Kitchen Hacks and Tricks for Making Traditional Holiday Favorites

Kitchen Hacks and Tricks for Making Traditional Holiday Favorites Vegan

lifestyle on being vegan podcast Nov 17, 2023


Show Notes:


It’s that time of year folks! Today I’m starting what will be a series of episodes on spending Thanksgiving, Christmas or any Holiday you partake in where lots of food is served and lots of family is gathering. It’s a common time for questions to come up among new vegans (even seasoned vegans), and since it’s an emotionally charged time for most (as in the Holiday Season makes you hyperventilate with all the excitement if you’re someone like me), all the tips shared will be helpful for many other occasions as well. In part 1 today, we’ll be covering the culinary and food aspects with tons of tips for delicious holiday cooking, and in our next episode, some of the deeper, more internal issues that can come up during the Holiday season. My goal is that if you love the holiday season you can engage in all the traditions that make your loved ones a clan, that you can enjoy all your favorite foods in their vegan versions and have a Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or any other celebration into a delicious and relaxing, family filled occasion.

Our traditions don't have to end when we go vegan. They don’t have to end even when we’re vegan and the rest of the family isn’t. It is however a time in which the bonus cooking and planning and the added time with family we haven’t seen in a while can bring about challenges, especially for new vegans. Whether you’re hosting or attending this holiday season, chances are if you’re the new vegan in the family, or the old time vegan in the family, you’ll be doing your fare share of cooking, so here are my tried and true Holiday tricks for delicious and memorable vegan Thanksgiving or Christmas recipes and meals.

There are so many delicious holiday recipes out there, and following a recipe will of course give you amazing results, but I like to add a holiday twist to everything I’m making this time of year and I love to teach you how you can transform simple ingredients into the perfect dish for the Holidays.

Kitchen hack No. 1: Potatoes are king and you should serve them two ways

Most people would agree that a Holiday meal without some form of potatoes is not a Holiday meal. I fully agree with this statement, so much so in fact that I fully believe two different potato dishes will make your Holiday table shine the most. For me this is always mashed potatoes (if not now when!), and a creamy sweet potato purée, or, very crispy roasted potatoes and the sweet potato purée.

I come bearing some hacks in this department:

  • If you’re making mashed potatoes, add a bouquet garni filled with your favorite herbs and peppercorns (tied in some cheesecloth), and let it steep in the non dairy milk you’ll be using in your mashed potatoes for double the flavor.
  • If you’re making roasted potatoes, a great trick for getting the extra crispy is to cut and boil the potatoes until tender, place them on a roasting pan, mash some of them and toss with the others along with olive oil and your seasonings, some rosemary and thyme. Roast them until super crispy, which they will be with the added thin layer of the starch from the parts you mashed.
  • Another option is to boil your potatoes, and meanwhile, heat olive oil and the herbs, some garlic and peppercorns in the roasting pan in the oven, and when your cooked potatoes are drained, very carefully add them to the hot oil which will start getting them crispy immediately and where the oil is already flavored.

Kitchen Hack No. 2: Use different vinegars to make roasted vegetables pop

Are you roasting carrots? Onions? Squashes? Pumpkins? Sweet potatoes? Green beans? Adding a few splashes of a good quality vinegar to toss your veggies with, along with any oil and herbs and seasonings you’re using, will give you the most delicious treat. Vinegars, similar to when we cook with wine, have natural sugars in them that will help foods caramelize, but the tang and acidity they also provide will give this caramelization HUGE depth of flavor. My favorites are apple cider vinegar (great when roasting acorn squash, parsnips, onions and shallots), balsamic vinegar (delicious with roasted green beans, red or golden beets, sweet potatoes or fennel), and red wine vinegar (delicious with pumpkin, Brussels sprouts and carrots).

Kitchen Hack No. 3: Think hearty winter herbs

Although a good spring onion carries the perfect season to use it in, in its name, there are particular herbs that just scream fall, winter and the Holidays. Try using what I call the Holiday trifecta: rosemary, thyme, and of course sage. If I had to add a fourth it would be tarragon (especially in a leek and mustard based gravy or sauce). Parsley should always be in your kitchen and works amazingly well too.

Kitchen Hack No. 4: Let the colors of the holidays lead the way

Anything can be transformed into a holiday favorite by adding a pop of orange or red in the fall, or bright red, burgundy, brown or green for Christmas.

