As a food lover, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.
There's no pressure to buy greeting cards, no costumes, no weird hidden agendas or twists on the "real" meaning; it's just a holiday where we get together with the ones we love to feast and give thanks. That's it.
Of course, it wasn't always that simple. For ten years I was a vegetarian, and Thanksgiving became a bone of contention among my well-meaning but traditional meat-and-potatoes family ("What do you mean you don't eat meat, dear? You always liked my turkey.").
For five of those meatless years, I was a budding cook that still mostly lived on boxed mac & cheese, tofu hot dogs and bean burritos. I brought meatless "chik" patties to the holiday dinners to eat with my homemade cranberry sauce. But even in my hardcore days, I found the idea of Tofurkey laughable (not to mention expensive), and eventually had to learn to cook real food. Here are a few of my successes, sure to please any vegetarian and probably all of your meat-eating friends, too.
Every year I make stuffed acorn squash that knocks everyone's socks off. It's super-easy, too: just halve an acorn squash, scoop out the seeds (you can save these and toast them if you like), then fill the holes with chopped apples, a few spoonfuls of chopped walnuts or pecans, and a pat of butter. Cover with foil and roast it for about 30 minutes at 375 or until the squash is tender, then sprinkle gorgonzola cheese on top and put it under the broiler to brown for a minute. If you want to serve these as a main course, add some cooked bulgur or quinoa to the apple mixture. To serve them as a side, just slice the roasted squash crosswise into little half-moons and arrange artfully on a platter.
Here's a few more squash recipes your guests might enjoy:
Acorn Squash with Butter Pecan Sauce
Pilaf-Stuffed Acorn Squash
Roasted Butternut Squash
Parmesan-Butternut Squash Gratin
Bread Pudding: The New Stuffing
Savory bread pudding is a wonderful alternative to stuffing, and can be a satisfying main course as well. I use brioche or challah, but you can use a more substantial, whole grain bread if you prefer. Just toss cubed, stale bread with sautéed shallots, leeks, celery, chopped roasted chestnuts (buy these pre-roasted and shelled to save time) and your favorite mushrooms—I use wild chanterelles, if I've been out picking. Pour on a custard of cream, beaten eggs, melted butter, salt and pepper, fresh thyme and—if you're feeling generous—a good dribble of truffle oil. Hey, I never said vegetarian food was light. If you're not eating bread, use cubed butternut squash instead, and add a little sage. Then bake until the custard is set (an hour at 350).
Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie
You can always go non-traditional and have a vegetarian shepherd's pie. Or should I call it a gardener's pie? Sauté carrots, celery, onions, mushrooms, peas, parsnips and leeks, season with salt, pepper and fresh herbs and then add a bit of sherry and rich mushroom stock. Mix in a spoonful of butter and flour (mix together with a fork first) and simmer until it thickens to gravy. Pour into a casserole, top with creamy mashed potatoes or celeriac (maybe a bit of cheese) and bake until browned and bubbly.
Oh, and don't forget my guilty pleasure favorite, the classic green bean casserole — it's completely vegetarian if you use a veggie cream of mushroom soup (or make Bechamel sauce from scratch). Be sure to use fresh green beans, and top with panko (or the familiar French fried onions) for crunch. If you want to impress your guests, do what I do: call it haricots verts au gratin.
Have a go-to Thanksgiving vegetarian dish that saves the day? Please share!