Easy Holiday Potluck Brunch

By Debra Daniels-Zeller

My mother-in-law used to spend days preparing for holiday parties. She had everyone in the family put together appetizers, bake breads and cookies, and make salads up until the last minute. The parties were lots of fun, and everyone raved about the food, but with all the organizing and prep, she was exhausted.

Over the years, I've realized that rushing around to buy and make all the food for a get-together is not the way I want to spend my time. I'd rather lose the stress factor and have more time to socialize with family and friends. A seasonal potluck brunch is just the ticket. This way, everyone contributes a favorite dish, the food is always an interesting blend of cooking styles, the atmosphere is casual, and you're finished early in the day so clean-up isn't an extended project.

My first holiday potluck brunch came about as a fun way to get together with friends. I used an idea from a vegetarian cooking class I once taught, where a vegetarian potluck was the final homework project, and collected all the recipes for my get-together a week ahead. I find it's also fun to have guests personalize their recipes, adding a sentence or two about its origin or how it was modifed. I copied this information and stapled it together to make a booklet for each guest. You can even create a title page with the potluck's theme to begin the collection of recipes you make for your guests. An alternative is to have pens and nice paper out with the recipes. Then, everyone can make their own copies.

When you organize an event like this one, choosing a theme brings a focus to the meal and makes it more appealing. Any title can highlight the holidays in a general way, so be imaginative with the name. It doesn't have to be fancy, just something simple, such as Vegetarian Comfort Food Festival or Holiday Favorites. One of my favorite holiday brunches was called Family Recipe Treasures Revisited. Heirloom family recipes were revised to be vegetarian-friendly, if necessary, and to have a lower fat content. One friend brought a version of her grandmother's stuffed cabbage rolls, made with tempeh instead of hamburger yet seasoned in the same savory way. She proclaimed it better than the original.

After determining a theme and creating a title, prepare invitations with an RSVP that includes course categories. This way your guests can check off whether they're bringing a salad, appetizer, bread, side dish, main dish, or dessert. Have everyone select a second option as well. Be sure to get back to them about the option they chose. For more culinary-challenged friends, have easier options available, such as bringing some juice or a grain coffee substitute. After all, not everyone is comfortable in the kitchen, and a holiday brunch isn't about stress or pressure.

This planning stage is also an ideal time to gather information about food allergies so certain ingredients can be avoided, if possible, when choosing and preparing recipes. In addition, when my friends arrived, they all wrote out the recipe title and ingredient cards for their dishes. These ingredient cards were placed in front of each dish as an additional aid to food selection. Without concerns about objectionable ingredients lurking in the dishes, we could all relax and sample each other's delicious food.

The following recipes can be put together for any potluck, or peruse them and use what appeals to you. If you're pressed for time, select a recipe that can be made ahead and reheated. When the day arrives, relax and enjoy the party.

Substitute Ingredient Suggestions

For Meat products:
  • Soy sausage
  • Fakin' Bacon (smoked tempeh strips)
  • Chicken-style seitan
  • Tempeh (to substitute for ground meat)
  • Tofu
For Dairy products:
  • Soy, rice, or almond milk (Use soymilk with a small amount of lemon juice as a substitute for buttermilk.)
  • Soymilk creamer (for cream)
  • Soy yogurt
  • Soy sour cream
  • Soy cream cheese
  • Vegan cheese alternatives
For Eggs:
  • Flax seed egg replacer (Use 1 Tablespoon ground flax seeds blended with 3 Tablespoons water for each egg. This substitution can be used to replace up to 3 eggs in a recipe.)
  • Silken tofu (Use ¼ cup puréed tofu to replace 1 egg. This substitution can be used to replace up to 2 eggs.)
  • Ener-G egg replacer (Available in natural foods stores. Use according to package directions.)
For Cheese Toppings:
  • Ground toasted nuts or seeds
  • Crushed cornflakes
  • Bread crumbs blended with a little vegan margarine
  • Toasted coconut
For Cheese Fillings:
  • For cheese layers, try roasted vegetables, such as eggplant, red peppers, summer squash, or sliced sautéed portobello mushrooms.
  • For ricotta type fillings, use one 14.5-ounce package of drained firm tofu, blended with 2 Tablespoons oil, 1 Tablespoon lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste.

