Eating meatless on Thanksgiving

Operation turkey pardon

November 19, 2010

Over the years, I’ve noticed that vegetarians typically get shortchanged at the Thanksgiving table. In lieu of the bird, the host accommodates meatless guests with a tower of dinner rolls, a mountain of mashed potatoes, and a bowl of bread stuffing studded with sausage (oops!). Maybe there’s a pan of macaroni and cheese, or perhaps an unfortunate green-bean casserole swimming in a pool of cream of mushroom soup.

This is what I’ve come to know as the “ghetto of sides,” a collection of carb-heavy, time-honored classic side dishes with which vegetarians must make do at the holiday table. I speak not as a frustrated vegetarian but as a veg-friendly turkey-lover who maintains that Thanksgiving minus the turkey does not a vegetarian feast make.

Why must our meatless friends and family get short shrift?

Here’s what I propose: Scrap the family-style, plate-passing free-for-all, and instead eat as if you were in a restaurant, with several courses. Turn Turkey Day into Harvest Day and celebrate the bounty of fall produce. Leave those rolls in a bag right where they are.

Kale Chips

Snacks and starters

Forgo the cheese-and-baguette spread for a batch of homemade spiced nuts, which can be made in advance.

Instead of chips out of a bag, what about chips out of your oven — made from kale? The recipe comes from my new book, The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook. They’re quite a conversation starter, as no one can believe they’re chomping gleefully on kale.


Simple and comforting though it may be, a soup starter is also ceremonious and feels downright fancy. Break out of the bowl routine and serve it in espresso tasses or vintage tea cups.

In keeping with the autumnal theme, my preference is a purée of something seasonal, such as sweet potatoes, winter squash, celery root, or broccoli. Any of these will add a beautiful splash of color (and antioxidants!).

A veggie purée can be made in advance and reheated when ready to serve. My favorite seasonal garnish of the moment: roasted pumpkin seeds. (Toss 2 cups hulled seeds with 2 teaspoons oil and salt to your liking; roast for 15 minutes in a 350-degree oven.)

The main event

The main course should dazzle, much like a turkey just out of the roasting pan.

For a small crew, a risotto — made with butternut squash, mushrooms, or even chard and lemon — is dynamite. While you coax the rice into submission, guests can make the salad, clear dishes, and pour wine.

(Note: I recommend having plenty of veg stock on hand. If you’re not up for making your own, Rapunzel is my store brand of choice, the no-salt variety getting extra points.)

For a larger group, I vote for a butternut squash-walnut lasagna, adapted from vegetarian-cooking doyenne (and Culinate contributor) Deborah Madison. It’s satisfying, it’s seasonal, and the recipe is consistently reliable. In the remote chance there are leftovers, this lasagna keeps well for a few days in the fridge.

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian ad

Another main option

Maybe you’re not into the Italian-themed Thanksgiving. Plan B: an edible container. In keeping with the theme of seasonal abundance, winter squash is the most obvious option, with so many varieties up for grabs, from the petite acorn to the jack-o-lantern-style sugar pumpkin.

The darling of this season’s stuffed-squash recipes comes from celebrated author Dorie Greenspan, who’s wowing home cooks with her Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good from her newly released book, Around My French Table.

That version is embellished with bacon, but the original (or so it would seem) is not: two years ago on her blog, Greenspan dubbed it, aptly, "Pumpkin Packed with Bread and Cheese: A Recipe in Progress." In this case, you’d cut into the whole pumpkin and divvy it up among the guests.

On my watch, I’d opt for smaller varieties, so that each guest would have his own centerpiece. I like how food writer Nicole Spiradakis treats acorn-squash halves, stuffed with wild rice and dried cranberries, which are sliced into smaller rounds yet big enough to feel substantial. You could mix and match with grains (consider barley, quinoa, or red rice), fruit (dried cherries — yes!), and even a small amount of chopped nuts.

Delicata squash is a tasty edible container.

The oblong-shaped delicata squash is a terrific (and dare I say tastier) alternative, with plenty of room for a stuffing when sliced in half lengthwise. Sunset magazine uses sage-scented nuts as a squash filling, although if you try that one, you may want to precook the squash for 20 minutes before adding the filling; brush the skin side with oil to keep it lubricated (and a brush on the cut-flesh side doesn’t hurt either). In fact, I highly recommend cooking squash and stuffing separately so that squash cooks thoroughly. Fill squash with stuffing, then warm together just before serving.

Other festive containers include sweet potatoes (scoop out the roasted flesh, then season with chives, pecans, and a chopped chipotle chile, along with a drizzle of honey) and red onions. I made roasted stuffed onions for a meatless crew several years ago, and we all agreed they were a delightful surprise. For my guests, I omitted the bacon; these days, I’d probably sprinkle some smoked salt on top just before serving.

Finally, another option is a dish I haven’t tried, but am looking forward to doing so: Ivy Manning’s Garnet Yam Farls with Roasted Root Vegetable Gravy. According to Manning, a farl is a sort of Irish breakfast cake, which she serves at dinnertime.

Salad time

Now it’s time to clear the plates for salad. No need to make it big; keep it simple. This course is for digesting, reflecting, and getting a serving of greens. Arugula is a personal fave, but frisée, escarole, mizuna, and tatsoi are all terrific harvest greens that need just a little dressing up.

Slice up a few ripe pears or pull apart a few clementines to add a whisper of wintry fruit. In-season hazelnuts or English walnuts add fat and crunch. Olive oil, salt, and a squeeze of lemon (or other citrus) is all you need.

Razzle-dazzle option: Crack open a pomegranate, extract the jewel-like seeds, and adorn your greens with these beauties.

Cran what?

Wait, where are the cranberries?! Homemade sauce is the perfect pairing for a cheese course. Yes, I know I urged you to let go of the fromage at snack hour, but here, as the meal winds down, it could really work. A few apples and a farmstead American cheddar would be downright patriotic. Or, for folks who prefer goat or sheep’s milk cheese, consider a tangy chevre.

Kim O’Donnel is the author of The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook. She writes a biweekly column for USA Today and hosts Table Talk on Culinate every Thursday.

There are 6 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by anonymous on Nov 19, 2010 at 12:43 PM PST

Wait a minute Kim, the butternut squash has pancetta in it. Isn’t that an Italian bacon? Off limits to vegetarians?

2. by Kim on Nov 19, 2010 at 1:17 PM PST

Hi anonymous. You’re right, but this was our fault, not Kim’s. The butternut squash risotto link we provided — Ina Garten's recipe — does include pancetta. Although we’ve had good success with the recipe without the addition of meat, we’ll remove the link within the story.

3. by Ronnie Fein on Nov 23, 2010 at 3:53 AM PST

LOVE tha kale chips. Always looking for a new dish using kale, so this one’s it for TG. Thanks!

4. by Angela Pak on Nov 24, 2010 at 12:54 PM PST

Can i come to your house for Thanksgiving?

5. by Kim O'Donnel on Nov 24, 2010 at 1:16 PM PST

Yes, dinner’s at 6!

6. by debra daniels-zeller on Nov 29, 2010 at 10:21 AM PST

I loved all these ideas. Your post certainly made me hungry, I can’t wait to get a copy of your book and start cooking from it. If I’m attending a dinner I usually offer to bring one or two dishes. I always include printed recipes for the host. People love new recipe ideas for their other vegetarian friends.

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