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Nov. 16 2009 - 4:23 am | 12 views | 1 recommendation | 5 comments

Ten Ways to Cook Up a Meatless Thanksgiving

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Here’s the thing about me and Thanksgiving: I like the bird.

I like making the brine. I like the way the crackling skin perfumes the house. I like to chomp into a drumstick, with a sprinkling of salt, thank you very much. I like to carve and I can’t get enough of the sandwiches for the seven days that follow.

Shucks, I even like the Norman Rockwell fantasy of Grandma and Gramps holding court in the dining room.

But even this bone-sucking omnivore recognizes that Thanksgiving, the ultimate sit-down cornucopia and celebration of the autumn harvest, is equally glorious and delicious without a morsel of meat.

In the nine years that I’ve been dishing out meatless advice at this time of year, I’ve noticed that with each passing year, there’s a greater chance that at least one of your guests doesn’t share your fancy for fowl or sausage stuffing, that “mixed company” is more the rule than the exception at holiday gatherings.

To that end, I’ve put together a soup-to-nuts primer that won’t leave you tugging on a wishbone. Cook them all, or pick and choose what makes sense for your table, but I urge you to leave the Tofurky and its faux brethren behind. The meatless choices are so satisfying there’s no need to serve up a gluey imposter.

1. Snacks & Apps: Everybody likes a little pre-feast nosh, whether catching the fourth quarter of the game or sipping on the first glass of vino. I’ve got two meat (and dairy) free tricks up my sleeve:  A sweet potato “hummus” and a fig-olive tapenade, both of which can made in advance.

2. Soup: If you’re already doing sweet potato at the snack stage, think winter squash for the soup course. It couldn’t be easier: Peel, seed and dice a butternut squash. Boil and puree and season. Mix ‘n’ match with flavorings and seasonings, including pear, apple, fennel, honey, herbs and chipotle chiles.

3. Mashed….
Consider two twists on this perennial favorite — buttermilk and parsnips. The cultured milk lends a tangy richness with less fat and the parsnips offer an extra layer of flavor and all kinds of potassium.

Estimate 1-2 medium potatoes per person.  For every 2 potatoes, add 1 parsnip.

Estimate up to 1 cup buttermilk, depending on how creamy you like your mash

Consider the addition of 1 or 2 cloves of garlic and some chopped fresh rosemary.

Salt and pepper and hand masher, please.

4. … And gravy
So what if you don’t have turkey drippings. You can make a luscious gravy with a few onions: Slowly cook in butter over low heat (this is called caramelizing) until they get sweet and jammy.  In a separate saucepan, make a roux (equal parts butter and flour – for every cup of gravy, you need 2 tablespoons each) and cook until blonde; to that, add vegetable stock (Estimate ½ cup stock per person).  Stir to combine, then add onions and wine, if you like, plus herbs and salt.

5. Stuffing is a stale bread makeover.  Remember that when you leave out the sausage and oysters and anticipate a plate of bland.  The key is bread-liquid ratio (2 to 1 in most cases) and doing the math before mixing.  Some of my best stuffing over the years contains a simple mix of onion, garlic, chile, sage, celery and lemon zest.  More flavor combinations and tips can be found here.

6. Someone recently asked me what’s my must-have item on the Thanksgiving table: With or without turkey (which I can definitely live without), my heart belongs to homemade cranberry sauce, which I can eat all by its lonesome if I’m not mindful.

7. Many who do without the bird often complain that a meatless Thanksgiving can feel like a buffet of sides and goshdarnit, we meatless folk deserve a special entrée, too.  A few weeks ago, I shared details for a scrumptious butternut squash lasagna, but if that  fails to inspire, consider these roasted stuffed onions from Gourmet back in 2002. Several years ago, I cooked these up for a few veggie guests on Thanksgiving, minus the bacon, and they were a delightful surprise. The onions held up and the stuffing was an intriguing mix of spinach, bread cubes and cashews. Yowza.

8. Get your greens. It may sound crazy to say “Eat your vegetables” in this company, but you’d be surprised at all the carbotarians out there.

Exhibit A: Brussels sprouts, halved and seared, stovetop, in butter and olive oil, deglazed with balsamic vinegar and then finished in a hot oven. (Can be done in advance, covered with foil and reheated just before serving.) OR….make a cutie pie stove-top slaw with thinly sliced Brussels, 1 or 2 tart apples, a good squeeze of lemon and a handful of pecans.  Addictive.

9. Vegetables, Take 2:  Consider a bunch of tatsoi, a quick-cooking relative of the Brussels in the Brassica family. This dish is so quick you can actually whip it up just before sitting down. You’ll make a hot mustardy vinaigrette, then add the tatsoi leaves and let them wilt, which takes about 3 minutes.  One of my all-time fall-ish faves.

10. About those nuts mentioned in the intro? Make these and make lots of friends.

P.S. Some great ideas were hatched last week during my Meatless Thanksgiving chat at Culinate. And if you’ve got something to add to this line up or have a question keeping you up at night, fire away.


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  1. collapse expand

    This might be an interesting dish – Hungarian cabbage strudel – http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/28/dining/281vrex.html?ref=dining

    I’ve had Andre’s strudel and it’s delicious, but never tried the cabbage.

  2. collapse expand

    In some sense, I think of the turkey as the canvas and everything else as the paint. Here’s a couple of thoughts.

    Mashed sweet potatoes with chipotle. Sweet and smoky. A great side if you’ve deep fried the bird.

    Saag paneer. An offbeat choice, but it’s a rich, spicy alternative to creamed spinach.

    A flashback to one of my favorite Mighty Appetite suggestions. Panisse. Rich and flavorful. Chick pea flour with chicken stock. Deep fried. You can all go into your food comas now.


  3. collapse expand

    Hi Kim! Do you think the butternut squash lasagna would freeze well? If so, how would you recommend reheating? Thanks!

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    About Me

    You might know me from The Washington Post, where for a dozen years I dished up cooking content, both as Web chat hostess ("What's Cooking") and daily blog minx ("A Mighty Appetite").

    To the table, I offer a stew of journalism (total = 16 years) and cooking smarts (a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education), served with a side of life-long curiosity.

    Home is Seattle for now, but until last year was parked on the east coast, born and raised outside of Philadelphia, where H20 is pronounced "wooder."

    In addition to the Post, I have written for Real Simple, Smithsonian.com and Culinate, where I host "Table Talk," a weekly chat every Thursday (1 pm ET/ 10a PT).

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