How to cook a gourmet vegan dinner for the holidays

Editor’s Note: When you think “holiday cooking,” vegan dishes might not naturally come to mind. But for chef Tal Ronnen, cooking vegan is a given. Ronnen, who has been called a “star of vegan cuisine” and recently released a cookbook from his Los Angeles restaurant Crossroads, gave us his recommendations for how to bring vegan meals into tricky holiday cooking situations. We printed one of his recipes below, and many others that he references are available in his cookbook.

Here’s how he suggests you respond if you find yourself in any of the following situations.

You’re feeding people from around the world

There are so many cultures that have restrictions on what they can eat. If you had the presidents of every country come together, and you had to cook a meal for them, I think it would have to be vegan, because there are cultures that don’t eat pork, there are cultures that don’t mix meat and dairy, there are cultures that don’t eat meat at all. So I think a truly international meal would be a vegan meal.

I would open up with lentil flatbread, because it crosses quite a few different cuisines and cultures. The bread is similar to Indian naan bread, the lentils add protein to the dish, then the spreads really cross cultures. The tomato jam is very Italian, the leek pâtés are very French. I would probably cook the Moroccan spicy carrots afterwards. Then, I would do three dishes that you would serve together — roasted cauliflower, spaghetti squash, and probably a risotto. And then maybe finish it out with dark chocolate cake, because everybody loves chocolate.

Grilled Garden Vegetable Lasagna with Puttanesca Sauce at Crossroads by Chef Tal Ronnen. Photo courtesy of Artisan

Grilled Garden Vegetable Lasagna with Puttanesca Sauce at Crossroads by Chef Tal Ronnen. Excerpted from Crossroads by Tal Ronnen with Scot Jones (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2015. Photographs by Lisa Romerein

You’re a newcomer to the family

Lasagna, for sure. because they could re-heat it, there will obviously be leftovers, and who doesn’t like lasagna? Also, not many people take the time to make it. It’s homey and the kind of thing you would take to visit your family.

You need to diffuse family tension

I think diffusing tension is about refocusing their attention. Making pasta is a team effort, and rolling pasta out together would definitely get people’s minds off tension. Or spanikopita would be fun, because it’s got a lot of steps, and people getting together and getting ahead makes cooking a lot easier. If you split up the recipe, somebody can make the filling and a couple of people can roll.

Minestrone soup in stainless steel pot. Photo courtesy of Artisan

Minestrone soup in stainless steel pot. Excerpted from Crossroads by Tal Ronnen with Scot Jones (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2015. Photographs by Lisa Romerein

You’re doing the holidays solo

I thinks something that would carry over for the next day would be good, something you can re-heat. Minestrone would be good because it’s kind of a one-pot meal, and the leftovers would be really good. You can definitely feel satiated after eating it.

It’s your job to bring dessert, and you hate baking

Dark chocolate rice pudding! It’s easy to make, it’s got a bit of booze in it, which makes everyone happy — a little bourbon vanilla extract, really good dark chocolate and the garnish on it has got these cool little sugared pine nuts.

chocolate rice pudding with Pine nuts at Crossroads by Chef Tal Ronnen. Photo courtesy of Artisan

chocolate rice pudding with Pine nuts at Crossroads by Chef Tal Ronnen. Excerpted from Crossroads by Tal Ronnen with Scot Jones (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2015. Photographs by Lisa Romerein

Tal Ronnen’s Dark Chocolate Rice Pudding with Sugared Pine Nuts and Raspberries
Serves 4

Rice pudding is a beloved childhood favorite, and this version made with dark chocolate is the ultimate grown-up comfort dessert. It’s very chocolatey and has a rich creamy texture. If you prefer a sweeter version, use a chocolate that is in the 50 percent to 60 percent cacao range. Serve the pudding warm or chilled. The cashew cream needs to be prepared a day in advance, so plan accordingly.