These goodies will come in handy for these purposes:

  •  Dried cranberries and/ or goyi berries, great in rice pilafs or stuffed pumpkins.
  •  Red grapes, delicious when roasted with Brussels sprouts, pumpkin or braised onions or shallots.
  •  Pecans, toasted and tossed with pilafs, to top pies or cakes, or added to roasted vegetables.
  •  Toasted hazelnuts, delicious when added to a dressing, a salad, a rice pilaf, or as a topping for cakes, pies and especially on pumpkin cheesecake.
  •  Use rosemary sprigs to decorate your serving platters. They look just like pine needles and you’ll feel like a bit of the Christmas tree fell on your plate.
  •  Likewise, use red currants on the vine for a very Christmas-y feel.
  •  Make a festive platter of roasted veggies by making different columns on the baking tray with the colors of the season. For example, a column of thinly sliced red beets, next to it a column of sweet potatoes, next to that some golden beets, next to that some parsnips, then some carrots, you get the idea. Sometimes roasting trays make beautiful serving platters, just think about the design and colors a bit before you put it in the oven.
  •  Use two small mint leaves and two dried cranberries or fresh currants to make an edible holly to top iced mini cakes or frosted cupcakes. Change the mint to basil to top mini pot pies or mini shepherd’s pies.
  •  Decorate desserts with crushed candy canes, or whole mini candy canes.
  •  Slice figs (the kind that have a bright red or magenta color in the center), and add to salads, on top of quiches or to decorate a festive vegan cheese platter. Take a look at our leek mushroom and fig tart here!
  •  Use crushed pink peppercorns and crushed pretzels to top vegan cheeses or cheese spreads. Ditto with chopped chives for adding a pop of green color.
  •  Use cherries, raspberries, cranberries and pomegranate seeds to add a touch of red to dishes or to the table.
  •  Anything drizzled with maple syrup or a rich toffee sauce will be amazing. They both offer a perfect golden color that is gorgeous this time of year, and they add delicious sweetness.

Kitchen Hack No. 5: Make a Delicious Vegan Gratin

Something you make all the time can be jazzed up by turning it into a gratin or festive casserole. That means you can add some vegan béchamel or cheese on top and make that casserole cheesy and bubbly. You can also add the crunchy toppings below for an even better result!

This is also a little trick to make any vegetable very fancy and elegant, from the simple leek (great in a gratin with some potatoes and shallots), to sliced potatoes, asparagus, broccoli and of course cauliflower (dreamy in a gratin).

Kitchen Hack No. 6: Add some crunch

Satisfaction is very important when you’re cooking a nice comforting holiday meal, and what is more satisfying than that good old crunch. When in doubt this holiday season, top casseroles, salads and pilafs with something crunchy.

Foods that provide great crunch are:

  •  Toasted walnuts
  •  Toasted almonds
  •  Toasted hazelnuts
  •  Crispy fried onions
  •  Crispy fried leeks
  •  Panko breadcrumbs (Japanese breadcrumbs) or regular breadcrumbs
  •  Crushed cereal
  •  Granola
  •  Toasted pumpkin, sunflower or sesame seeds
  •  Croutons
  •  Toasted pine nuts
  •  Pecans
  •  Potato chips, pretzels and other crunchy savory goodies

Kitchen Hack No. 7: Add smokiness

When cooking things like mushrooms, tofu, seitan roasts, sausages, etc., adding a bit of a smoky flavor will make your dish have so much depth, as well as that Holiday feeling. You can do this by adding liquid smoke (you can find this in any supermarket near the barbecue sauces or buy it online), by adding a bit of barbecue sauce to marinades or sauces, or by using a smoked salt.

Kitchen Hack No. 8: Make a gravy or a sauce to serve on the side

Is it just me or is gravy the best part of a Holiday meal? Even the simplest dishes can shine with the addition of a gravy or sauce. This can be made even cuter by giving each person their own individual little bowl of gravy. 

Kitchen Hack No. 9: Make it woodsy!

A woodsy theme will never let you down around the holidays. Besides our hack of adding the colors of the seasons, you can also use things like:

  •  Cinnamon sticks
  •  Star anise (I mean a spice that is already the shape of a star?!)
  •  Thyme, rosemary or dill sprigs as decoration for cakes with some frosted cranberries or red currants, or used to decorate serving platters
  •  Make edible pine cones by sticking toasted slivered almonds on chocolate truffles or energy balls, on an angle to make it look like a pine cone, and place them over pies, cakes or on a plate for people to grab. Place some thyme or rosemary underneath for the ultimate woodsy theme.
  •  Include whole grilled or roasted mushrooms as part of your meal, they always feel like Christmas and the holidays to me, and they are straight up woodsy! They’re great in gravies too.
  •  Add some roasted chestnuts to your dishes.

