Rose Miller, my maternal grandmother, was at the helm cooking Thanksgiving dinner for as many years as I can remember. As the eldest granddaughter, I watched the table expand as new cousins came along. When there were no more leaves to add to the dining room table, a long folding table was set up, and then a card table, until all 23 of us squeezed around what looked like one big long table, elegantly covered with starched white linen tablecloths.
With her generous spirit she accommodated us all. Yet, during all those years, she never even considered asking the question--"Are any of you vegetarians?” After all, this was before “Diet for a Small Planet” raised food preferences and dietary restrictions as an “issue.” My grandmother happily cooked, we heartily filled our plates, and everyone ate and went back for seconds--it was that simple.
Nowadays, I wouldn’t think of inviting guests without asking about their food preferences. Perhaps I could attribute this to the welcoming nature I inherited from my grandmother, but I believe the trend toward meatless meals has most of us thinking about the vegetarians, vegans and other "-tarians” in our midst.
According to the National Turkey Federation, 45 million turkeys unwittingly give their lives so that a plump, gloriously roasted bird can grace our Thanksgiving tables. Well, that takes care of the turkey eaters, but what do we serve to a mixed crowd of both turkey eaters and vegetarians?
I have a few ideas. When quite a few of my guests are vegetarians, then I would be inclined to make a “full-blown” meatless entree for them, something such as roasted acorn squash halves stuffed with wild rice, diced vegetables and cubes of hickory-smoked tofu; or a lasagna with layers of sauteed sugar pumpkin, herbs and ricotta. But, when there are just a couple of non-meat eaters at the table, I opt for making plenty of side dishes suitable for all.
Bread stuffing, which everyone loves, has some simple substitutions and adaptations for your vegetarian guests. First, don’t stuff the turkey; rather, cook the stuffing in a separate baking dish. This is actually my preferred method, as I am a big fan of the crisp and beautifully browned bread cubes that form a crusty top when the stuffing is baked uncovered. Sauteed cremini or portabello mushrooms are a perfect alternative when a stuffing recipe has sausage or chopped giblets in it. Replace the chicken stock called for in the recipe with vegetable stock. Choices will be easier if you are cooking for an ovo-lacto vegetarian, because eggs that help bind the stuffing can be used. Without eggs, expect the stuffing to be loose and crumbly, a nonetheless delicious variation.
A terrific way to get around the egg/binding issue is to make a wild rice stuffing. This native American grain has a nutty, almost smoky, flavor. I add lots of chopped carrot, celery and onion to the rice, plus toasted pine nuts and dried apricots that have been soaked until plump. The flavor of the wild rice complements roasted birds so well, and the brown grains intermixed with the orange of the carrots and apricots make such a pretty addition to the plate.
Consider making substantial vegetable side dishes and serving several of them. Often green vegetables get short shrift on the Thanksgiving buffet, while starchy dishes dominate. Believe me, I am a huge fan of piping-hot mashed potatoes and baked glazed yams. Include those, but check out some of the other vegetables in the produce aisle. Look for brimming bins of glorious fall produce--Brussels sprouts, winter squash, fennel and zucchini.
Leave the old-style green bean bake to the super traditionalists and try some updated vegetable dishes this year. Succotash dates back to the Narragansett Indians. They called it misickquatash, combining corn and beans cooked in bear fat. Go ahead and skip the bear fat, it won’t be a big hit with the vegetarians, and, besides, it’s not readily available at your local supermarket. My version uses fresh corn, zucchini, onion, bell peppers, lima beans and chanterelle mushrooms. Butter is my choice for the saute here; olive oil would be a perfectly fine substitute to accommodate the strict vegetarians.
One last thought. For those who think vegetables require lots of last-minute preparation--not all do. The gratin of fennel and tomato can be assembled hours ahead. The wild rice stuffing can be made one, or even two, days ahead. Get the chopping done early for the succotash and you have a quick saute that any capable guest can handle. Even the spaghetti squash can be prepared up to one day in advance.
This Thanksgiving my table will be set for 15. As is tradition, my family and friends expect me to plan a menu and hand out cooking assignments with recipes included. I’m making the turkey and stuffing. My niece, a vegan, is making cranberry chutney and some maple-glazed baked apples as one of the desserts. The son of my closest friend is a strict vegetarian, and called to say he would make the Gratin of Fennel and Tomato but asked to substitute grated soy cheese for the Parmesan. My other niece won’t eat turkey or anything with mushrooms or nuts in it--she’s 15, a complete contrarian!
Yet, as we gather around the table to enjoy and cherish each other’s company, the true spirit of the holiday will be with us--we’ll feel blessed for those gathered with us, and we’ll remember those we have lost. We’ll be thankful for the bounty of the season; our plates will be full; and the diversity of foods will have all going back for seconds.