Vegetarians have long known a Thanksgiving secret the rest of us are reluctant to admit – it’s all about the side dishes.
Think about it. Once you’ve taken the obligatory slice of turkey, a dutiful spoonful of gravy and maybe haggled a bit over the dark meat, what you really want is more stuffing. More mashed anything. More syrupy sweet potatoes. And definitely more pie. Pie of any kind.
“Absence of turkey can be a very positive thing,” says New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, whose upcoming book, “VB6: Eat Vegan Before 6:00,” is dedicated to learning to make do with less meat. “Most people have roughly 360 dinners a year that have ‘absence of turkey.’ We eat it on Thanksgiving because we’re supposed to.”
But if you take the bird off the table, is it still Thanksgiving? You could go with Bittman’s preferred solution – get an inflatable turkey as a mock centerpiece – or follow the advice of chefs who have made vegetable cookery an art form. Approach the holiday as the celebration it is, they say, and turn all your creative juices onto the vegetables and grains.
Offer dishes that are rich in flavor and fat, and, if you really need an anchor for the meal, create another dish as a centerpiece.
“Choose one of the bigger vegetables and make something out of it,” says Amanda Cohen, chef-owner of the New York City restaurant Dirt Candy, and author of the cookbook of the same name. “Take cauliflower and spend a moment. Smoke it, season it, batter and deep fry it. Bigger pieces of vegetable are really going to replicate the idea of a centerpiece.”
Acorn squash or sugar pumpkins stuffed with wild rice or other grains, carrots, celery, onions, nuts, dried cranberries and a tiny dice of hickory smoked tofu also make a flavorful, celebratory main dish, says Diane Morgan, author of two books on Thanksgiving and a new volume on root vegetables called “Roots” (Chronicle Books, 2012). A lasagna of sliced sugar pumpkin layered with ricotta and crumbled fried sage, she says, also offers an impressive make-ahead dish that will have you forgetting there ever was talk of a turkey.
With the centerpiece nailed, proceed as usual. Surround that dish with all the traditional sides – stuffing, mashed potatoes, those gooey sweet potatoes and roasted Brussels sprouts. You want gravy? Make it with a stock of roasted root vegetables, Morgan says, and pour it all over your potatoes. Use as much butter, salt and cream as you normally would on Thanksgiving, knowing that those are the elements that put the “comfort” in “comfort food.”
“Fat is the operative word,” Bittman says. “You can make a really great stuffing with a lot of butter. Creamed onions, creamed spinach. Of the things people think of when they think of Thanksgiving food, only the turkey is really meat.”
Colors and textures also add interest to the meal. Vary these. If you’re making traditional mashed potatoes, Morgan says, maybe cut your sweet potatoes into spears and roast them. Use a number of different techniques – roasting, braising, stir-frying – to cook your green vegetables. Instead of pureeing the squash, cut it in half and roast it for a more dramatic presentation.
“Then it’s a large canoe shape on the plate,” Morgan says. “That makes for more interest than these piles of things on the plate that all appear as side dishes.”
And, of course, pull out all the creative stops, exploring the different textures and properties you can coax from each vegetable. At her restaurant, Cohen often incorporates different components of a vegetable in a single dish. She adds corn and whipped corn to corn grits, makes pasta out of pureed broccoli then tops it with stir-fried broccoli, and tops a carrot risotto with carrot chips. “You get a flavor explosion on your plate with this one vegetable,” Cohen says.
And finally, don’t for a minute think a vegetarian Thanksgiving somehow breaks tradition. When the settlers and the Native Americans met back at the start of all this, it was to celebrate a bountiful harvest, the crops that had been successfully grown.
“It’s overwhelming how many great things are in season now that we can use for a beautiful vegetarian meal,” Morgan says. “That’s what we’re celebrating. It’s that same celebration of the harvest of all these things that have been underground for a while.”
SQUASH BISQUE WITH ROASTED CORN SALSA
Start to finish: 45 minutes
2 tablespoons butter
1 large red onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
4 cups cubed butternut squash
2 carrots, diced
1 quart vegetable stock or broth
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
Salt and ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and garlic and cook until tender, 7 to 8 minutes. Reserve ¼ cup of this mixture. Add the ginger, butternut squash, carrots and bring to a simmer. Cook until the carrots and squash are very tender, 15 to 20 minutes.
While the soup cooks, make the salsa. In a skillet over high, heat the oil. Add the corn kernels and grape tomatoes and sear until browned, about 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the reserved onions. Stir in the vinegar, then season with salt and pepper.
When the soup is ready, transfer it, working in batches, to a blender and puree until smooth. Return the pureed soup to the pan and stir in the cream. Season with salt and pepper. Serve topped with the salsa.
Nutrition information per serving: 220 calories; 140 calories from fat (64 percent of total calories); 16 g fat (9 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 50 mg cholesterol; 18 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 6 g sugar; 3 g protein; 100 mg sodium.
CORNBREAD STUFFING MUSHROOMS
Start to finish: 30 minutes
8 large portobello mushroom caps
Salt and ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small yellow onion, chopped
1 medium leek, green and white parts, sliced
1 medium carrot, grated
1 celery stalk, finely diced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 cups diced cornbread
Vegetable broth, as needed
Heat the oven to 350 F.
Arrange the mushrooms on a rimmed baking sheet, gill sides up. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, then roast for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and leek and sauté until tender, about 7 to 8 minutes. Add the carrot, celery, thyme and rosemary and cook until tender, about another 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and gently fold in the cornbread.
