Holiday sampler. Photo courtesy of Vegeria.

Christmas is often equated with feasts. People pile their plates high, yet, for many, holiday meals may be uncomfortable due to dietary restrictions, whether they are for humanitarian, personal or health reasons.  Turkey or pork, tamales and pumpkin pies aren’t popular with all.

As a chef, I want to please everyone with my food, especially during the holidays. I opened a vegan restaurant just over a year ago, in part, because of the love I had for cooking delicious, healthy foods for my grandmother.

Abuelita Rosalie.

Abuelita Rosalie was an omnivore, but she relished all the vegan meals I prepared for her.  I watched her make tamales every holiday season, and in the end, I taught her how to enjoy tamales that were made without any cheese, lard, pork, beef or chicken.

By eliminating certain food types, as a chef, it actually allows me to be more creative, and think out of the box. That makes it more fun for me, but also for whoever is tasting my dishes.  For example, my traditional tamale made of garbanzo beans and ancho chile ended up being my grandmother’s favorite.

In abuelita’s house I learned that food is love. So I displayed my love for Rosalie by turning her traditional foods into healthier options without sacrificing the flavors or textures. Perhaps the greatest gift was seeing her thrive when I cooked for her.

Gluten-free bread. Photo courtesy of Vegeria.

As families and friends plan to celebrate the holidays, they should be sure that everyone in their party is comfortable and eating foods that are right for them.  There’s been a surge in vegetarianism, but also a surge in food intolerances and serious food allergies.

The National Institutes for Health advises that for those with severe food allergies, just trace amounts of a food allergen can cause a reaction which can be fatal, if not treated immediately with a shot of epinephrine (adrenaline). Strict avoidance is essential.  It’s not about taking the pepperoni off the pizza anymore, as people used to tell me all the time. Furthermore, some food allergies are airborne and we have to be careful about cross contamination in the kitchen and at the dining table.

Holiday sampler. Photo courtesy of Vegeria.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, eight foods account for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions in the United States: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish, and shellfish. At Vegeria, we are 100 percent vegan (no eggs, milk or fish), 100 percent wheat-free and rarely use soy products, thereby eliminating the lion’s share of the food allergens.

My life is food, so I want to be sure everyone is happy and healthy, and I try to follow strict guidelines to ensure everyone’s safety and best interests. For those who are cooking holiday meals at home, following are some cooking tips and sample dishes that we will feature over the holidays. This year, our menu is entirely local and organic, too.

Holiday Tips

  • Eliminate all gluten. Use rice flour or corn meal instead of wheat, corn tortillas instead of wheat.
  • Forego eggs. Use flax or chia seeds, or apple sauce or pumpkin puree, when baking to help batters “bind.”
  • Nix the dairy. Try rice, hemp or flax milk and tapioca all vegan cheese.
  • Inquire in advance if your guests have any nut or soy allergies.
  • Read the labels on all packaged items. For example, many “non-dairy” cheeses are made with casein, a milk product.
  • When in doubt, call the manufacturer to ask for details on processing to ensure there has been no cross contamination as not all labels explain allergy warnings well.

It’s easy to make hearty healthy holiday meals avoiding all the allergens. Following are some menu ideas:

  • Sweet Potato and Apple Casserole
  • Lentil Loaf with Creamy Herb Gravy
  • Quinoa and Cornbread Stuffing
  • Herbed Mashed Potatoes sans milk or butter
  • Pumpkin and Butternut Squash Curry
  • Pumpkin Spice Cake, with chocolate sauce, gluten-free, nut-free and sugar free!

Fred Anthony Garza Treviño studied culinary arts at St. Phillips’s College but was kicked out because he refused to work with animal products. He objects on moral grounds and because of health issues associated with eating meat.  Treviño himself weighed 300 lbs. before he became a vegan. What started as just being creative with vegan recipes at home with friends and family, led Trevino to open Vegeria with his partner, David,  in August 2011. According to Vegeria, about half of their regular clientele aren’t vegetarian or vegan. They also specialize in vegan catering for weddings and other events to be sure that everyone can enjoy a delicious meal, regardless of their dietary restrictions.