Jane Says: There's No Need for Turkey on Thanksgiving

You can forgo meat and still cook a fantastic holiday meal—main dishes, sides, and all.

vegetarian thanksgiving

(Photo: Alexandra Grablewski/Getty Images)

Jane Lear was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

“Enough with all the turkey talk! Can you give me some vegetarian options for Thanksgiving?”

—Garrett Reed

Not only is Thanksgiving all about celebrating the abundance of the harvest season—it’s all about inclusion too. And as America’s eating habits have changed, so has the holiday meal. Whether you are supplementing a turkey and fixings with enough sides to satisfy a few vegetarian guests or are planning an all-vegetarian feast and looking for a main course that doesn’t feel like “meatless Monday” on Thursday, we’ve got you covered.

For the purposes of discussion, I’m using the Vegetarian Society’s definition of the term vegetarian: “Someone who lives on a diet of grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruits with, or without, the use of dairy products and eggs.” The most common type of vegetarian diet, the society’s website goes on to explain, includes dairy products and eggs, so you will find those ingredients in the recipe suggestions below. That said, if you are desperately seeking a vegetarian main course that is also dairy- and gluten-free, all is not lost.

Because there are fabulous vegetarian traditions in cuisines all over the world, the options can be overwhelming. I limited those below to ones inspired by the Mediterranean: The flavors play well with more traditional offerings if your aim is to mix and match. (Turkey has been eaten on holidays in Italy since the 16th century.) They’re also rich and varied enough to carry a big meal and don’t require any hard-to-find ingredients.

VEGETARIAN MAIN COURSES

Tofu turkey: Many non-vegetarians deride tofu turkey as “fake meat,” but they’re missing the point. The point of trompe l'oeil (French for "that which deceives the eye") food, which has a distinguished history in Europe and Asia, is to surprise and delight the senses. In China, from the Song Dynasty up to the Ming and Qing, Buddhist temple kitchens presented vegetarian food in creative, highly sophisticated ways, including “mock” duck, chicken, goose, fish, and ham. There are numerous online recipes for making a tofu turkey from scratch, but as I’ve said before, there’s no shame in store-bought: Tofurky, the standard since 1995, is vegan, is made with organic non-G.M. soybeans, and comes in a kit with stuffing and gravy. Fresh Tofu’s tofu turkey (also vegan and organic) is sold on the East Coast only; check the website for retailers.

Mushroom and farro (or barley) pie: My former Gourmet colleague Maggie Ruggiero developed this recipe in 2008. Rustic and elegant all at once, it makes a splendid centerpiece for a Thanksgiving meal. It also couldn’t be easier to make: The crust is store-bought puff pastry, the nuanced filling can be made one day ahead, and the pie can be assembled three hours in advance. For more about farro, check out this column.

Pumpkin stuffed with everything good: I mentioned this recipe in a previous column, but it’s worth a reminder. From Around My French Table, by Dorie Greenspan, it would be equally at home at any American Thanksgiving table.

Baked acorn squash stuffed with wild rice and kale risotto: In her New York Times column, Martha Rose Shulman describes the filling for these single-serving beauties as “Greco-Italian fusion, with a little American (wild rice) thrown in.” That works for me.

Vegetarian shepherd’s pie: Here’s another Gourmet find, from former food editor Melissa Roberts. The dish looks deceptively homey. The filling, though, gets elegance and depth of flavor from parsnips and a rich vegetable stock, and celery root gives the potato topping finesse. 

VEGETARIAN SIDES

Smashed potatoes with roasted-garlic gravy: This is one of the sides that went with the mushroom and farro pie above, and what really makes it is the stellar gravy. The almost meaty depth of the vegetable stock comes from roasted garlic and soy sauce. (My soy sauce of choice these days is actually tamari, from Eden Organic; it has great flavor.)

Brussels sprouts and walnuts with fennel and red pearl onions: This dish is more elaborate than most of the others you’ll find in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but it’s festive and absolutely delicious.

Ruby chard decorated with itself: This colorful dish can be served hot or at room temperature. It’s from The Vegetable Dishes I Can't Live Without, by Mollie Katzen, who introduced a generation of Americans to vegetarian cooking back in 1977 with her Moosewood Cookbook.

Mashed sweet potatoes with sage butter: Sweet potatoes and sage have a great affinity for each other. This dish, from Gourmet, was on my Thanksgiving table for a while, then fell out of rotation. I’ll make room for it again this year because it’s so stunningly simple. If you’re worried it’s a little too basic, however, feel free to garnish it with fried fresh sage leaves—if they manage to make it out of the kitchen uneaten. For 30 leaves (about one bunch of sage), heat 1/4 cup olive oil in a small skillet over moderately high heat until hot and just beginning to shimmer. Fry about 6 sage leaves at a time until crisp, a few seconds. Transfer to paper towels to drain, and sprinkle with coarse salt or flaky Maldon sea salt.

Gussied-up green beans: The widespread availability of bottled peeled roasted chestnuts makes it easy to turn everyday green beans into something a little fancier. Trim the beans and cook in salted boiling water until almost crisp-tender. Drain, shock them in cold water, and pat dry. Sauté in unsalted butter or olive oil with coarsely crumbled chestnuts until crisp-tender and everything is just warmed through. Season with salt and pepper. You can do much the same thing with Brussels sprouts.

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