Vegan at the holidays

Welcome everyone to your table with plant-based recipes for classic Norwegian dishes this yuletide season

Christy Olsen Field
Taste of Norway Editor

For many Norwegian Americans, the holiday season is the one time of the year to bring out the cherished family recipes. But for people with food allergies or restrictions, it can be lonely if you can’t join in the feast.

How does one make Norwegian favorites, like meatballs and pickled herring and rice pudding, so they can be inclusive of all food needs for the guests at the table?

As it turns out, it’s actually pretty easy, thanks to some vegan substitutions found at your local grocery store and some well-tested recipes.

To learn more, I turned to two dynamic women in the Norwegian-American community who are passionate about their journeys with plant-based living and sharing their favorite Norwegian recipes.

Donna Bisogno

Photo courtesy of Donna Bisogno
Donna Bisogno of Fife, Wash., credits her plant-based lifestyle for helping her be in the very best shape of her life in her 50s.

I met Donna Bisogno of Fife, Wash., at a Daughters of Norway Embla Lodge event this past summer.

Bisogno grew up very close to her grandparents, who were first-generation Norwegian immigrants in Brooklyn, N.Y. She is a mother of five, an endurance athlete, a food enthusiast, and a proud Norwegian American.

“I became a vegetarian in 2010, because I was interested in the idea for a long time. I’ve always been drawn to vegetables. I first gave up red meat, because I realized it had always been hard for me to separate myself from the animal. I started to notice less inflammation in my body and found it easier to add mileage and distance to my running routine,” she said.

She lost nearly 100 pounds through Weight Watchers, and reached her goal weight in 2011. The Weight Watchers receptionist asked her, “So when are you going to run your first event?”

Bisogno ran her first 5k in 2011, and then ran her first marathon in 2012.

After the marathon, she got into a car accident. She decided to go all in with becoming vegan during her recovery from the accident. She noticed changes immediately.

“The inflammation in my body went so far down. I was able to run almost daily and basically had to force myself to take a day off from it. My husband wanted to join me as a vegan, which made it easier to eat as a family. Emotionally, I felt stronger and more in tune with who I was as a person, and I was living a more compassionate life. It was really fantastic,” said Bisogno.

Bisogno summits mountains, lifts weights, hikes, runs, rock climbs, and is an endurance cyclist. By profession, she is a wellness coach with WW (formerly Weight Watchers) and a licensed massage therapist.

“I am way fitter than I ever thought possible,” said Bisogno. “We’re taught when we get older, we lose our health. That’s not necessarily true.”

It hasn’t always been easy to maintain a plant-based lifestyle, even with all the benefits, so Bisogno gives herself some flexibility.

“I was so strict on being vegan that I found I was getting side-tracked from my life. My friends would invite me to go out for a meal, and it wasn’t easy to find a vegan dish on the menu. I had to make two different dinners for my family because my kids weren’t vegan. I decided to loosen up a bit so I could practice more kindness and compassion to myself. I still eat mostly plant-based, but I also give myself a little grace.”

That said, Bisogno finds it easier than ever to be plant-based with the ready availability of so many vegan substitutes available at regular grocery stores these days.

Bisogno also loves to cook and bake, and has successfully converted many of her favorite Norwegian recipes to plant-based.

“In my experience, people want a certain flavor. It’s not even a certain type of food, but the flavor. And once you know basic vegan food substitution, you can make pretty much everything. I made a rice pudding with almond milk and a red sauce, and it totally works,” she said.

Sunny Gandara

Photo courtesy of Sunny Gandara
Sunny Gandara, a chef and vegan lifestyle consultant in Beacon, N.Y., is the author of the vegan cookbook Arctic Grub.

Sunny Gandara is a vegan chef, consultant, and lifestyle coach based in Beacon, N.Y. She is the voice of Arctic Grub, a food blog featuring Norwegian food recipes. Gandara has shared her plant-based recipes for classic Norwegian dishes to The Norwegian American over the years, and in her e-book Arctic Grub.

