A meatless Thanksgiving to say grace

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For most people, Thanksgiving is a gustatory romp that revolves around a plump, steaming turkey with all the trimmings. But we’ve found that side dishes are bountiful in and of themselves. Add a touch of creativity and you will never even miss the overgrown Butterball.

If you’re one of the growing number of health-conscious and merciful people crying “fowl” over factory-farmed turkeys, there are many meatless alternatives for your feast.

Thanksgiving was first celebrated in fall of 1621 by the English settlers of Plymouth Colony in what is now Massachusetts and the neighboring Wampanoag Indians as a way to celebrate the harvest before the cold winter set in.  A three-day affair, that first Thanksgiving did not list turkey as the main attraction. Instead, the menu included deer, seal, swan and lobster – all of which were locally available.

Like today’s celebrations, however, the meal also featured bushels of produce, the bounty of a successful harvest season. Bright yellow squash, deep green Brussels sprouts, nutty wild rice, a diversity of tomato and potato varieties, orange pumpkins, crimson cranberries and much more passed across the table between the Pilgrims and their new Native American friends. That’s the part of the menu we tapped for our meatless Thanksgiving meal.

We started with a black bean and pumpkin soup – a slight variation on a traditional recipe. We puréed the beans with chopped tomatoes and onions, minced garlic, pumpkin, vegetable broth and a host of spices, including salt, pepper and ground cumin. A tablespoon of butter can be added to this mixture or dropped for vegans. The soup is vibrantly rich with a satiny smooth texture.

Since we made the side dishes the central focus of our dinner, we chose several that were both substantive and complementary. Our selections included a mushroom and caramelized shallot strudel, vegetarian stuffing with cranberries and, as our “entrée,” baked squash stuffed with wild rice and cranberries.

The strudels, wrapped in phyllo dough, were a delightful mix of mushrooms, shallots, breadcrumbs and fresh and dried herbs, including parsley, salt, black pepper and thyme. We sautéed the filling in olive oil, and we included a little sugar, sour cream and sweet Marsala wine in the mix. We wrapped it all in phyllo dough and baked for 20 minutes, creating a dish both sweet and savory.

The vegetarian stuffing with cranberries followed much the same flavor profile. We sautéed diced red onion and celery and whole cranberries in butter and oil, poured in vegetable broth and brought the mixture to a boil. Then we added it to a bowl of breadcrumbs and wild rice, stirred in two eggs and added salt, pepper, kidney beans and freshly minced sage and thyme. 

In the past we’ve made stuffing with pork sausage and chorizo, but the meat was never missed in this year’s mix, which was a more interesting and satisfying collection of flavors and textures.

The stuffed squash, the most ambitious of the dishes, was next.

We found several recipes, but tapped the highlights from two of them (see next page). We also substituted larger festival squash for the acorn variety, making the dish much more substantial.

The squash was rich and flavorful and the stuffing mix added significant character and texture. We used fresh Wisconsin cranberries rather than dried ones, which added a tart sweetness to a mix made crunchy by the black, long-grained Minnesota wild rice. We chose walnuts over the pecans largely due to their woodsy flavor, which stood out boldly from the stuffing.

Over the past few years, we’ve sampled several heritage turkeys, heirloom varieties that are organically raised, free-range birds of infinitely better flavor than today’s varieties.

Americans will consume upwards of 46 million turkeys on Nov. 22. Ninety-nine percent of them will be factory farm-raised birds who are a year old or less when slaughtered. Each will have lived in an average 3.5 square feet of space and never have experienced the sun or the outdoors.

The cramped, filthy conditions under which these turkeys are raised requires massive dosing with antibiotics to keep them free of infection. They’re fattened artificially using growth hormones. You ingest the drugs and the hormones along with the stuffing.

But after our meatless Thanksgiving dinner, we may never go back to the bird again.

Stuffed squash with wild rice and cranberries

(from The Boston Globe)

Serves 6

Ingredients

3 acorn or festival squash (about 1 1/2 lbs. each), 

halved lengthwise and seeds removed

 2 tablespoons olive oil

salt and pepper

1 cup wild rice blend 

 (wild and long-grain white rice)

2 cups water

1 cup dried cranberries

One-half cup walnuts, toasted

2 tablespoons fresh chopped sage

6 tablespoons maple syrup

2 tablespoons butter

Instructions

Set oven at 400 degrees. Brush the cut sides of the squash with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Place cut sides down on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast for 25 minutes, or until soft. Leave the oven on.

In a medium saucepan combine rice, water and the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes, or until the water is absorbed and the grains are tender. Remove from the heat.

Stir in cranberries and set aside for 5 minutes. Stir in the walnuts and sage.

Brush the cut sides of the cooked squash with maple syrup. Divide the stuffing among the halves. Top each squash with some butter.

Roast for 10 minutes or until the filling is hot.

Roasted acorn squash with wild rice stuffing

(from www.chow.com)

Ingredients

3 medium acorn squash (about 1 1/2 lbs. each), 

 halved lengthwise and seeds removed

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar

1/2 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

2 medium shallots, finely chopped

4 celery stalks, finely chopped

1 tablespoon minced fresh thyme leaves

2 cups cooked wild rice mix

2/3 cup pecans, toasted and finely chopped

1/4 cup dried cranberries, finely chopped

1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed

Instructions

Heat the oven to 450 degrees and place a rack in the middle.

Place the squash cut-side up on a baking sheet, brush 1 tablespoon of the melted butter over the tops and insides of the squash halves, sprinkle with the brown sugar, and season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven until just fork tender, about 25 to 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, place 1 tablespoon of the melted butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. When it foams, add the onion, shallots, and celery, season with salt and pepper, and stir to coat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until just softened, about 6 minutes. Stir in the thyme and cook until just fragrant, about 1 minute.

Remove from the heat and stir in the rice, pecans, cranberries, and measured salt and pepper.

Divide the rice filling among the roasted squash halves (about 1/2 cup for each) and drizzle the remaining tablespoon of butter over top. Continue roasting until the squash is completely fork tender, the edges have started to brown, and the filling is heated through, about 20 to 25 minutes.

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