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Vegetarian Thanksgiving: Main Dishes

[Dinner, quickly, November 2010.]

I had planned to do a post today about vegetarian main dishes appropriate for the holiday table, but all that has fallen by the wayside because on Saturday night I had a dinner party, and at that dinner party I served something I must tell you about right now immediately because it was simply so good. Actually, more like good x 100. If you can imagine.

It comes by way of the reliable smitten kitchen: a gratin of thinly sliced sweet potatoes and wilted greens baked with a healthy heaping of Gruyere cheese until bubbly and hot. I do love a gratin — who wouldn’t, with all that cheese? — though I haven’t made one in ages; for some reason when it came time to prepare the vegetarian, gluten-free option (I also roasted my second Zuni chicken, to great success and few leftovers) my mind fixed on the idea of sweet potatoes, preferably in a bath of milk and cream, and wouldn’t give it up.

I had initially thought about making sweet potato soup (instead, I decided to save it for Thanksgiving) and a spinach souffle to cozy up with the chicken. Maybe a big pile of those gorgeous green beans at the Fillmore market and some sort of green salad. But the more I thought about it the more nervous I got about basing a souffle on a flour-less roux (I’m not yet well-versed in substitutions) and started mentally casting around for other options. She’d linked to a post about the gratin in a recent piece and I kept coming back to the idea — but then I’d have to switch up the soup plan (can’t have too much of the same flavor). Back-and-forth I went (I mentioned I’m slightly obsessed with cooking lately?) until finally I accepted my fate and bought two pounds of beautifully grubby sweet potatoes, loads of spinach, and crossed fingers my ersatz roux job would work out.

It did.

This recipe is delicious. I know that’s a terribly overused word in food writing but — we all have different concepts of what constitutes ‘delicious’ and I think no matter your interpretation this dish will exceed all expectations. Is it the Gruyere? The use of seasonal vegetables? The way the ingredients bind together in a sort of dreamy, fall-inspired harmony that would transition nicely into winter as well, easing us into this most hectic time of the year? Whatever — if I hadn’t already lined up my vegetarian option for Thanksgiving this year I’d be making this, despite doing so just a few days ago. I’d like a piece of it right now, actually. Oh! I’ve just remembered I have one portion left for my dinner tonight! Yet another thing for which to be thankful.

I’ve made some adaptions to the original recipe — swapped spinach for chard, used milk instead of cream and actually added a bit more — but the basic principle remains: Wilted spinach. Sauteed onions. Thinly-sliced sweet potatoes. Lots of salty, gooey, melted swiss cheese. Happiness on a plate — for vegetarians and meat eaters, both.

The rest of my menu came together just fine, as often happens once you nail down a few important dishes. I cooked for a good part of the day: Sweet potato dip; cauliflower-leek soup; the sweet potato-spinach gratin; bread salad a la Zuni; apple-carrot-fennel-slaw; salted, rosemary-ed, and roasted chicken with potatoes and tomatoes; green beans and shiitake mushrooms and shallots; chocolate cream pie. I didn’t take many photos (see: blurry dinner table above); it was one of those nights when being in the moment took precedence (not to mention it gets so dark so early these days.) The memories will suffice.

So: Thanksgiving. I’m ready. I hope you are, too. If you’re looking for a few more ideas, here are some resources to help prepare your own vegetarian additions to the Thanksgiving feast:

My recent NPR Kitchen Window story, heavy on the vegetables, lighter on fat: Thanksgiving Dinner with a Lighter Touch

My post last year: Thanksgiving Sans the Bird

The vegetarian Thanksgiving story I wrote for NPR, November 2008: A Vegetarian Thanksgiving

Vegetarian Thanksgiving in the New York Times: via the Well blog

The SF Chronicle’s vegetarian Thanksgiving round-up: with lots of photos

And for fun, a Thanksgiving piece I wrote for my erstwhile column, “Common Walls,” in the San Francisco Chronicle: A small apartment Thanksgiving with all the fixin’s

But seriously — make this gratin.