Simple Red Lentil Pâté

(Makes approximately 1-½ cups, or twelve 2-Tablespoon servings)

This is an easy make-ahead dish. Add your favorite herbs to vary this pâté. Try ½ teaspoon freshly chopped rosemary, 1 teaspoon basil, or ½ teaspoon toasted, crushed fennel seeds.

  • 1 cup red lentils
  • 2 cups water
  • 3 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 1-½ teaspoons frozen juice concentrate, such as apple or orange juice
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • A few drops hot sauce, such as Tabasco
  • ¼ cup chopped olives (optional)
  • Salt to taste
  • Chopped parsley or cilantro for garnish

Cook lentils, water, garlic, and juice concentrate together on a slow simmer until lentils are very soft. Add a little more water, if needed. Stir in mustard and hot sauce. Purée lentils until smooth and creamy with a hand blender or a blender. Add water to adjust consistency. Stir in olives, if desired, and add salt to taste.

Place in a serving bowl. Garnish with a sprinkling of parsley or cilantro. Serve with carrot and parsnip sticks or with cauliflower florets. You could also fill celery or spread on crackers.

Total calories per serving: 53 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 10 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 178 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Apple-Spinach Salad With Hazelnuts

(Serves 6)

I like to buy organic apples and leave the skins on, but you can peel the apples if you would like. Wasabi powder and hazelnut oil are available in natural foods stores. If you can't find either, use a pinch of cayenne instead of wasabi powder, and use another nut oil, such as walnut, in place of hazelnut oil.

  • 4 medium-large, sweet-tart apples, such as Fuji, divided
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice, divided
  • 3 Tablespoons pimentos, drained
  • 1 bunch fresh spinach, washed, rinsed, and cut into small pieces
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1-½ teaspoons wasabi powder
  • 1 Tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon grated ginger
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 Tablespoon hazelnut oil
  • ½ cup lightly toasted, chopped hazelnuts

If using organic apples, leave the skins on them, but peel conventionally grown apples. Core and cut 3 apples into matchsticks. Mix apples with 1 Tablespoon lemon juice. Toss apples with pimentos and spinach in a large bowl.

Core and chop remaining apple, and place with water in a small saucepan. Simmer until apples are soft. Blend in blender until smooth and creamy. Add a few drops of apple purée to the wasabi powder and let sit for a few minutes. Combine wasabi paste with remaining lemon juice and the vinegar. Squeeze ginger pulp between fingers to express juice into the lemon juice-apple cider vinegar mixture, then discard ginger pulp. Stir in salt to taste.

Pour dressing back into sauce­pan and simmer for about 5 minutes. Stir in oil. Garnish salad top with toasted hazelnuts. Serve dressing on the side.

Total calories per serving: 147 Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 19 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 332 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Butternut Squash Streusel Bread

(Makes one 9" x 5" loaf, about 9 servings)

This is a great recipe to use up leftover squash. If you don't have butternut, use another variety, such as acorn, sweet dumpling, kobacha, or hubbard. Even leftover sweet potatoes will do in a pinch.

Spectrum makes a wonderful vegan nonhydrogenated shortening that is sold in natural foods stores. If you can't find it, use another nonhydrogenated margarine. Date sugar and granulated maple syrup can also be found in natural foods stores.

  • ¼ cup toasted chopped nuts, such as pecans or walnuts
  • 1 Tablespoon nonhydrogenated vegan margarine
  • 2 Tablespoons date sugar
  • 2 Tablespoons currants
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • ¾ cup whole wheat pastry or barley flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • ¼ teaspoon cloves
  • ½ cup chopped dates, chopped apricots, raisins, or additional currants
  • ¼ cup nonhydrogenated vegetable shortening
  • 1 cup baked mashed butternut squash
  • ½ cup vanilla soy yogurt
  • ½ cup granulated maple syrup or additional ½ cup date sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9" x 5" bread pan with parchment paper. Combine nuts, margarine, 2 Tablespoons date sugar, and currants. Set aside.

In a large bowl, sift together whole wheat and pastry flours, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg, and cloves. Add the bran from the sifter back into the mix with the dates or other fruit and blend in.

With a pastry blender, cut shortening into the flour until well blended. With a blender or hand blender, purée squash, soy yogurt, and maple syrup or additional date sugar together. Combine wet ingredients with flour mixture, mixing until a soft dough is formed. Pour into prepared loaf pan and spread evenly. Top with nut-currant streusel mixture.

