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In the freezer case at Whole Foods this month you’ll find big boxes announcing Turtle Island’s Tofurky Feast, Field Roast’s Celebration Roast, and VegeUSA’s Vegan Whole Turkey –this last shaped and glazed brown like a large chicken, drumsticks and all. I’m not sure how I feel about this concept–I thought the idea of being vegetarian when you have enough money for a choice was not only not to eat meat, but not to want to be eating meat either.

Not that I’m against decent vegetarian meat substitutes for Thanksgiving or any other time of the year. As someone who’s kept kosher since my college years, and often in places where there was no kosher meat (or I didn’t have the budget for it), tofu or wheat gluten “mock chicken” have made eating in Chinese restaurants a lot more fun, and the good restaurants make their vegetarian dishes as serious and well-balanced as their meat dishes–sometimes better. But they generally don’t try to disguise them this far or process them this much.

Still, to each her own. But $42.99 for the big VegeUSA box at Whole Foods. The box states that it feeds 25 at 2.5 oz/serving, which is probably enough protein but only about half the volume most adults would expect. And it’s kind of expensive for something that looks very much like a well-browned rubber chicken. What’s in it? I scan the nutrition panel and don’t really notice anything but the sodium–everything else is low or moderate, especially for a holiday meal.

But the salt! 450 mg for the “turkey”–double it to 900 mg if 2.5 oz isn’t enough for you and you want seconds.  1400-plus mg for the stuffing–huh? a whole day’s worth of sodium for one serving of stuffing?  Is it that bad for conventional stuffing mix as well? You’d do better to make your own from scratch.

At this point I didn’t even look at the gravy.

Tofurky isn’t much different–650 mg sodium per serving, including stuffing. Field Roast–in the same range too. They also sell separate tubs of frozen “giblet” gravy.

Of course (full disclosure here), I’ve never actually liked gravy, and I doubt it would really go well with anything tofu, not even tofu in a rubber chicken costume.

Why do I think you could do a better and probably a lot cheaper and more festive vegetarian Thanksgiving with some kind of authentic, fresh-made main dish? Because very clearly you could. Do you want it to taste good? Or do you just want it to look like an imitation turkey?

Of course, the main thing about these frozen concoctions, even the simple cylindrical “roasts”,  is that they look like centerpiece dishes, and there’s really no knocking that desire to serve something impressive and festive and most of all, shareable at Thanksgiving. It’s important. Thanksgiving feasts demand a monument to plenty, and an inedible cornucopia with gourds and Indian corn doesn’t really cut it. Nor does a big pasta salad (although a timbale, as in Big Night…)

Surprisingly–sadly?–enough, very few vegetarian cookbooks, not even the big tomes like Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian or Veganomicon, really try for a vegetarian centerpiece dish that looks and feels like an important dish. Mollie Katzen’s title dish from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest is about the only intentionally designed centerpiece vegetarian dish I’ve ever seen. A very long time ago I actually was served this thing once at a friend’s house, with very sadly overcooked broccoli stalks stood upright in a flat casserole of brown rice. Oy, is all I can say. Not a moment of pride. Both Katzen’s and my friend’s cooking improved in later years.

None of the currently hot vegetarian cookbooks out there have an index listing for “Thanksgiving”–very telling. A lot of them have portions for 2 or 4 or just one person. Only vegetarian chili and pasta dishes are intended to serve a crowd of any size.

So vegetarian centerpiece dishes deserve some consideration. Tara Parker-Pope of the New York Times blog “The Well” has been edging around this topic for a week or so, but I don’t feel she’s really gotten to the heart of the matter–neither has anyone else. Perhaps it’s because she’s not thinking like a vegetarian?

What makes a dish a centerpiece dish? Think about the turkey, then, or a whole salmon, or a rack of lamb or the like. It’s big. It’s unified–one big item before you cut into it for serving. It’s elegant and impressive. It’s sliceable. It’s savory enough to draw people into the dining room with a sigh of anticipation before they even realize what they’re smelling. And–my definition–it has significant protein and main dish food value. It’s not just a pretty snack.

