan), a wonderful, plant-based Thanksgiving.
Nobody ever became a vegan because it's easy, but damn, can it be rewarding!