Thanksgiving sans turkey isn't necessarily lacking


In this image taken on Oct. 15, 2012, a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner of red bell pepper and apple slaw, no knead flax rolls, roasted vegetable quiche, lemon pecan mousse cake, corn bread stuffing mushrooms and squash bisque with pan roasted corn salsa is shown served on a table in Concord, N.H.

In this image taken on Oct. 15, 2012, a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner of red bell pepper and apple slaw, no knead flax rolls, roasted vegetable quiche, lemon pecan mousse cake, corn bread stuffing mushrooms and squash bisque with pan roasted corn salsa is shown served on a table in Concord, N.H. Photo by: AP Photo/Matthew Mead


This image taken Oct. 15 shows a roasted vegetable quiche.

This image taken Oct. 15 shows a roasted vegetable quiche.
Photo by: AP Photo/Matthew Mead


Lemon pecan mousse cake is shown in Concord, N.H.

Lemon pecan mousse cake is shown in Concord, N.H.
Photo by: AP Photo/Matthew Mead



Michele Kayal/The Associated Press



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.


"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.



Go with rich flavors


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.



Pile on the sides


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 puréed 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."





Start to finish: 3 hours (1 hour active)


Makes 12 servings



For the pecan sponge cake:


5 ounces (1 1/4 cups) pecans, toasted and cooled, plus a few more for garnish


1/2 cup sifted cake flour


3/4 cup sugar, divided


4 eggs, separated


Pinch of salt



For the lemon mousse:


1 tablespoon cornstarch


2/3 cup sugar


4 eggs


2/3 cup lemon juice


Zest of 2 lemons


2 1/2 cups heavy cream



  • Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a 9-inch springform pan with baking spray.


  • In a food processor, combine the pecans, cake flour and 1/4 cup of the sugar. Process until finely ground. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside.


  • In a medium bowl, use an electric mixer to beat together the egg yolks and another 1/4 cup sugar until thick and pale. Set aside.


  • In another very clean bowl with a clean whisk, beat together the egg whites, salt and the remaining 1/4 cup sugar until thick and glossy stiff peaks form.


  • Gently fold the egg yolks and half of the egg whites into the pecan flour. Fold the remaining egg whites in to the mixture until thoroughly but gently combined. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean. Set aside, in the pan, to cool completely.


  • While the cake is baking, begin the mousse. In a medium saucepan, whisk together the cornstarch and sugar, then add the eggs and whisk until smooth. Add the lemon juice and zest, then set over medium heat. Whisking constantly, bring the mixture to a boil; cook until it thickens. If there are any lumps, strain the mixture. Transfer to a large bowl and set aside to cool.


  • Once the cake and mousse base are both cool, in a large bowl use an electric mixer to whip the heavy cream to medium peaks. Fold half the cream into the mousse base. When thoroughly combined, fold in the remaining whipped cream. Spoon or pipe the mixture onto the cake. Garnish with toasted pecans and refrigerate at least 2 hours.


  • When ready to serve, run a paring knife around the edge of the pan and loosen the sides. Remove the sides of the springform pan and serve.


    (Source: Alison Ladman, Associated Press)





    Start to finish: 15 minutes


    Makes 8 servings



    1 medium red bell pepper, cored and julienned


    1 medium yellow bell pepper, cored and julienned


    2 medium carrots, grated


    2 celery stalks, thinly sliced


    1 Granny Smith apple, cored and julienned


    Seeds of 1 pomegranate


    Zest and juice of 1 large orange


    2 tablespoons white balsamic vinegar


    1/2 teaspoon salt


    2 tablespoons olive oil


    1 teaspoon Dijon mustard


    Pinch of red pepper flakes



  • In a large bowl, combine both bell peppers, the carrots, celery, apple and pomegranate seeds. In a small bowl, whisk together the orange zest and juice, vinegar, salt, olive oil, mustard and red pepper flakes. Pour over the slaw mixture and toss to thoroughly coat.


    (Source: Alison Ladman, Associated Press)





    Start to finish: 1 hour 30 minutes


    (15 minutes active)


    Makes 8 servings



    1 red bell pepper, cored and diced


    1 small red onion, diced


    1 small sweet potato, peeled and diced


    1 medium zucchini, diced


    1 tablespoon olive oil


    1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary


    1/2 teaspoon salt


    1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper


    1 prepared raw 9-inch pie crust


    3/4 cup shredded gruyere cheese


    6 eggs


    1 cup half-and-half



  • Heat the oven to 400 F.


  • In a large bowl, toss together the red pepper, red onion, sweet potato and zucchini. Add the olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper, then stir to coat. Spread the mixture on a rimmed baking sheet and roast for 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender and beginning to brown. Remove the vegetables from the oven.Reduce the heat to 350 degrees.


  • If it isn't already, fit the pie crust into a pie pan, crimping the edges as needed. Place the pie shell on a baking sheet and add the roasted vegetables.Top with the cheese.


  • In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs and the half-and-half. Pour over the cheese and vegetables. Bake for 45 minutes, or until slightly puffed and set in the middle. Allow to cool slightly before serving.


    (Source: Alison Ladman, Associated Press)




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