Even before 1863, when President Lincoln made it official, Americans gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving [source: Tsai]. Even then, they ate and ate. And even then, they ate turkey.
Few people are immune to the draw of centuries-old tradition. This particular one, though, poses a bit of a problem for a growing segment of the population: What's a vegetarian to do with a tradition that's a bird?
Some just start a new one. Thanksgiving corn salad and squash casserole certainly works. Others, though, are loathe to stray so far from their mother's centerpiece dish, opting instead for the next best thing: tofu, shaped sort of like a turkey.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when tofu turkey is your centerpiece is this: Tofu is not turkey. It doesn't taste like turkey, feel like turkey or smell like turkey. About the only thing the two have in common is what all foods have in common: They taste best when prepared in accordance with their particular culinary traits.
When preparing a tofu "turkey," the goal is not to imitate the bird. This will fail. The goal is to produce a vegetarian dish that is just as flavorful, tender and satisfying as turkey. And this, you can do.
Cooking great tofu is cooking great tofu, so your "turkey" will proceed through some familiar steps. Assuming your tofu came turkey-shaped, it has already been pressed, so you can skip that. Instead, you'll begin by taking advantage of one of tofu's greatest assets, the trait that makes it as versatile as it is healthy ...
5: Marinate It
You won't find a lot of foods for which initial tastelessness is a positive. In tofu's case, though, it's part of what makes it such a useful vegetarian protein: You can give it any flavor you want.
Marinating is the key to tasty tofu, much more so than with meat. Tofu is a blank slate. Whatever you soak it in is exactly what it's going to taste like, and it soaks up that taste thoroughly.
Your tofu flavor is born here, so plan ahead. If you give yourself an extra hour, you can marinate your "bird" before you bake it. Soy sauce is one of the best marinade ingredients for super-flavorful tofu, and it pairs well with citrus flavors and herbs. Keep oil to a minimum, if you use it at all, since tofu is watery and won't absorb it.
This marinade will also serve as your baste, so make extra.
But we're not basting yet. First, let's get inside ...
4: Stuff It
Just because you're not imitating a Thanksgiving turkey doesn't mean you have to forego everything Thanksgiving-turkey related. Stuffing, for one, is not to be set aside lightly. For some, it's the whole point of the meal.
Stuffing the actual "bird" is also a flavoring technique that can't be duplicated -- sad for meat eaters concerned with bacteria transfer, but perfectly happy for "meat" eaters looking to add flavor every way they can.
Some tofu turkeys are designed with a pre-made hole you can fill with whatever veggie-friendly stuffing recipe you want. Some provide stuffing as part of a whole Thanksgiving-tofu kit. And if your favorite bird-shaped curd is without entry point, no problem -- a gently wielded knife will hollow it out.
Aside from imparting flavor during the cooking process, integrating the stuffing adds taste, texture and visual interest at the table -- and if your mom's stuffing recipe is meat-free, you've got yourself a Thanksgiving tradition you don't even have to tweak.
Come cooking time, though, you tweak ...
3: Wrap It
You can roast a turkey for hours and hours and pull it out tender and juicy. Tofu, not so much.
Tofu gets tough if it's in the oven for a long time, so when you "roast" your tofu turkey, you're actually going to be steaming it. You'll still use the oven, but inside your oven-safe dish, your "bird" will be wrapped tightly in heavy-duty foil to keep the juices in. (A tight-fitting lid will work, too.)
Wrap your veggies in there, as well. Toss some onions, potatoes and carrots in the foil so they steam alongside the tofu. The tastes and smells of traditional Thanksgiving vegetables will not only infuse the tofu, but those veggies will pick up some of the flavors in your marinade -- a nice little reverse tweak for your nouveau meal.
When wrapping your ensemble, be sure to keep the foil opening at the top, and fold it neatly as opposed to crumpling, because during the cooking process, you'll be going in there.
2: Baste It
In all, you'll only "roast" your tofu turkey for an hour or so, maybe up to two, typically at a temperature of about 350 degrees Fahrenheit (177 degrees Celsius). Tofu is already cooked when you buy it, so the goal here is to heat it, achieve a meaty texture and infuse it with as much flavor as you can.
Heat alone will accomplish the first two; for the third, you'll be doing what the meat eaters do: basting, basting and basting.
When you first wrap up your turkey, seal in a good supply of the marinade, too. Then, every 15 to 30 minutes, open the foil and brush or pour on more marinade. Tightly reseal the package after each flavor addition to make sure the tofu stays moist and tender.
For a nice finish, you can reduce the marinade to a thicker, more glazelike consistency, coat the tofu one last time and give it a quick broil, unwrapped. This will create a deliciously sticky "skin" and add some crispiness to the surface.
Pull it out, slice it thin and serve it with one final, flavorful touch ...
1: Drizzle (or Drench) It
You can replace the bird with bean curd and steam instead of roast. You can pull the ham out of the stuffing and fill your kitchen with the smell of soy sauce. You cannot, however, forget the gravy.
Well, you can, but why leave off one of the best flavor-enhancing components available? Your tofu turkey is non-traditional, so why stop there? Your gravy can be meat-free, just a sauce that adds extra taste. You can serve your reduced marinade as a gravy, or else create a new sauce that adds some contrast to the dish.
Vegetarian gravies are typically based on vegetable broth, thickened with corn starch, and incorporate soy sauce, onion, poultry-style herbs like sage or thyme, and garlic. Lots of garlic. Mushrooms are optional but highly recommended. Color- and texture-wise, they're gravy-perfect.
This is, almost certainly, not the gravy of 1863 -- or of 1963, for that matter. It is, however, a delicious way to make a flavorful tofu turkey even more so. And the very act of drizzling that thick brown sauce, almost as traditionally Thanksgiving as the turkey itself, is sure to remind any meat-eating guests where they are, in case the lack of flesh threw them off.
It's veggie. It's tasty. It's Thanksgiving. (See? There's gravy!)
For more information on vegetarian options and holiday meals, check out the links on the next page.
Lots More Information
- 10 Healthy and Delicious Whole Grain Holiday Foods
- How do I follow a very low-fat, vegetarian diet?
- Traditional Thanksgiving Food That's Healthy in Small Portions
More Great Links
- Lehmkuhl, Vance. "V For Veg: Vegan Thanksgiving isn't limited to Tofurky." Philly.com. Nov. 17, 2011. (Sept. 12, 2012) http://articles.philly.com/2011-11-17/entertainment/30410463_1_real-turkey-free-thanksgiving-turkeys-turkey-shape
- Karimi, Sabah. "Tips on How to Cook Tofurky This Thanksgiving." Yahoo! Voices. Oct. 27, 2007. (Sept. 17, 2012) http://voices.yahoo.com/tips-cook-tofurkey-thanksgiving-618980.html?cat=22
- "Tofu Recipes with Tons of Flavor." Chow. (Sept. 17, 2012) http://www.chow.com/galleries/153/tofu-recipes-with-tons-of-flavor#!2515/homemade-tofurkey-with-brown-rice-stuffing
- "Tofurky Feast Cooking Instructions." Turtle Island Foods. (Sept. 23, 2012) http://www.tofurky.com/recipes/tofurky_recipes_instructions.html
- Tsai, Michelle. "Wherefore Turkey?" Slate. Nov. 25, 2009. (Sept. 23, 2012) http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/recycled/2009/11/wherefore_turkey.html
- Wilson, Jamie. " How to Cook Tofu: 6 Ways to Make It Taste Spectacular." Delish. (Sept. 17, 2012) http://www.delish.com/recipes/cooking-recipes/how-to-cook-tofu