* A vegetarian Thanksgiving menu follows the recipe, rather lighter on the cheese, but still very delicious.

Sweet Potato and Spinach Gratin, adapted from smittenkitchen.com

This is listed as serving 12, but the six of us made fairly short work of it, with just a bit leftover. I told you it is good.

Serves 12

1/4 cup (1/2 stick or 2 ounces) butter
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 pounds spinach, stems removed
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 cups whole milk
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons flour
2 pounds medium red-skinned sweet potatoes (yams), peeled and cut into 1/8-inch thick rounds
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 tablespoon dried thyme
Fine sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 1/4 cups (about 5 ounces) coarsely grated Gruyére cheese

Prep greens: Cook onion in 2 tablespoons butter in a wide 8-quart heavy pot over moderately low heat, stirring, until softened. Add the spinach, pinch of nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste and cook, stirring, until wilted. Transfer greens to a colander to drain well and press out liquid with back of a large spoon.

Make sauce: Combine milk and garlic in small saucepan; bring to simmer; keep warm. Melt two tablespoons butter in a medium heavy saucepan over moderate heat and stir in flour. Cook roux, whisking, one minute, then slowly whisk in warm cream/milk and boil, whisking, one minute. Season sauce with salt and pepper.

Assemble gratin: Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter deep 9×13 baking dish. Spread half of sweet potatoes in the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, a quarter of the herbs and a 1/4 cup of the cheese. Distribute half of the greens mixture over the cheese, then sprinkle salt, pepper, a quarter of the herbs and 1/4 cup of the cheese over it. Pour half of bechamel sauce over the first two layers then continue with the remaining sweet potatoes, more salt, pepper, herbs and cheese and then the remaining greens, salt, pepper and herbs. Pour the remaining sauce over the top of the gratin, pressing the vegetables slightly to ensure that they are as submerged as possible. Sprinkle with the last 1/4 cup of cheese.

Note: My sauce was a bit less than what I expected, possibly because I used cornmeal instead of flour. I added an additional 1/2 cup or so of milk after I’d assembled the vegetables to make sure there was enough liquid.

Bake gratin for about 1 hour until golden and bubbly, and most of the liquid is absorbed. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Note: I baked this in the morning and then let sit for most of the day to free up the oven. While the chicken rested, I reheated for about 10 minutes. It was perfect.

Vegetarian Thanksgiving –> One whole meal

Use those quintessential fall vegetables — butternut squash or a pumpkin — here. I’ve chosen to highlight squash as the centerpiece of the vegetarian table because — while I do love a nice polenta-stuffed acorn squash with homemade sundried tomato pesto — I like to keep things simple and if not easy, then easier. And this is pretty darn easy.

1 large butternut squash or pumpkin, halved with seeds removed
olive oil

1. Oven to 350 F. Lightly oil a baking sheet, and then lightly oil the cut halves of the squash. Place cut-side down and bake for about a 1/2 hour, or until soft (check occasionally to make sure it’s not too soft).

2. Remove from oven and put, cut-side up, in a baking dish. Serves 6.

With tomato-bean “salsa”

1 can black beans, or 1.5 cups prepared dried beans
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, sliced
2 tomatoes, coarsely chopped, or one small can crushed tomatoes
1 bay leaf
dried basil or oregano
olive oil

1. Sautee the onion and garlic in olive oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaf and herbs, and cook about a minute more. Add the tomatoes and reduce heat to low. Simmer a few minutes to let the flavors blend, then add the beans. Stir to combine and simmer on low about 5-10 minutes, adding a little water or red wine if you have some open (and I hope you do).

2. Pour the tomatoes and beans over the squash and return to the oven to keep warm.

With polenta and pesto

1 cup polenta
3 cups vegetable broth or water
1/2 cup pesto

1. Bring the water or broth to a boil a heavy saucepan. Slowly add the polenta, whisking to combine, then reduce heat to low. Keep on low for about 10 minutes, stirring often.