So a casserole like lasagne won’t really cut it. Small dishes won’t cut it. Nor will individual servings or low-protein dishes like mushroom stew (though that tastes pretty good, it needs some substantial protein).

A few home-made suggestions, then, if you want a centerpiece kind of vegetarian dish that won’t overwhelm you in salt and fakery.


Couscous with Seven Vegetables–a big mound of couscous in the middle, vegetables and lentil or other bean kofta and chickpeas and chunks of pumpkin and so on laid decoratively up the sides of the couscous and around the rim of the dish.

Bistilla with a vegetarian filling–you decide what would be best instead of pigeon, but probably a chickpea or lentil stew, or else vegetables with mock-chicken or rolled spirals of tofu skins or something like inari pockets with a bit of baharat spice paste and ground almond filling inside them instead of rice. Some sugar-snap peas might be good in here. Line a big casserole with several buttered or olive-oiled layers of overlapping fillo, letting the ends hang out over the edges, fill it, then wrap the loose ends back over the top to enclose it all. If you’re traditional, you include toasted almonds in the filling and maybe some powdered sugar on top.

Or–as in Sunset Magazine‘s October 2010 edition, a whole cooking pumpkin or kabocha or turban squash baked as a lidded edible bowl to be filled with a tagine. You could hurry the squash-baking part along significantly by microwaving 5-10 minutes covered with a tiny bit of water in the bottom of the dish. For the stew, instead of spiced meatballs, add whole chickpeas and lentils with the vegetables, or else fried or baked felafel-style dumplings of mashed chickpeas, chickpea flour, or mashed lentils blended with tofu and/or spinach or turnip greens or kale or the like, but flavor them with a cinnamon/cumin-based sweet/savory mixture appropriate to a tagine. Then fill the mostly-baked squash with with the mostly-cooked stew and bake on a cookie sheet or in a nice-looking casserole dish with handles, so you don’t have to risk transferring the squash to it and having it split or leak or whatever. Stick the little stem end back on for a lid and at the table you lift the lid, ladle out some stew for each guest and use a soup spoon to scoop out a few chunks of the pumpkin flesh to add to each bowl. Or when the pumpkin is empty, slice the squash into wedges to distribute.

The only problem with using pumpkin in the main dish is clashing with other red squash-based side dishes or pumpkin pie–you could really repeat everything several times if you’re not careful.

Continental (French, English, sometimes German or Austrian):

Vegetarian Wellington (rich stew with mushrooms and wine inside) or Coulibiac (protein, traditionally a salmon fillet, covered in mushrooms, set on a bed layer of rice)–puff pastry is always impressive and if you’re not vegan you can get a decent all-butter version in the frozen foods section of the store. But it’s not so hard to make at home with vegan margarine or the like–the actual rolling and folding only take a few minutes at a time, and most of the actual time is spent waiting for the dough to relax in the fridge, and it can be made in stages over a day or so. For the filling, you want lots of good aromatic mushrooms and some red wine for the sauce. Also garlic and onion or shallots. Also carrots and celery and thyme and/or a bit of sage. You may want brown rice, wild rice,  or other grains as a bed for the vegetables and protein (or you may not want extra starches inside a puff pastry–your choice here). You may want a layer of smoky, garlicky dark greens, a layer of beans or pulses or mock chicken (but not very  salted and not breaded), flavored with herbs and onion and wine or the like, stew vegetables, mushrooms, herbs, whatever looks good and isn’t too wet. You want the sauce thick and flavorful and just enough of it. You want to encase it well in the dough and glaze it with egg wash, milk, or soymilk. You’ll want to cut a few vents in a decorative pattern on top and attach a few cut-outs, maybe in leaf shapes, from the pastry scraps before baking.