2 cups Cashew Cream (recipe follows)
1/4 cup canned coconut milk
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/3 cup unrefined cane sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, such as Valrhona
2 cinnamon sticks
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped or 2 teaspoons Bourbon vanilla extract, such as Nielsen-Massey
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup Arborio or Carnaroli rice
3 cups filtered water, plus more if needed
4 ounces 70% dark chocolate, such as Valrhona, Guittard, or Cordillera, coarsely chopped (1 cup)
3 tablespoons cold Earth Balance butter stick, cut into chunks
1/2 cup fresh raspberries
1 cup Sugared Pine Nuts (recipe follows)

1. Combine the cashew cream, coconut milk, sugars, cocoa powder, cinnamon, vanilla seeds and pod, and salt in a medium pot, set over medium heat, and whisk to combine well. Stir in the rice and bring to a simmer, stirring constantly to prevent sticking or scorching, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Gradually add the water 1 cup at a time, stirring constantly. (Adding the water slowly and stirring constantly allows the rice to absorb the water and activate the starch, adding a creaminess to the pudding.) Continue to gently simmer, stirring constantly, until the rice is tender and the mixture is creamy and has started to thicken, about 25 minutes. Taste the rice; it should be tender and cooked through. If it is still firm and has a bite, add more water, a little at a time, and cook until tender. The pudding will firm up as it cools.

2. Once the rice is cooked, remove from the heat and discard the cinnamon sticks and vanilla bean. Add in the chocolate and butter substitute, stirring well to melt them and incorporate into the pudding.

3. Serve immediately, or portion into serving dishes and chill until cold, then cover with plastic wrap and keep refrigerated for up to 2 days.

4. To serve, top each pudding with a couple of tablespoons of sugared pine nuts.

Cashew Cream
Makes 3 cups

Cashew cream, made from soaking raw cashews and blending them with water, is an indispensable part of my vegan cooking. It stands in for heavy cream in a variety of ways—in the batter for Hearts of Palm Calamari and as a base for Spinach Cream Sauce among others. The cream is at its best when used for cooking; it thickens up even faster than heavy cream and adds richness. You will never miss dairy if you use cashew cream.

It’s essential to use raw cashews to make the cream; the raw nuts have little flavor of their own but provide a fatty creaminess. Roasted cashews taste too strong and won’t blend as well.

Making cashew cream requires planning ahead, since you have to soak the cashews for at least 12 hours. Use only filtered water; the impurities in tap water will add a grayish tinge to the final product. The cream keeps for up to 4 days in the refrigerator and can be frozen for up to 3 months. Thaw it in the refrigerator, at room temperature, or in a large bowl of warm water. The cream will separate upon defrosting, so give it a whirl in a blender to re-emulsify.

2 cups whole raw cashews, rinsed
Filtered water

1. Put the cashews in a bowl and pour in enough cold filtered water to cover. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 12 hours, or up to 1 day.

2. Drain the cashews in a colander and rinse with cold water. Transfer the cashews to a blender, preferably a Vitamix, and pour in enough cold filtered water to cover them by 1 inch, about 3 cups. Blend on high for 2 to 3 minutes, until very smooth and creamy without any trace of graininess. The cashew cream should be smooth on the palate; add more water if necessary. If you’re not using a heavy-duty blender, you may need to strain the cashew cream through a fine-mesh sieve to get rid of any grittiness.

Cover and refrigerate until ready to use. It will thicken as it sits, so blend with ½ cup or so filtered water if needed to reach the desired consistency. It can also be frozen; see the headnote.

Makes 2 cups

1. To make thick cashew cream, reduce the amount of water in the blender so that it just covers the cashews, about 2 cups.

Sugared Pine Nuts
Makes 2 cups

Any variety of nut, or a combination, can be substituted in this recipe, but if using bigger nuts like walnuts and pecans, it’s best to chop them into smaller pieces so they are uniform in size. This recipe makes more than you will need for the Dark Chocolate Rice Pudding, which is a good thing. They are an addictive snack on their own, but you can also scatter them on salads or even popcorn.

1/4 cup filtered water
1/2 cup unrefined cane sugar
2 large strips orange peel, without any white pith
2 cups raw pine nuts
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of fine sea salt

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 325°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. Set aside.

2. Combine the water, ¼ cup of the sugar, and the orange peel in a small saucepan, set over medium heat, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Once the mixture thickens into a syrup, about 2 minutes, remove from the heat. Cover and set aside for about 10 minutes to infuse the orange flavor.

3. Combine the nuts, the remaining ¼ cup sugar, the cinnamon, and salt in a bowl and toss to mix.

4. Remove the orange peel from the sugar syrup and pour the syrup over the nuts. Using a silicone spatula, fold the nuts over to coat them evenly. Spread the nuts out on the lined baking pan.

5. Bake for about 10 minutes, until the nuts are lightly golden brown. Stir the nuts occasionally and rotate the pan halfway through baking for even coloring and to prevent burning. Cool to room temperature.

The nuts can be stored in an airtight container for up to one week.