Bake for 1 hour or until a bread tester or toothpick comes out clean. Let cool in pan for 5 minutes before removing to a cooling rack. When completely cool, cut into 1-inch slices.

Total calories per serving: 269 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 44 grams Protein: 5 grams
Sodium: 387 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Vegetable Upside-Down Skillet Cake

(Serves 6)

Like a vegetable cobbler or pot pie, this main dish is always a crowd-pleaser at potlucks. Bragg Liquid Aminosä is a soy product similar to soy sauce or tamari that lends a rich flavor to gravies and stews. Look for this product and frozen edamame in natural foods stores.

  • 1-½ cups chopped red onions
  • 1 Tablespoon oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 2 yellow or white potatoes, cut into small chunks
  • 1 carrot, sliced
  • 1 rutabaga or turnip, cut into small chunks
  • 2 cups chopped collard greens or kale
  • 2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 Tablespoon arrowroot (found in natural foods stores and Asian markets)
  • 1 Tablespoon Bragg Liquid Aminos or tamari
  • 1 cup frozen shelled edamame (green soybeans), thawed
  • ½ teaspoon ground pepper
  • ⅓ cup soymilk
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • ¾ cup whole wheat flour blended with ¾ cup whole wheat pastry or barley flour (or 1-½ cups unbleached white flour)
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • ¼ cup nonhydrogenated vegetable shortening or vegan margarine
  • ½ cup mashed sweet potato
  • 1 Tablespoon vegan margarine (optional)
  • Sprinkling of paprika

Heat a heavy 9" or 10" oven-proof skillet over medium heat. Add onions and oil, stir, reduce heat, and cover with a lid that fits directly over the onions. Sweat onions until soft. Add garlic, potatoes, carrots, rutabagas, collard greens or kale, and rosemary. Stir, cover, and cook for about 5 minutes. Combine water, arrowroot, and Bragg Liquid Aminosä. Add to vegetables with edamame and pepper, and continue to cook while you make the cake. Allow about 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. To make the cake, combine soy­milk and lemon juice, and set aside. In a medium mixing bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and baking powder. Mix well. With a pastry blender, cut in shortening or margarine until mixture resembles fine granules. Blend the sweet potatoes with the soymilk until well blended. A hand blender works well for this, but you can use a blender instead. Stir wet and dry ingredients together until a fairly firm dough is formed, but do not overmix, as this will make the crust tough. Add a bit more flour if necessary. On a floured board, pat or roll dough out to the size of the skillet.

Remove vegetables from heat. Place dough over vegetables and make about 5 slits on the cake top radiating out from the center. For a richer tasting cake, spread 1 Tablespoon margarine over the top and sprinkle paprika over the top. This gives a browner appearance to the cake. Bake for 25 minutes or until top is brown and vegetables are bubbling. Let cool slightly before serving.

Total calories per serving: 370 Fat: 14 grams
Carbohydrates: 54 grams Protein: 13 grams
Sodium: 500 milligrams Fiber: 9 grams

Orange-Pecan Wild Rice and Mushrooms

(Serves 6


This dish can be served cold, room temperature, or warm. I like to let it sit in the refrigerator for a few hours while the flavors marry.

  • 2 cups water
  • Pinch of salt
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cups mushrooms, sliced
  • ½ teaspoon sage
  • ½ cup dried cranberries
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • 1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • 1 Tablespoon orange zest
  • Additional salt to taste
  • 2 cups grated carrots
  • ½ cup lightly toasted pecans
  • Finely chopped parsley for garnish (optional)

Combine wild rice, water, and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 50 minutes or until done. Wild rice is done when the grains split open and shows a gray interior.

While rice cooks, heat a heavy skillet over medium heat. Add 1 Tablespoon oil and onions and stir. Reduce heat and cover with a lid that fits directly over the onions. (If you don't have a lid that fits over the onions, use foil or waxed paper to cover.) Cook until the onions are soft and transparent, then add mushrooms, sage, and cranberries. Cover and cook until mushrooms are soft. Remove from heat and set aside.

Combine orange juice, balsamic vinegar, garlic, cayenne, and remaining oil. When wild rice is done, combine with onions and mushrooms, then blend in the orange juice-balsamic vinegar mixture and orange zest. Season to taste with salt. Stir in grated carrots and pecans just before serving. Garnish with parsley, if desired.

