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Op-Ed: Vegetarian’s Thanksgiving survival guide

Most of the holiday’s tradition revolves around copious amounts of meaty food. Tack on a friend’s distant family members who disagree with your dietary choices or simply don’t understand them, and celebrating a Thanksgiving feast can be tension filled. It’s easy to feel uncomfortable when your personal dietary choices become the center talking point, particularly when the people making comments are stuffing their mouths with turkey. But whether you’re a vegetarian for ethical reasons, to help the environment, or because red meat and poultry are not that healthy for you, you can take solace in knowing that there are plenty of ways to survive celebrating Thanksgiving with relative strangers.

The first order of business is to inform your guest host of your meatless habits in hopes that they don’t get offended when you ignore most of the food they offer. If the host tries to give you grief, don’t try to convert them to a vegetarian lifestyle and start requesting the food comes from faceless sources. It’s only going to create tension. Instead find out what dishes are going to contain meat or parts of meat (like chicken broth), and then offer to bring a home-cooked, festive vegetarian or vegan meal for yourself and others at the table. But what should you bring?

There are plenty of ways to decide on a festive, veggie-friendly holiday meal. Whether you’re browsing generational family recipes, or following my inspiration by checking out online holiday blogs, the opportunities to find unique vegetarian meals are nearly endless.

After browsing holiday and food blogs, these are my three recommendations for your Thanksgiving meals.

If you’re short on time—or if cooking isn’t your specialty—then the following two recipes might fit your needs.

Roasted Winter Vegetables with Seitan Chunks and Brown Gravy (serves four)
This dish makes an excellent hearty meal that only takes a few minutes to prepare, and incorporates seasonal plants that give the meal a Thanksgiving feel.

Ingredients: 1 cup chopped onions, 1 pound baby carrots, 2 cups fresh or frozen baby Brussel sprouts (thawed if frozen) and halved if large, 1 ½ pounds fingering potatoes or small new potatoes, halved, 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, salt and freshly ground black pepper, 8-12 ounces seitan, cut into chunks, 1 ½ cups mushroom gravy.

Directions: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly oil a large baking dish and spread the onions on the bottom of the dish. Top the onions with the baby carrots, Brussels sprouts and potatoes. Drizzle those ingredients with the olive oil, and sprinkle them with the thyme. Season that to taste with the salt and pepper, and then cover it all tightly and bake until the vegetables are tender, which takes about an hour. About 15 minutes before the cooking time ends, remove the cover and gently stir the vegetables. Add the seitan and gravy, and recover it and return the dish to the oven for the meal to finish cooking.

Chunky Fresh Pear and Apple Sauce with Cranberries (served four)
This meal fills your home with a fresh, Thanksgiving-friendly fragrance that will put you in the festive mood. Applesauce makes an excellent side dish for the many heavy foods Thanksgiving is known for, and this recipe shouldn’t take you more than half a day to prepare.

Ingredients: 4 cooking apples (halved, cored and diced), 4 ripe pears (halved, cored and diced), ½ cup of light brown sugar, ½ cup water, 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/3 cup of sweetened dried cranberries.

Directions: Combine the apples, pears, brown sugar, water, lemon juice, cinnamon and ginger into a four-quart slow-cooker. Afterward, cover the cooker and cook the mixture on low for four to six hours, until the fruit is very soft. Afterward, mash gently with a potato masher to break the concoction up slightly and stir in the cranberries.

On the other hand, if you have all day to cook a Thanksgiving meal to offer your host and their guests, then consider this dish.

Apple, Leek and Squash Gratin (serves four)
Apples might be an unusual addition to a savory gratin, but slices of the fruit arranged on top of the main ingredients offer another delicious layer. Plus, the dish’s usage of butternut squash offers an excellent addition to any Thanksgiving feast.

Ingredients: 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 2 leeks (white part only, thinly sliced crosswise, washed well and drained), 2 tablespoons of water, coarse salt and freshly ground pepper, ½ cup dry sherry, 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh sage leaves (plus whole leaves for garnish), 1 pound of butternut squash (peeled, seeded and cut into 1/8-inch thick slices), ½ cup of finely grated dairy-free Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Directions: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a 10-inch skillet, heat two tablespoons of olive oil over medium, add the leeks and the water, and then season with salt and pepper. Cook the leeks with occasional stirring until the leeks begin to brown, which should take about 10 minutes. Add the sherry and sage and cook, stirring until the liquid glazes, about three minutes. Afterward, in a two-quart shallow baking dish, arrange squash in overlapping layers, and then season with more salt and pepper. Spread the leeks over the squash, and then arrange the apples in an overlapping layer over the leeks. Brush the apples with the remaining olive oil. Cover the dish tightly with parchment, foil and then bake for 45 minutes. After the time is up, uncover the dish and sprinkle cheese over the top. Raise the oven temperature to 450 degrees Fahrenheit and continue baking until the cheese is melted to a golden brown crisp, and then an additional 10 minutes. Let the meal cool down for 10 minutes and garnish it with the remaining sage leaves.

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