Think of adding accents to your holiday table and decor. Use things like pine cones, whole walnuts, hazelnuts and pecans in their shells, use pine needles, whole cranberries, holly leaves, branches or sticks and of course some candy canes at Christmas time on your table or around the serving dishes.

Kitchen Hack No. 10: Don’t forget about inspiration

People always forget about getting in the mood for cooking and making it just as much part of the fun as the meal itself. For me, nothing beats Christmas carols or the typical music of your holiday celebration if you don’t celebrate Christmas, or watching a Holiday movie, before or while you work.

Kitchen Hack No. 11: Little menus for big fun

You know me and all my Holiday decor, one thing that’s never missing in any gathering I’m putting together is menus! That’s right, just like in a restaurant. It doesn’t mean people have to pick what dish they’re going to eat, it just means they have a little list to see what goodies are in store during the yummy meal you’ve prepared. This makes even the simplest meal the most special treat ever. You can print out individual menus for each place setting, or just a couple to place throughout your table, or even write the menu on a cute little blackboard. Making up fun names for each dish or getting creative with the descriptions is a ton of fun. It makes any meal special. Round out your beautiful table with place cards, candles, flowers or a woodsy centerpiece like a wreath.

Kitchen Hack No.12: Everyone loves pie, so consider making a savory pie

Quiches, tarts, pot pies, there’s something so special about a savory pie, and no time of year is better suited for this than the Holidays.

Kitchen Hack No. 13: Have a food “centerpiece”, but it doesn’t necessarily have to mean a roast

The Holidays are all about that wow factor, I don’t know why because almost everyone I know hates eating turkey and only wants the sides, but for some reason, we all expect that big celebration moment that reminds us of the feasts of long ago kings. Lean into this, even if you’re vegan.

This can mean making any of our roasts, a store-bought vegan roast, or dishes that are not in the roast family, like a beautiful quiche or tart (our mushroom and fig tart is my personal favorite), a lentil mushroom shepherd’s pie, a large stuffed squash or pumpkin with a delicious pilaf and some gravy on the side, a classic vegan lentil meatloaf, or our lentil and stuffing roast, mushroom or veggie puff pastry pockets or wellingtons, mushroom stroganoff served over gnocchi or noodles or over roasted potatoes and arranged in a large and beautiful platter with all the pickled onions and vegetables in small bowls for people to garnish.

More ideas?:

  •  Pilaf stuffed portobello mushrooms with melted vegan cheese on top.
  •  Phyllo triangles stuffed with BBQ jackfruit, roasted potatoes, chestnuts and raisins all in a fine mince.
  •  Mini vegan pot pies.
  •  Vegan cheese fondue with roasted potatoes, bread, mushrooms, vegan sausages and baked apples (recipe for a cheese fondue that uses store-bought cheese here, and our recipe for making everything from scratch here).
  •  Vegan chorizo sausages topped with caramelized onions and gravy, served over a pan of creamy scalloped potatoes and served with aioli sauce.
  •  Vegan lasagna with a mushroom or lentil bolognese.
  •  Wild mushroom cannelloni or manicotti, stuffed with stewed jackfruit, mushrooms, sage and red wine.
  •  Lentil, mushroom and walnut meatballs served with a pan gravy or cranberry sauce.
  • Countless others.


Kitchen Hack No. 14: Remember that any Holiday dish your family enjoys can be made vegan

Search for any recipe from your culture with the word vegan preceding it and you’ll find a way to make it. Use the simple substitutions of swapping the meat or dairy-based ingredient for a plant-based one, and make everything from your pies to your sides to your sauces, plant-based, even if the same dish will be served in its non vegan version (remember the omnivores in your life have their own right to eat what they want around the holidays), just make sure there’s a vegan version of your top favorites, so you can enjoy the festivities too (a secret spoiler: everyone will want to try the vegan version, and its okay if some of them still say the animal-based version tastes better to them, you do you, and enjoy what’s going on on your side of the fence).

Because I didn’t want to keep you here forever, I wrote a post where I give you easy plant-based swaps for all those classic Holiday dishes, like your gravy swaps, mashed potato swaps, green bean casserole swaps, pecan and pumpkin pie swaps and so many others to help you out with those specific recipes. Our online plant-based cooking school has tons of vegan Holiday recipes perfect for Christmas or Thanksgiving, or any dinner party where you want to make a delicious vegan meal.

I hope all these little tricks and hacks helped you realize that you can make any dish, any veggie, any simple preparation, a yummy and festive celebration this time of year. Ultimately it’s the people on the chairs that’s important around the holidays, even more so than the delicious goodies you’ll surely have on your table.


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