Total calories per serving: 279 Fat: 12 grams
Carbohydrates: 39 grams Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 20 milligrams Fiber: 6 grams

Pureed Greens

(Serves 8)

This is a perfect way to use up an abundance of greens. Make this recipe a day ahead and reheat on the stovetop right before the potluck. Garnish with sesame seeds before serving. Light sesame oil and white miso (a fermented soy product) can be found in natural foods stores. You can buy toasted ground sesame seeds or make your own by toasting the raw sesame seeds in a heavy skillet. Heat the skillet on medium heat and toast the seeds for about 7 minutes. Then, grind the seeds in a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle.

  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon light sesame oil or extra-virgin olive oil
  • 6 cloves garlic, pressed
  • Dash of hot sauce, such as Tabasco
  • 12 cups chopped kale, collard greens, or braising greens
  • 2 Tablespoons frozen apple juice concentrate
  • 2 Tablespoons white miso
  • ¼-½ cup water
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 Tablespoons toasted ground sesame seeds (optional)

In a large pot, sauté onions in oil until very soft. Add garlic and hot sauce, and continue to cook for 2 more minutes. Add the greens, cover, and braise for 15 minutes or until greens are soft. Add juice concentrate and miso and purée in a food processor or blender until smooth and creamy. Add ¼-½ cup water and blend in. Return to pot and gently heat. Stir in lemon juice. Serve with 2 Table­spoons ground, toasted sesame seeds sprinkled on top to create a finished look.

Total calories per serving: 95 Fat: 3 grams
Carbohydrates: 17 grams Protein: 4 grams
Sodium: 163 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Yam and Potato Crescents

(Serves 8)

These crescents can be baked ahead and placed in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes right before brunch.

  • 2 medium yams (about 7 inches long)
  • 4 medium Yukon Gold potatoes (about 3-½ to 4 inches long)
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 2 Tablespoons oil
  • Sprinkling of salt
  • Ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut yams and potatoes in half lengthwise and slice into ¼-inch crescents. Place crescents in a large bowl and mix with paprika and oil. Place potatoes and yams in a single layer on two baking sheets and place in oven. Bake for 60 minutes, turning them with a spatula halfway through baking. Sprinkle with salt and ground pepper to taste.

Total calories per serving: 152 Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 30 grams Protein: 3 grams
Sodium: 14 milligrams Fiber: 5 grams

Cranberry Custard

(Serves 8)

Agar is red marine algae that makes an excellent gelling agent. This product, used to replace gelatin in vegetarian-friendly recipes, can be found in natural foods stores in granule, flake, or bar form. If you left this dish to gel, you would get a dessert similar to Jell-Oâ. You can cut the dessert into squares, sprinkle with coconut, and serve instead of whipping it as directed. Use coconut milk in place of water for a creamier dessert, if you like.

  • 1 cup fresh cranberries
  • 1 cup frozen apple juice concentrate
  • ½ cup frozen orange juice concentrate
  • 2-½ cups water, divided
  • 1-2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
  • 2 Tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • Pinch of salt
  • 3 Tablespoons agar flakes
  • 1 Tablespoon arrowroot (found in natural foods stores and Asian markets)
  • ¼ cup shredded coconut (optional)

In a saucepan, combine cranberries, juice concentrates, 2 cups water, ginger, tahini, cayenne, salt, and agar flakes. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, stir, and cook for 5 minutes, making sure tahini is blended in. Blend arrowroot with remaining water. Stir into mixture and simmer 1 more minute. Remove from heat and pour into a 7" x 9" pan or an 8" square pan. Refrigerate for one hour so that mixture can gel. Remove and whip with an electric mixer until creamy. Place into a serving bowl and sprinkle with coconut, if desired. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Total calories per serving: 102 Fat: 2 grams
Carbohydrates: 21 grams Protein: 1 gram
Sodium: 12 milligrams Fiber: 1 gram

Warm Cinnamon-Cardamom Apple Cider

(Makes ½-gallon, or 8 cups)

This is definitely one of those recipes for people who are too busy to make anything else. Another idea is to try simmering a rosemary sprig in apple juice or cider — the two flavors blend well together.

    ½ gallon apple cider

  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 10 cardamom pods

Combine all ingredients in a saucepan. Simmer for 15-20 minutes. Strain and serve.

Total calories per serving: 112 Fat: <1 gram
Carbohydrates: 29 grams Protein: <1 gram
Sodium: 10 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Debra Daniels-Zeller is a frequent contributor to Vegetarian Journal. She lives in Washington State.