For so many years, I’ve been the awkward vegan at the festive holiday table, trying to fit in but branded with a big V on my forehead as I pile brussels sprouts and green beans onto my plate. “Poor girl,” I can just hear them saying, while they draw from their mounds of turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy. I do my best to put on my game face, but everyone knows I am suffering as the outlier with a superabundance of bland vegetables.

This gal loves tradition, but I don’t want to sacrifice my principles. There have to be circumstances where both objectives are met. Which means I want my holiday meals to look like a version of what I grew up with, just with a progressive twist of keeping the menu plant based—no poor bird splayed out on the platter, no cow’s milk in the potatoes and no ham hock (I’m southern) infused into the veggies. And while we’re at it, let’s shoot for colorful, tasty, seasonal and chic.

Sadly, I am challenged in the kitchen, so I usually beg out of hosting a fete at our house, where I could have seen this mission to fruition. I’ve always been careful not to subject my friends to my culinary shortcomings, but I do have a great eye for talent. Now that Kerry Joyce, our architect and interior designer, has completed the finishing touches on our house in Montecito, I am aching to show off the new digs. And as chance would have it, my friend and famed vegan chef Tal Ronnen is in town. He heads up Veg Advantage, a nonprofit company whose mission is to teach restaurant, hotel and school food-service professionals how to prepare delicious vegan fare. He also cooks for some boldfaced names, so the man is in high demand.

Sometimes, if I’m lucky and he’s not working a big event, Tal will come cook for our friends, and we will dine on the finest fare, bar none. Such is the case this fine autumn day!

Since I don’t take lightly the genius of Tal’s cooking, I’ve invited some of my favorite people to join my husband, Tom, and I for an afternoon of Tal’s taste sensations in the spirit of sharing the wealth. At our lunch are Janice Karman and Ross Bagdasarian Jr., producers and co-writers of the Chipmunks movies; international makeup mogul Victoria Jackson and her husband, Bill Guthy, cofounder and co-CEO of Guthy-Renker (producers of just about every infomercial ever made); and Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the U.S., and his girlfriend, Christine Gutleben, director of the Animals and Religion program there, both in from D.C. About half of us are vegan, the other half open-minded and willing.

We begin the afternoon with cranberry-ginger martinis (it is the holiday season, after all!) and a spread of artichoke and oyster- mushroom Rockefeller, sweet-onion beggar’s purses, roasted chestnuts and Old Bay herbed tofu cakes with horseradish cream topped with fresh apples and beets. Janice and Christine extol the virtues of nondairy cream (better skin, lower cholesterol and the pleasure of not supporting an industry that sells off the “nonessential” male calves to become the cruelest meat of all—veal), as Victoria and Bill kick back and take in the view. They have a horse ranch up here, which, if their son Jackson has anything to do with it, might just become an animal sanctuary (a nudge from me forthcoming).

Tom, Wayne and Ross talk about some creative ways to market HSUS, so that more people know the horrors of what happens behind the scenes in certain animal industries. Personally, I find factory farming one of the most egregious businesses around. Sure, raising animals for food isn’t going to disappear anytime soon, but it only makes sense to treat them with a little decency on their way to becoming someone’s meal. (Happily, Californians agree, as Prop. 2 passed by an overwhelming margin.)

My nonvegan husband may not be overwhelmed by the ethical argument, but he has read enough of the books I’ve given him to know animal protein wreaks havoc on our health: much higher rates of cancer, heart disease and diabetes than with a plant-protein diet. And when he heard that animal agriculture does more to create global warming than all the planes, cars and trucks put together, the man said, “Pass the tofu.”

Tal, though, has a more splendid menu in mind: sage-encrusted Gardein cutlet with cranberry cabernet sauce, braised rainbow chard, creamy chive mashed potatoes, wild mushroom stuffing cakes and sweet potato biscuits. I could die right here and already be in heaven. Wayne worries there might be a mixup, because the Gardein brand looks so much like sliced turkey, but Tal assures him Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market sold him the right thing. How the makers get soy, pea and wheat to taste and look like this I have no idea, but I’m a fan. There’s even a heat-and-serve version in the deli.

If you really don’t feel like cooking, grab a Tofurky feast, complete with vegan gravy, in Whole Foods’ frozen aisle. You can also get complete vegan meals from Madeline Bistro in Tarzana or a holiday Wellington from Native Foods in Westwood and Orange County. The fact that the Gardein gives us our 29 grams of protein per serving, with only 2.3 grams of fat, and not a single creature felt a moment of pain, just about knocks me off my feet.

Or maybe it’s the French burgundy we indulge in throughout our meal.

Then Tal brings out an apple Bavarian torte and some holiday nog, and I know it simply couldn’t be a more festive holiday!

SAGE-ENCRUSTED GARDEIN CUTLET WITH CRANBERRY CABERNET SAUCE
Serves 6
Preparation time: 45 minutes

Cranberry Cabernet Sauce
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large shallot, diced
4 sprigs thyme