When the mushrooms are done, pour any liquid that has collected on the rimmed baking sheet into the cornbread mixture. If the mixture is dry, sprinkle in a bit of vegetable broth. Gently mix. Spoon the mixture into the mushroom caps and return to the oven. Bake for 20 minutes, or until lightly browned on top.
Nutrition information per serving: 180 calories; 50 calories from fat (28 percent of total calories); 6 g fat (2.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 25 mg cholesterol; 27 g carbohydrate; 3 g fiber; 3 g sugar; 5 g protein; 430 mg sodium.
LEMON PECAN MOUSSE CAKE
Start to finish: 3 hours (1 hour active)
For the pecan sponge cake:
5 ounces (1¼ cups) pecans, toasted and cooled, plus a few more for garnish
½ cup sifted cake flour
¾ cup sugar, divided
4 eggs, separated
Pinch of salt
For the lemon mousse:
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup lemon juice
Zest of 2 lemons
2½ cups heavy cream
Heat the oven to 350 F. Lightly coat a 9-inch springform pan with baking spray.
In a food processor, combine the pecans, cake flour and ¼ cup of the sugar. Process until finely ground. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.
In a medium bowl, use an electric mixer to beat together the egg yolks and another ¼ cup sugar until thick and pale. Set aside.
In another very clean bowl with a clean whisk, beat together the egg whites, salt and the remaining ¼ cup sugar until thick and glossy stiff peaks form.
Gently fold the egg yolks and half of the egg whites into the pecan flour. Fold the remaining egg whites in to the mixture until thoroughly but gently combined. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean. Set aside, in the pan, to cool completely.
While the cake is baking, begin the mousse. In a medium saucepan, whisk together the cornstarch and sugar, then add the eggs and whisk until smooth. Add the lemon juice and zest, then set over medium heat. Whisking constantly, bring the mixture to a boil; cook until it thickens. If there are any lumps, strain the mixture. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside to cool.
Once the cake and mousse base are both cool, in a large bowl use an electric mixer to whip the heavy cream to medium peaks. Fold half the cream into the mousse base. When thoroughly combined, fold in the remaining whipped cream. Spoon or pipe the mixture onto the cake. Garnish with toasted pecans and refrigerate at least 2 hours.
When ready to serve, run a paring knife around the edge of the pan and loosen the sides. Remove the sides of the springform pan and serve.
Nutrition information per serving: 390 calories; 270 calories from fat (69 percent of total calories); 30 g fat (13 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 190 mg cholesterol; 27 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 19 g sugar; 7 g protein; 80 mg sodium.
ROASTED VEGETABLE QUICHE
Start to finish: 1 hour 30 minutes (15 minutes active)
1 red bell pepper, cored and diced
1 small red onion, diced
1 small sweet potato, peeled and diced
1 medium zucchini, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
1 prepared raw 9-inch pie crust
¾ cup shredded gruyere cheese
1 cup half-and-half
Heat the oven to 400 F.
In a large bowl, toss together the red pepper, red onion, sweet potato and zucchini. Add the olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper, then stir to coat. Spread the mixture on a rimmed baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and beginning to brown. Remove the vegetables from the oven.
Reduce the heat to 350 F.
If it isn’t already, fit the pie crust into a pie pan, crimping the edges as needed. Place the pie shell on a baking sheet and add the roasted vegetables. Top with the cheese.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and the half-and-half. Pour over the cheese and vegetables. Bake for 45 minutes, or until slightly puffed and set in the middle. Allow to cool slightly before serving.
Nutrition information per serving: 290 calories; 170 calories from fat (59 percent of total calories); 19 g fat (8 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 160 mg cholesterol; 20 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 4 g sugar; 10 g protein; 330 mg sodium.
NO-KNEAD FLAX ROLLS
Start to finish: 2½ hours (30 minutes active)
2/3 cup warm water
2 tablespoons molasses
½ cup ground flax seeds, plus extra for sprinkling
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup (½ stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
2½ cups all-purpose flour
2½ teaspoons instant yeast
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine all ingredients. Mix on low until combined, then increase speed to high and mix for another 2 minutes.
Remove the paddle, then cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Allow to rest for 1 hour, or until the dough is puffy. Meanwhile, coat a baking sheet with cooking spray.
Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into 12 pieces, rolling each into a ball. Arrange on the prepared baking sheet. Cover and allow to rise in a warm place until puffy, about 1 hour.
Toward the end of rising, heat the oven to 350 F.
Moisten the tops of the rolls lightly with water, then sprinkle with ground flax seeds. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden and cooked through.
Nutrition information per serving: 170 calories; 60 calories from fat (35 percent of total calories); 6 g fat (2.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 25 mg cholesterol; 24 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 2 g sugar; 5 g protein; 170 mg sodium.
BELL PEPPER AND APPLE SLAW
Start to finish: 15 minutes
1 medium red bell pepper, cored and julienned
1 medium yellow bell pepper, cored and julienned
2 medium carrots, grated
2 celery stalks, thinly sliced
1 Granny Smith apple, cored and julienned
Seeds of 1 pomegranate
Zest and juice of 1 large orange
2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Pinch of red pepper flakes
In a large bowl, combine both bell peppers, the carrots, celery, apple and pomegranate seeds. In a small bowl, whisk together the orange zest and juice, vinegar, salt, olive oil, mustard and red pepper flakes. Pour over the slaw mixture and toss to thoroughly coat.
Nutrition information per serving: 90 calories; 35 calories from fat (39 percent of total calories); 3.5 g fat (0.5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 14 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 10 g sugar; 1 g protein; 170 mg sodium.