Strudel–you can either make a strudel dough (not incredibly hard to make the dough, but the stretching is an adventure that will cover your entire kitchen table) or just use fillo or yufka dough–or again, puff pastry, rolled thin and rolled around your filling. Make sure the filling is pretty thick and not drippy. I’ve done a quick spanakopita this way rather than in painstaking layers–just buttered 5 sheets in a stack, dumped the filling on one end and rolled into a 4-inch-wide roll, sliced into serving pieces as for baklava and then baked. Easy enough method, but you might want to be a little fancier about it, so tuck in the ends, slash prettily, gild the top with egg wash or milk before baking.

Then there’s Anna Thomas’s Chard and Fennel Pie, which is a huge glorified quiche with a bread dough case, and even a half recipe is huge, but it tastes pretty good and if you encase the top and vent it and decorate with pastry leaves and gild it with egg wash or the like so it’ll brown attractively on top, it’s likely to make everyone happy. If you don’t do eggs and milk, try tofu and browned onions, some soy milk with a bit of flour for thickening, and enough garlic and/or shallots and thyme and basil and dill and sage to make things aromatic.

I also remember seeing a very impressive stuffed whole Savoy cabbage that was served at the White House for a visit by Mitterand a number of decades ago–the cabbage was steamed or blanched and opened up and stuffed between the leaves, then reformed into a big dome shape and tied together and braised. It was a ground beef and pork stuffing, but you could do a savory vegetarian stuffing without much trouble using TVP or lentils and rice or even a mixture of lentils, onions, garlic and the like with veggie Italian sausage or smoked or baked tofu. However, I think you’d really have to like cooked cabbage for this to work, and a lot of people don’t like the smell. But you might do something similar with whole heads of bok choy, which is less sulfurous-smelling cooked, or with very well-washed romaine or kale. Or you could microwave the cabbage briefly and stuff it–it might be a lot less sulfurous if you cook it this way and don’t braise it conventionally for an hour in the oven.

Another possible centerpiece kind of dish, if you were going untraditional, would be mandolined (very thin sliced) potatoes wrapped around a flat, solid kind of protein (mock chicken might work here, as long as it wasn’t hideously oversalted) with thyme and shallot and sauteed in olive oil. until crisp and brown on both sides–but this is kind of tricky for a big centerpiece and a little hard to time for serving. You might take the potato slices and layer them over a fairly solid and well-flavored filling and brush them with olive oil that’s had garlic infused into it, sprinkle on some thyme or rosemary and roast the whole thing a bit in the oven until crisp.

The only caution I’d have about doing a main dish wrapped in puff pastry or fillo or bread dough, or stuffed with grains and lentils or chickpeas or the like, is that it’s kind of rich and indulgent on fat and/or starch. You’d want to balance out the rest of the meal without big heavy bread stuffing–a salted killer anyway, and kind of a waste for vegetarians–or big potatoey side dishes. A good salad, green beans that are still nicely green, romano beans, or broccoli as desired. Wild rice pilaf with nuts and raisins, etc. If you’re vegetarian, you probably have a lot of your own nontraditional ideas as well. Italian antipasti and Moroccan vegetable side dishes–steamed and grilled fennel slices, grilled eggplant and peppers and onions, grilled eggplant with tahini, or eggplant involtini, asparagus, baby artichokes or battered marinated artichoke hearts, something between a salad and a cooked vegetable, are naturally elegant and “extra” without being heavy on starches.

Because you also need dessert. If you’ve already done the pumpkin thing, go with pears and chocolate and hazelnuts, apple pie, pecan pie, something different–a good apple strudel is lighter than pie and less gooey but more elegant as well. If you go for something heavy as the main baked dessert, you might want to have a bowl of tangerines or aromatic small-sized apples or pears as a side option–you need something light,  sharp and refreshing to cut through the richness of the meal.

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