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A Vegetarian Thanksgiving

You may not even miss the turkey.

On Thanksgiving, expressing gratitude through a whole baked pumpkin stuffed with chewy barley and hearty root vegetables can be the beginning of a stellar holiday season.

When fall swoops in and the days grow shorter, a plate of sweet, pureed butternut squash with caramelized shallots can help ease the transition. A whole roasted cauliflower, too, can make one almost immune to the chill outside.

Nicole Spiridakis lives in San Francisco and writes about food, travel and her native state on her cooking blog, cucinanicolina.com. When she's not in her (tiny) kitchen working on a new dish, she writes a column about apartment living for the San Francisco Chronicle's Home and Garden section.

I've found that even on the years we did serve turkey on Thanksgiving, the vegetarian dishes were exclaimed over and gobbled up with similar appreciation.

Even if you don't live meatlessly yourself, you'll probably have at least one vegetarian or vegan seated at the table. It's grand to offer your meat-free guests — or yourself — something a bit more substantial than a cobbled-together plate of all the traditional vegetable side dishes. Doing so needn't be intimidating or even time-consuming.

The typical holiday table groans with an abundance of side dishes, some more enticing than others (think a light saute of seasonal vegetables or roasted cauliflower rather than a cream-laden casserole). It's true that if you're skipping the turkey, there are plenty of other things to eat, but filling up on mashed potatoes and corn bread can leave one feeling a bit hollow.

This time of year is when we give thanks for the harvest and celebrate the season's bounty — and what better way to do so than by making good use of seasonal produce?

Throughout the years, my Thanksgiving table has boasted a baked tofu marinated in a sweet-and-sour sauce that caused even the turkey lovers to sigh in happiness. I've split a butternut squash in half and roasted it in a little olive oil until it turned melty and sweet. I topped it with a sort of black bean and onion stew that was certainly nontraditional but no less delicious. I've made good use of sweet potatoes, leaving out the extra sugar and mashing them into savory splendor.

I do love my vegetables — not a shred of meat has passed my lips in over a decade. I don't miss it, although the scent of that slow-roasting turkey can make me nostalgic.

When I lived on the East Coast, I played hostess for many years to a group of friends — mostly ex-pats from California — who couldn't make it home to their families for Thanksgiving. In the beginning, I kept the affair simple and simply sans turkey.

The first year I had my own apartment, my brother came down from Philadelphia to spend the holiday weekend with me. Washington, D.C., was very cold that November, and we went for a late-morning walk through Rock Creek Park. We discussed the menu we'd cook later that day — both of us were vegetarians at the time, though he has since gone back to meat — and kicked at the ice that had frozen the trail.

We dismissed a "tofurkey" — a faux-meat, soy-based version of a turkey — as being a little too strange. We considered making lasagna in a nod to the dish my aunt had made me when we'd spent Thanksgivings together, but it seemed like too much work. We thought about forgoing a main dish altogether and filling up on mashed potatoes — but no, I said. Surely we were more ambitious than that.

I came home from that chilly walk and made what would be the first of many Thanksgiving mushroom pies. I dug out a battered copy of the Moosewood Cookbook for inspiration. I sauteed mushrooms, stirred in cream and liberally added cheese. When we finished dinner that night, we could hardly eat dessert.

As the years passed and I kept cooking, adding guests and expanding my range, I lightened things up. I went to farmers markets and discovered a real appreciation for baked squash. I left out the cheese and incorporated more Brussels sprouts. I invested in wild rice and skipped anything heavy or pre-packaged.

I made vegetables the real stars.

Now when I cook my vegetarian Thanksgiving offerings, I try to prepare dishes that are light yet satisfying, and which incorporate as many vegetables as possible. Baked or roasted squash often figures prominently, especially because at this time of year the market is overflowing with colorful and diverse offerings.

I've included recipes here that are appropriate for the vegetarian or vegan at your Thanksgiving table, and which highlight fall's seasonal staples. I've also gone for a healthful approach — these dishes are packed with whole grains and call for olive oil rather than butter.

Don't be surprised if you catch your turkey-eating guests sneaking more than a few tastes.

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