Looking to see if the joy of Christmas din-dins could be recreated without the sacrifice of some foul, Caomhan Keane invited his friends around for a slap-up Christmas meal, where nothing would be killed for their enjoyment
Looking to see if the joy of Christmas din-dins could be recreated without any bloodshed, Caomhan Keane invited his friends around for a slap-up Christmas meal, where nothing would be killed for their enjoyment
They say that Christmas is the season of joy and goodwill. But try telling that to any vegans in your life who — depending on who you speak to — create ructions with their judgemental demands or are treated as an afterthought during the carnivorous bacchanal that is Christmas dinner, where birds are basted in butter, pies are clotted in cream and even the wine is fused with fish bladders.
When your love for animals is so great your dietary demands can run to the extreme, it’s a bit like sitting down to watch your family conduct an autopsy with their teeth as you try to make the best of some dry, flavourless nut roast.
For, while giving up meat and dairy can seem excessive at all other times of the year, it can seem be positively blasphemous during yuletide, an attack on the very tradition created by Charles Dickens himself in A Christmas Carol where geese, turkeys, game and joints of meat were branded onto the idealised vision of the season.
Much like they wanted to change our season’s greetings from Merry Christmas to Happy Holidays, and ban certain songs from our carolling repertoire, the snowflakes are now gunning for your grub, or so the trolls who get worked up over such things, online, tell me.
Half the UK population is cutting back on meat or giving it up altogether, according to market analysts Mintel. Supermarket giants like Tesco, Aldi and SuperValu offer a growing array of Christmas cuisines that sidestep the slaughter and torture of animals.
While last Christmas, more people tucked into a plant-based alternative like tofurkey than did turkey’s once-mighty rival, goose.
So if feasting on fowl is hurtling towards the same reckoning faced by other questionable traditions like mistletoe and Zwarte Piet, what would the alternative look like?
I decided to cook a vegan Christmas dinner with all the trimmings for my Flatmas dinner — an annual yuletide reunion with the people I shared my first apartment with, to see what they would say.
They were understandably dubious as my standard meal in those days was day old chicken balls in a congealed curry glob and I was not exactly supportive of my veggie brethren. For one past Flatmas, I booked us into a Brazilian steak house and told them they could munch on whatever sides were available when they complained.
But, much like Ebenezer Scrooge, I’ve seen the light, and while I haven’t quite mended my erroneous ways, I was determined to make amends and cautiously, they accepted my invite.
Attempting to change the standard dishes at Christmas dinner for people who are not, themselves, plant munchers, is a delicate operation.
Staying shtum on the fact that any dish is vegan is a wise first step as people are libel to reject it out of hand or project their negative opinion of the practice onto the dish.
Some of the meat-eaters weren’t keen on the idea of a fleshless feast, while one of my vegetarian friends wondered if they could bring a dish to have on standby in case the meal had the taste and texture of heated up dirt.
A good place to start is to plan it as an extension of those dietary traditions we already have. It’s rarely the bird or the beef that people rhapsodise after popping their top button. It’s the sides.
And while it’s unlikely that you will get the family to bin the bird, if you can weasel your way into taking over the spuds and the veg, you can switch out the butter for oil, the honey for maple syrup, and the goose fat for spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and thyme, so you can create parity on the veggie front for all the people at the table.
People are unlikely to notice the disappearance of dairy and animal fat but will comment on how tasty the veg has gotten, particularly if you combine colours as well as flavours. You haven’t tasted Brussels sprouts until you’ve had them pan-fried with chillies in a maple syrup and vinegar glaze.
Or paired then with cranberries and pecans. Equally, lemon and oil are just as good at bringing spuds to life as butter.
What’s great about cooking this way as well is the way that the whole house is filled with the seasonal stank.
Vegan food can also often be prepared days in advance and be heated up while the meat is resting. By offering to bring along some starters and sides, you can subtly infiltrate your families dinner with scrumptious vegan food while also reducing the congestion of grub-demanding time in the oven.
Kitchen appliances are often the rack and ruin of a good meal. My oven isn’t used to heat anything more than a processed ready meal. Faced with two starters, an entree, two mains and roasted veg, it took an additional half-hour for my main to even become edible and even then it was slightly undercooked.
Lucky, as one veggie friend quipped, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of crunch in a veggie meal.
It’s also good to have chutneys on hand or serve a plate of caramelised onions with your starters.
Seasoning the food more than you usually would, using salts, herbs and spices to compensate for the animal products you have removed, is also advised.
It’s important not to be discouraged by appearances. For a starter,I decided to make squash, sage and chestnut rolls, that, online, looked like dainty, little sausage rolls but came out of my oven looking like lasagnas that had let themselves go.
As I threw on the emergency store-bought starters, I decided to peck into one, thus saving my most delicious dish from the bin. Equally, my mushrooms stuffed with basil, vegan cream cheese and sundried tomatoes toppled over in the oven and looked like someone had the scutters on my baking tray.
But after exchanging worried glances, my guests were soon battling it out over the last one. I stuffed 30 and they were gone in under five minutes.
A starter that people can enjoy outside of the kitchen is a must,especially if you are the type of chef who gets into such a flit your father has to spike your coffee with poitín to calm you down.
Comice pears stuffed with walnuts and ginger look fabulous on the plate and can be served hot or cold, while skewers with maple syrup-drenched Brussels sprouts, cranberries and squash are a great entrée that can be grilled on the BBQ, freeing up oven space and enjoyed at the Christmas tree.
Fearing that the lack of bird would result in the whole meal feeling a little light, I overcompensated by making two mains. A Christmas wreath stuffed with chestnuts, squash, spinach pesto, mushrooms and sundried tomatoes, topped with sprigs of holly and cranberries, brought both the taste and aesthetic of the season to my table.
Meanwhile, a vegan tourtiere, where puy lentils substituted for the minced meat, smothered in a homemade mushroom gravy, almost had us too full to enjoy the orange, chilli and rum-infused chocolate pots that we had for dessert.
There is also a wide selection of vegan wines to insure that your meal is as ethical as possible.
While I can’t see myself passing up the feathers this Christmas, it’s crystallised how much I’ve not exploited the veg and intend on shaking up my families traditional meal on the 25th. Given how my parents tore through the leftovers, I already know it will be a big success.
It’s rarely the bird or the beef that people rhapsodise after popping their top button. It’s the sides.