One of the more miraculous things about the Thanksgiving industry is that it's managed to produce the Tofurkey®, a food product for vegetarians that is just as tasteless and poorly textured as turkey itself, complete with a cutesy, matching name. As a bonus, it's also ridiculously expensive for what it is! The going rate for a Tofurkey® at Whole Foods is twenty dollars. Think of it this way: with twenty dollars' worth of potatoes, cream and butter, you could make half your body weight in mashed potatoes instead of purchasing a tiny vegetarian meatball. Look, it's time for America to abandon the pretense that turkey is an edible meat. You can't really change the fact that your turkey will be dry, and there are foods much more worthy of being slathered in gravy. Foods that don't require basting, injecting, brining or shielding with clever bits of parchment paper. BUT! You CAN make your own Tofurkey®—or at least your own stuffed, seitan-based vegetarian meat, which for convenience we'll call faux-turkey—and it will be great.
Why bother? Weren't you listening? It'll be great! Vegetarianism aside, think of all the reasons there are to make a faux-turkey. Maybe the only Thanksgiving invitation you could snag was to a potluck at a friend of a friend's vegan co-op/art collective. Maybe your turkey baster broke. Maybe it's noon on Thanksgiving day and your turkey is still frozen, or the organic one you ordered at the Greenmarket never arrived. Maybe you're crusading against eating meat because you're in college, and that's what you do when you're in college. Maybe you're screwed up enough to just like fake meat because it's so darn delicious.
In any case, let's do it. You're going to need to go to Whole Foods, but walk past the displays of refrigerated, boxed you-know-whats and their $7/pound free-range, never-frozen counterparts (if they're not sold out by then). Instead go to the flour aisle and get a box of vital wheat gluten. What is this, exactly? I have no idea—something mysterious and oxymoronic like flour without the starch? You'll also need to visit the bulk aisle and get some nutritional yeast, which smells like musty vitamins, looks like yellowcake uranium, has nothing to do with bread or baking, and makes vegetarian things taste magically cheesy. You probably have the rest of the ingredients in your kitchen, but grab mushrooms for the gravy, cranberries, and some bacon or sausage for the stuffing. (Oh yeah, cue the outrage, but I'm not a vegetarian at all; I'm the weirdo who just likes fake meat products. You actual vegetarians: don't buy bacon.)
When you get home, you'll want to make your favorite stuffing first. I like to cook a bunch of bacon, saute lots of chopped onion and garlic in the bacon fat (it's Thanksgiving, live a little), then add cranberries and raisins till the cranberries pop and the raisins get plump. Add a cup of stock, scrape up the bacon-onion bits from the pan, and try not to eat it as-is. Toss it all with a ton of toasted bread cubes and the crumbled-up bacon, and you're done. Okay.
The next step feels almost alchemical: meat… from flour! Put a cup and a half of the vital wheat gluten, a quarter-cup of nutritional uranium yeast, a teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of pepper, and two teaspoons of garlic powder (or a ton of chopped-up garlic) in a bowl. In another bowl, mix together three-quarters of a cup of stock, four tablespoons of tahini (I've used peanut butter before and it was weird but awesome; I bet hummus would work just fine), two tablespoons of soy sauce (or white miso if you want a lighter-colored fake-meat), and two tablespoons of olive oil with a fork until it's a uniform brown goo. Now pour the goo onto the dry ingredients, and stir it in with the fork no more than five times.
Have you ever made bread from scratch? If you knead it too much, the overdeveloped glutens will make it tough and weirdly chewy. Now think about how much you should stir a product that is made ONLY FROM GLUTEN.
Okay. So stir five times, then the gross part: get your (clean?) hand in there and kind of smoosh it around. The idea is to get all the dry ingredients incorporated into the wet, and then stir it around just enough for it to form a spongey-looking mass. I hope I'm making this sound pleasant for you.
Get a friend to rip off a big piece of foil, because your hands are slicked with faux-turkey and you're not done yet. Finesse it into a flat-ish, big-ish shape—say, a squarish circle. Grab two big handfuls of bacon-stuffing and kind of form the faux-turkey around it. I'm not being imprecise, here: the fake-meat doesn't stick to itself, but that's what the foil is for. Wrap it tightly around the lump into a ball. Throw it onto a baking sheet and put it in a 325-degree oven. You did it.
Spend the next hour and twenty minutes or so cleaning the faux-turkey off your hands and getting serious about gravy, which you actually shouldn't make with bacon even if you aren't a vegetarian—gravy made with bacon grease should only ever be the pepper-flecked white kind meant for biscuits and chicken fried steak. But we can talk about my Oklahoma heritage another time, because we have gravy to make: cook half a finely chopped onion and a ton of finely chopped mushrooms (the cheapest kind is fine) in two tablespoons of oil on very low heat for at least fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally until it goes from greasy-looking to watery-looking to caramelized- and delicious-looking. Add two tablespoons of flour and one tablespoon of nutritional yeast, then stir around constantly until it's about to burn. Whisk in a cup of stock and a cup of water; let it boil till it's as thick as you want. If your Thanksgiving gravy consumption is anything like mine, you might want to double this.
Hey! It's been a little less than an hour and a half. Take out your faux-turkey ball and burn your hands while unwrapping it from the foil. It'll be firm, slightly browned, and only very slightly unappetizing-looking. Cut it in slices to show off that stuffed center, douse in gravy and don't worry about side dishes. With the money you didn't spend buying name-brand fake meat, you can hire a vegetarian college student to make all those mashed potatoes for you.
4-6 slices of bacon
1 onion, chopped
4+ cloves of garlic, minced
1 cup fresh cranberries
1/2 cup raisins
1 cup stock
1 smallish loaf of bread, cubed and toasted
Cook the bacon until the fat has been rendered, but not until it’s totally crispy. Remove, crumble, and set aside. Saute half an onion and a ton of garlic in the fat left in the pan on medium-low heat until everything is soft but not browned. Add cranberries and raisins, stir around on low heat until the cranberries start to split, and the raisins get plump. Add a cup of stock and let it bubble for a while, scraping up bits from the pan. Add toasted bread cubes and toss. Season with salt and pepper.
2 tablespoons neutral-flavored oil
half an onion, minced
12 ounces mushrooms, finely sliced
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
1 cup stock
Saute mushrooms and onion in oil over very low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the water from the mushrooms has evaporated and the onions are beginning to caramelize. Add flour and nutritional yeast, stirring constantly, until the flour is uniformly toasted. Whisk in stock and one cup water and let boil, stirring, until it reaches desired thickness. Add more salt if needed.
Faux-Turkey Worth Eating
1 1/2 cups vital wheat gluten
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
2 tsp garlic powder
3/4 cup stock
4 tbsp tahini
2 tbsp soy sauce or white miso
2 tbsp oil
Preheat oven to 325°. In a large mixing bowl mix dry ingredients. Whisk liquid ingredients in a smaller mixing bowl til uniformly mixed. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients. Stir briefly, then knead until fully combined. Form into a square 1/4-1/2 inch thick, then fold around 1-1 1/2 cups of stuffing. Wrap ball tightly in foil. Bake for 80-90 minutes.
Illustration by Susie Cagle.