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.
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.
Sides and more
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.”