2. Stir in the pesto (add more if you like). Fill the butternut squash halves with the polenta, and serve immediately. (If not serving immediately, cover with foil and return to oven to warm. You can definitely make this earlier in the day and gently reheat before sitting down to dinner.)

With wild rice and mushrooms

2 cups wild rice
4 cups vegetable broth
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
10 mushroom (shiitake or crimini work well here)
1 bay leaf
1/4 cup white wine
olive oil

1. Put the broth and a dash of olive oil in a heavy saucepan. Add rice and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, until water is absorbed.

2. Meanwhile, sautee the onion and garlic over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the bay leaf and salt and pepper to taste and cook a few minutes more. Add the mushrooms and cook a few minutes until beginning to soften. Add the wine and cook until mushrooms are soft.

3. Remove bay leaf. Add the mushrooms and onions to the rice and stir well to combine. Pour the rice over the squash and serve immediately. (Again, if making in advance, cover with foil to make sure the rice doesn’t dry out if you put in the oven for a bit.)

Green beans with zucchini squash and fresh corn

1 1/2 pounds green beans
4 small zuchini
fresh corn from two ears
1/4 cup fresh basil
olive oil

1. Wash and slice the zucchini into thin circles, then halve. Wash and trim the green beans, and cut into third. Cut the corn off the cob and reserve, and wash and coarsely chop the basil.

2. In a large saute pan, heat as much olive oil as you’d like (I start with about 2 Tb. and add more as needed). Add the squash, and keep heat on medium high, stirring frequently to make sure it doesn’t burn. Reduce heat to low as the squash softens, adding a little more oil or water if necessary, then add the green beans. Cook for a few minutes, then add the corn and the basil and stir to combine.

3. Cook over low heat for about 5 minutes to let the flavors blend, and for the vegetables to reach desired consistency (I like mine pretty soft, but it’s all personal). Season with a little salt and pepper, and serve.

Serves 6.

Roasted fingerling potatoes

If you can’t get fingerlings, small yellow or red potatoes, quartered, will also work.

25 fingerling potatoes, or 15 small red potatoes (or a mix of yellow and red)
5 cloves garlic
olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Wash the potatoes, scrubbing well (do not peel). In a large baking dish, spread out the potatoes. Press the garlic, and add to the dish along with enough olive oil to coat. Add a sprinkling of salt.

2. Swirl the potatoes, garlic, oil and salt around with your hands, turning the potatoes as necessary to coat well. Put in the oven and bake about 45 minutes, until pierced with a fork.

Serves 6.

Baby spinach salad with walnuts, clementine, and lemon

Salad on the Thanksgiving = essential. I need raw vegetables to go along with all the delicious (but heavy) traditional dishes.

Baby spinach (I am deliberately leaving off an amount here because how much you’ll use depends on how many people you’re feeding)
2 clementines, peeled and seperated (or one small can mandarin oranges)
1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

1. Toss the spinach with the fruit and walnut to well combine.

For the vinaigrette:

1 Tb. lemon juice
1 tsp. finely chopped lemon zest
1 shallot, finely diced
salt and pepper
5 Tb. olive oil

1. Combine the lemon juice, zest, 1/4 tsp. salt and shallots in a small bowl. Let stand 15 minutes.

2. Whisk in oil and season with pepper to taste. Taste, then correct the balance, adding more oil if necessary.

3. Pour dressing over salad and toss well to coat.


  1. Ah Ha! I just found my Thanksgiving menu here. Butternut with the rice and mushrooms, beans and zucchini, and a little clementine on my salad. I will add a loaf of homebaked bread, too. And of course, something pumpkin for dessert. How wonderful that your post covered all the ingredients in my kitchen that were just waiting for such inspiration. Happy Thanksgiving Nicole!

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