Gandara grew up in Norway, in a small town outside of Ålesund. Her mother was an excellent cook, but at that time, Norwegian food was simpler. Gandara fell in love with food in a different way when she lived in Rome for a year as an au pair, where she learned the art of the long, lingering meal savored by all in attendance.

She moved to the United States in 1992 to attend college in San Francisco. It was only supposed to be for one year, but she ended up in the music industry, moved to New York, and she’s been in the United States ever since.

After 10 years in the music industry, she decided to change career course and enroll in culinary school. She worked for Aquavit, the famed Scandinavian restaurant in New York City, where she met her husband (also a chef).

Gandara then founded her own catering company called Fork and Glass, and started Arctic Grub, her Norwegian food blog in English, so she could stay connected to her Norwegian heritage.

When she became vegan in 2013, she put a lot of thought and intention into her decision to transition to plant-based eating.

“I was honestly nervous about losing my readers. I wrote a very heartfelt post to explain my decision to become vegan. I was overwhelmed by the positive response by my readers,” she said.

I asked Gandara about the changes she noticed after going vegan, and she immediately replied:

“I have so much more energy these days. I don’t get that afternoon slump anymore. After working out, my recovery time is much shorter. Of course it’s still possible to eat unhealthy as a vegan, as there is a vegan substitute for almost every junk food out there, but when you eat whole foods, you really do feel healthier.”

As the mom of two little kids and a mandatory 1:30 p.m. coffee habit, I found myself wanting that kind of energy.

But could I do life without blue cheese? Or my beloved sour cream waffles?

“It’s really more in our heads that it’s too hard to convert a dish to vegan. Baked goods are so easy to do,” said Gandara. “It’s about finding something comparable in texture, and then the flavors can be mimicked.”

Take her Norwegian Beet and “Herring” Salad, which uses eggplant instead of fish.

“Eggplant, when sliced thin and marinated mimics a similar texture to herring, as well as color —and is also neutral enough in flavor to soak in any flavor you may want to add to it,” writes Gandara.

These days, Gandara is a vegan lifestyle coach and consultant.

“I work with one-on-one clients who are serious about making the change to veganism. I give them strategies, recipes, and advice on how they can overcome obstacles. The other side of my work is as a vegan restaurant and wine consultant. I help design menus for vegan options, and vegan wine lists,” said Gandara.

With a little creativity and a few substitutions, classic Norwegian dishes can be converted so everyone can enjoy these traditional favorites at the holidays.

To learn more about Sunny Gandara’s services and access her recipes (and buy her e-book Arctic Grub), visit

Photo: Sunny Gandara /
For this delightful Beet and “Herring” Salad, Sunny Gandara swaps in thinly sliced eggplant instead of fish.

Norwegian Beet and “Herring” Salad

9 oz. (250 grams) beets, roasted, and peeled
9 oz. (250 grams) eggplant
½ cup (1 dl.) fresh orange juice
¼ cup (½ dl.) fresh lemon juice
4 tbsps. rice vinegar
1 tbsp. whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 small red onion
juice from ½ lime
1 medium green apple (like Granny Smith)
3-4 tbsps. chopped cornichons or pickles
½ cup (1 dl.) unsweetened non-dairy yogurt
¼ cup (½ dl.) vegan cream
1-2 tbsps. Dijon mustard
juice from ½ lime
sea or kosher salt, pepper, sugar to taste
2 tbsps. capers
A few sprigs of fresh thyme

Slice the onion into thin rings, place in a small bowl with the juice from ½ of your lime, season with kosher or sea salt, stir and let marinate for about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, slice your eggplant into ¼ inch thick (½ cm) slices, then into thin strips.  In a medium shallow pot, add the fresh orange juice, lemon juice, rice vinegar, whole cloves and cinnamon sticks and bring to a boil. Turn down to a simmer and add the eggplant and let simmer for about 4 minutes. Turn off the heat and let cool in the liquid.

