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.
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"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 puréeing 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."