Nothing says “meat” like Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey is the culinary and visual center of the meal. Until relatively recently, being vegetarian at Thanksgiving was likely to bring hostile or incredulous stares. Long ago, I brought a vegetarian person to a Thanksgiving dinner, and that’s exactly what happened. Now vegetarian dining is more mainstream, but I still think there’s something lacking in our approach to vegetarian Thanksgiving meals. Like there needs to be a centerpiece to the meal, the visual equivalent of the turkey.
I looked online for some Vegetarian/Vegan Thanksgiving ideas, and wasn’t impressed. The Food Network has lots of recipe suggestions, although most are just side dishes linked to a vegetarian Thanksgiving photo gallery. The fact that most of them are side dishes is also problematic. The dinner turns into a casserole-fest. In my humble holiday opinion, the main dish should be higher in protein than the cranberry relish (which is already vegan and vegetarian by the way). What to do?
My solution would be a stuffed pumpkin. It’s not that difficult to do and looks impressive to boot, a lovely autumn centerpiece for the meal. There are two main parts of making one: cutting up the pumpkin and making a suitable stuffing. The best stuffing would be a combination of
- a cooked grain (barley, brown rice, quinoa or some combination of whole grains)
- a variety of sautéed vegetables (I’d choose from onions, brussels sprouts, shredded cabbage, carrots, peas, corn, mushrooms, cauliflower, celery, broccoli and cubed red potatoes)
- seasoned with herbs and/or spices
- garlic, fennel, rosemary, thyme, minced fresh parsley
- coriander, cinnamon, cardamon, nutmeg, minced fresh cilantro
- ground chili, coriander, cinnamon, ground ancho, chipotle or cayenne, minced jalapeño and/or a squeeze of lime juice are nice additions
- dried fruit like raisins or cranberries also add flavor
- finished with toasted nuts, which boost protein: almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, pine nuts or hazelnuts would all be good options
You could also add some garbanzo beans (chickpeas), which also boost protein. I wouldn’t use any other type of cooked bean because I don’t think the flavors or textures would work well. But you might think differently about that.
Note I haven’t included any cheese, eggs or dairy, so in fact this is a vegan stuffed pumpkin. If your meal is vegetarian, you can add protein to the meal by serving another dish that includes dairy, eggs or cheese, such as scalloped potatoes. The Green Bean Casserole and Creamed Spinach recipes on the Food Network site would also accomplish that.
Preparing the pumpkin requires a good sharp knife and good knife handling skills. I don’t recommend this if you aren’t handy in the kitchen or don’t have good knives. And of course you also need a pumpkin. The best (only) choice is a pie pumpkin which are available at grocery stores this time of year. They’re smaller than Jack ‘O Lantern pumpkins, and the shell is thicker. Rather than re-invent the wheel, I found a YouTube video that shows some of the proper techniques from 1:08 to 1:45. The baking part starts at 2:40 – 2:50. He’s making a meat stuffing and using a more complicated process than I’d use, so just use the video for the pumpkin prep.
To sum it up, you cut around the stem of the pumpkin with your sharp knife and then lift the top off. Scrape off all the seeds and stringy parts so the inside of the pumpkin is basically clean. Brush the insides with oil. In this video for Biryani Pumpkin, the pumpkin is brushed with a mixture of oil, honey, cinnamon and cardamon. That would be a good choice if you’re making a curry-seasoned stuffing. You can discard the seeds, or clean and toast them for later use (good snacking).
How Long Should You Cook It
Cooking time really depends on the size of the pumpkin and thickness of the flesh, which is edible. After all it’s what we use for pumpkin pie. As I prefer fillings that are already mostly cooked, I would pre-cooked the cleaned pumpkin for 30 minutes, then add the stuffing and finish baking so it’s heated through. When done, you should be able to stick a kitchen fork (long thin tines) into the pumpkin easily, but the pumpkin should not collapse, which would mean overcooked. So check on it every 10 minutes or so after the 45 minutes of baking at 350°. Once you’re satisfied that the pumpkin itself is adequately cooked and it hasn’t started to sag, you can hold it in a warm oven, or remove it and cover with foil until serving time.
My Stuffing Concept
Here’s what I’d use for a pumpkin that’s roughly 6 inches tall and 7-8 inches wide. If you end up with extra stuffing, put it in a covered casserole dish and keep warm. You can use it for second helpings or leftovers.
- 5 cups cooked barley (from 2 to 2-1/2 cups raw pearled barley)
- 1 cup corn kernels (frozen OK)
- 1 cup frozen peas
- 2 cups roasted brussels sprouts
- 1 cup sautéed minced onion
- 1 cup lightly sautéed sliced mushrooms (your choice, Baby Bells would be nice)
- 1-1/2 cups toasted chopped pecans or toasted pine nuts
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- seasoned with 2 tsp fennel seed, 1 tsp dried thyme, 3-4 TB minced fresh flat leaf parsley, salt and pepper. I’d also mince in the zest of a lemon, but that’s optional.
Combine everything in a bowl, toss together with a fork and season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the stuffing to the pumpkin after about 1/2 hour of pre-baking. Continue cooking until the pumpkin flesh is cooked, not sagging, and the stuffing is heated through. Serve the pumpkin stuffing with a large spoon, scraping a bit of the cooked pumpkin up along with the stuffing.
As I discuss in my book Feed Your Vegetarian Teen, vegan and vegetarian meals need to boost protein in many small ways, since the meal isn’t built around high protein meat. Thanksgiving side dishes can contribute to that. As I mentioned above, dishes made with milk or cheese — such as gratins — work for vegetarians. For vegans, other dishes that use nuts, or legumes or are made with soy milk are protein sources.
But not everything has to include significant protein. Many of our favorite Thanksgiving foods are already vegan/vegetarian, such as:
- cranberry relish
- sweet potatoes
- roasted vegetables, especially root vegetables like beets, parsnips, rutabagas
- green salads
- bread “stuffing”, which can be cooked as a side dish, using celery, onion, dried fruit, apples, nuts and seasonings
- And even mashed potatoes can be made vegan by using soy milk and margarine instead of milk and butter.
Even pumpkin pie can be vegan. The Food Network list includes this recipe. I haven’t tried it myself, but it sounds like it should work, although basically you end up with cornstarch-thickened pumpkin pudding on a crust. The texture will be heavier than regular pumpkin pie, and alas, no whipped cream! You could also use that crust recipe for an apple pie (vegan by default) with a crumb or lattice topping.
Whatever your preferences for Thanksgiving meals, I hope you have a lovely dinner.