Peel the roasted beets (I usually bake the beets for 1 hour at 400°F and I wrap them in foil with a little olive oil and kosher salt and maybe a sprig or two of thyme) and dice small. Dice the apple and the cornichons/pickles into the same size and add all three items into a medium or large bowl. Fold in the reserved eggplant (remove the cinnamon stick and cloves).

In a separate bowl whisk together the non-dairy yogurt, non-dairy cream (the easiest way to make your own cream is to add equal parts raw cashews and water into a high-speed blender and puree until creamy), Dijon mustard, juice from ½ a lemon, salt, pepper and a little sugar to taste.

Add the cream mixture to the beet-apple-eggplant, and carefully mix together. Garnish with pickled red onions, capers and fresh thyme. Store in an airtight glass container in the fridge. Keeps for about 2 weeks.

Photo: Sara Johannessen / MatPrat
In this vegan riskrem, creamy cashew milk and coconut cream, available at your regular grocery store, makes for an easy swap for dairy products.

Riskrem (Creamy Rice Pudding)

Adapted from

½ cup short-grain white rice, such as arborio
pinch of salt
1 cup water
4 cups cashew milk or coconut milk
2 tsp. vegan sugar
1 tsp. vanilla extract or vanilla sugar
1 ½ cups coconut cream (you can often find it in shelf-stable cans next to the coconut milk)
¼ cup toasted almonds, chopped (optional)

In a medium saucepan, combine rice, salt, and water, and bring to a boil. Whisk in the milk, and let simmer for an hour until totally soft and creamy. Stir in the sugar to taste. Fold in the coconut cream with a spatula. Garnish with red berry sauce (recipe right) and toasted almonds if desired. Don’t forget to hide an almond in one of the bowls!

Bærsaus (Red berry sauce)

Adapted from

½ cup water
½ cup vegan sugar
1 pound frozen red berries of your choice (raspberries, strawberries, etc), thawed

In a small saucepan, whisk together water and sugar and bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes and let cool. In a blender, combine berries and sugar mixture and blend until smooth. Serve over creamy rice pudding.

Norwegian “Neatballs”

By Donna Bisogno

Serves 2-3

¾ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 can lentils or black beans, drained
1 onion, finely diced
1-2 cloves of fresh garlic, minced or pressed
1 carrot, chopped fine
1 stalk celery, chopped fine
1 cup mushrooms, chopped
1 cup brown rice, cooked
3 tbsps. flour or substitute gluten-free flour
2 tbsps. Braggs liquid aminos or substitute soy sauce
¼ tsp. ground nutmeg
1 tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. allspice
½ tsp. sweet paprika
2 tbsps. no-sugar-added ketchup
olive oil, for drizzling
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Mix all ingredients in a large bowl until thoroughly combined. Using a cookie scoop, portion out scoops on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Drizzle with olive oil, and bake for 30-40 mins, rotating pan halfway through. Serve with vegan mushroom gravy.

Rømmegrøt (Vegan Sour Cream Porridge)

By Sunny Gandara

Serves 2-3

1 cup unsalted butter (two sticks), at room temperature
2 tbsps. non-dairy butter
12 oz. (340 g) container non-dairy sour cream (I used Wayfair)

tbsp. fresh lemon juice
1 ¾ cups (4 dl.) non-dairy milk
1⁄3 cup (0.75 dl.) all-purpose flour, sifted
1⁄3 cup (0.75 dl.) semolina flour
½ tsp salt
2 tbsps. sugar


non-dairy butter

Melt the butter in a medium, heavy bottomed saucepan. Add the sour cream and stir over medium heat. Sift in both flours, and then slowly add in the milk to thicken the porridge, constantly whisking to avoid lumps. This should take about 5-10 minutes. Add the salt and sugar, whisk again and serve right away, sprinkled with sugar, cinnamon and a dollop of butter in the middle.

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