What Shall We Make?

About a week before Thanksgiving, someone invariably comes to me in a panic. "We're having Vegetarians for dinner!" My first thought is always the childish one: "Really? How will you prepare them?"

"I have no idea how to cook vegetarian!" they continue, trying to ignore me. Well-practiced in this conversation, my only answer can be,"A slow braise usually does the trick, lest they be tough and stringy..."

Quickly, I stop being silly, because I know they are serious. They really have no idea what to do, especially around a meal deeply locked in tradition like Thanksgiving. 

Before I get to the Thanksgiving component of this request, I start by reminding people that they probably eat vegetarian (not vegan) quite often without ever knowing it. 

I ask them to think about all the pasta dishes they make that don't include meat, chicken or fish: fettucine Alfredo, spaghetti with tomato-basil sauce, cheese ravioli with brown butter and sage, stuffed shells. I continue with quiches: cheese and spinach, mushroom and herb, or pumpkin /squash. I finish with ratatouille, all variety of risotti, myriad savory tarts and pies, vegetable terrines, and, of course, casseroles.
Somewhere in this litany, they generally find some vegetarian roots onto which thy can cling. The point, again, is this: we eat vegetarian all the time without realizing it. Now to Thanksgiving...

Most advice given to people in this predicament is simply to make extra mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and dinner rolls. To that advice, my incredulity cannot be masked. "Seriously?" I ask, "You want your family members and treasured guests to make do with a couple of side dishes and dinner rolls on the most important family and food day of the year?" I don't think so.

For years now, in the November issue of my family recipe newsletter, I have sent out a slew of vegetarian main course dishes that go well with the turkey. Everyone should feel special on this day and, at my table, I want my family and friends to eat well. 

In addition to the list that I put together, I often suggest that my friends seek recipes from other cuisines around the globe. We, in the United States, and our friends in Oz, eat more meat that other places in the world! 

Map from ChartsBin
Referring to the map above, Google "vegetarian main course recipes" from the cream-, yellow-, and orange-colored countries, where meat isn't so prevalent. You may be surprised at the flavors you have been missing: enchiladas from México, curries from India, legumes from Middle Eastern countries, rice dishes from Persia, couscous from North Africa, and root vegetable stews from Sub-Saharan Africa. There is a world of flavor awaiting you.

You can also learn more about your ethnic heritage, and search for some recipes that haven't been made in your family for decades or, perhaps, centuries. What a great surprise that would be for your family.

One last bit of advice: if you have vegetarians coming to dinner (other than at Thanksgiving when it is all about that turkey), make a vegetarian meal for all. Don't make a small portion "just for them." It is rude, singles them out, and makes them feel awkward. Everybody can enjoy a vegetarian meal.

L to R: Daniel, Quinney, Markipedia, Ravi, and Aubri.
This is my favorite vegetarian Thanksgiving dish, based on a recipe from Bon Appétit. Mark and I enjoyed the lasagne recently with four Flinn Scholars from the UA Honors College. It was a very special evening.

~ David

Butternut Squash and Hazelnut Lasagne

   1 large onion, chopped
   3 tablespoons unsalted butter
   3 pounds butternut squash, peeled and cut into ½-inch pieces
   1 teaspoon salt
   ½ teaspoon black pepper
   3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
   2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage 
   1 cup hazelnuts, toasted, skins rubbed off with a towel, coarsely chopped

   1 large shallot, minced
   5 tablespoons unsalted butter
   5 tablespoons flour
   5 cups whole milk
   2 dried bay leaves – or 6 fresh
   1 teaspoon salt
   ½ teaspoon black pepper

   ½ pound mozzarella (not fresh), coarsely grated
   1½ cups grated parmesan cheese
   12 “no-boil” lasagna sheets

Make the filing: Cook onion in butter in a deep 12-inch skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 10 minutes. Add squash, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until squash is just tender, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in parsley, sage, and nuts. Cool filling.

Make the béchamel sauce: Cook shallot in butter in a 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderately low heat, stirring, 1 minute. Whisk in flour and cook roux, whisking, 1 minute. Add milk in a stream, whisking. Add bay leaves and bring to a boil, whisking constantly, then reduce heat and simmer, whisking often until thick - about 10 minutes. Whisk in salt and pepper and remove from heat. Discard bay leaf.

Preheat oven to 425°F.

To assemble: Toss cheeses together. Spread ½ cup sauce in a buttered 13-inch by 9-inch by 2-inch baking dish and cover with 3 pasta sheets, leaving spaces between sheets. Spread the pasta with ⅔ cup sauce, then top with one third of filling. Sprinkle with a heaping ½ cup cheese. Repeat layering 2 more times, beginning with pasta sheets and ending with cheese. Top with remaining 3 pasta sheets, remaining sauce, and remaining cheese.

Tightly cover baking dish with buttered foil and bake lasagne in middle of oven 30 minutes. Carefully remove foil and bake until golden and bubbling, 10 to 15 minutes more. Let lasagne stand 15 to 20 minutes before serving.

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