BWW Cooks: Fast, DIFFERENT Vegetarian Hacks For Thanksgiving

Yes, it's time to play that annual game, "Can I bring a guest to Thanksgiving dinner? S/he's a vegetarian!" that ruins all your carefully laid plans, especially when the call comes a day or two before the cooking starts - or, worse, that morning, when your relative or other guest finds their friend is alone for the day. Or else you're having your annual "three vegetarians will be there, so I'll make the same lasagna I always make even though I'm trying new recipes for the other food" quandary, the one that always has your vegetarian son or daughter threatening to run to their friend's house instead because they're sick of Thanksgiving lasagna, or, in my one friend's case, ten years of Thanksgiving eggplant parmesan.

The ideal dish for surprise vegetarians must be quick. It must be easy. It shouldn't be the "annual I made it if a vegetarian showed up" casserole that looks and tastes a bit forlorn. And it must look like you didn't just throw things together at the last second and pray it would pass muster. Yes, this is possible.

There are certain things you should always have on hand in your pantry and in your fridge. Things like pasta. Eggs. Dairy products. Onions. If you have these, you're almost ready to roll, especially if you can run someone out to the store quickly for some vegetables that you won't be cooking all day.

First up: Spaghetti or fettucine carbonara. It'll take butter, it'll take eggs. It won't take bacon, though, for vegetarians, but an inexpensive package of vegetarian bacon, which your store will have with the veggie burgers, will work every bit as well. If you have the space to squeeze a pot of water on the stove, this will be delicious, it will be a pasta that isn't drenched in red sauce or tomato gravy, and it will go with any green or roasted vegetables you're serving for dinner.

Second. Are you roasting any veggies? You are roasting vegetables, right? You're not? They're easy and the perfect side dish for holidays... and if you make extras, surely there's some olive oil or butter and some fresh parmesan and some balsamic vinegar, right? Toss roasted vegetables with a larger pasta shape, such as rotini or large penne, add a bit of oil or butter and cheese, and drizzle with balsamic vinegar. You've just turned the roasted vegetables into an entrée. If you're roasting or pan frying Brussels sprouts, caramelize some onions quickly and toss them with cut-down sprouts to mix with the pasta.

Were you making baked potatoes? If you weren't, begin by microwaving a couple of large ones to doneness. Scoop out the insides. Add butter, sour cream, onions, cheese - make stuffed "everything" potatoes without bacon. Put them back in the oven to brown on top and to reheat, especially if you plan to melt cheese on top. A large stuffed potato, or twice-baked potato, will go with all of the side dishes that your mashed potatoes do. You were making mashed potatoes? Make some extra. Add your "everythings" (minus bacon) to the separated mashed potatoes, top with cheese, and bake in individual entrée ramekins.

If you are baking acorn squash, take one of your halves, scoop out the flesh, mash it, and add spices and mild cheese, with a few breadcrumbs, for a twice-baked squash half. Raisins and walnuts or pecans are nice additions here, even with savory stuffing. If you use a mild curry spice, with mild cheese and the raisins and nuts, you'll have an interesting Indian-flavored twice-baked squash.

Is one of your recipes calling for mushrooms? If it isn't, can you run out for fresh portabellas? Even meat-eaters love stuffed portabella mushrooms, and a vegetarian without an allergy who won't eat them isn't worth the name of "vegetarian." Yes, you do have at least one stuffed mushroom recipe in one of your cookbooks that doesn't require sausage or crab. If you're making stuffing, a few croutons or pieces of bread turn into breadcrumbs. And... you do have some onions, garlic, thyme, and cheese there, right? All you need is your baking sheet and a little oven space. If you can't get portabella caps, get large ordinary mushrooms and serve several caps. If you plan stuffed mushrooms as an appetizer, simply make extras.

Oh. Appetizers. You forgot about appetizers for a vegetarian. If you're not doing the vegetable tray or chips and dip thing, and are going fancier but meat-based, go straight to your cupboard. That's the place where I keep the sealed box containers of things like vegetable stock, as well as a spare roasted red pepper or butternut squash soup. If you don't have one of the thick vegetarian soups like those last two, stocked in your pantry, vegetable broth will save you. Chop a few onions finely, as well as a carrot that you got for the roasted vegetables, or your carrots that you always serve, or from the carrots you always keep around because we cook with them. Lacking that, chop a rib of the celery you were using in the stuffing. Sautee them quickly, don't forget garlic, and heat them with the broth and a few herbs. If you have time, add a handful of egg noodles or orzo - if you've more time, or keep microwave ready-packs around, add some rice. Sprinkle on some parsley or chives.

If you have the roasted red pepper soup, add sautéed onions. If you have the creamy butternut squash soup, sprinkle on some nutmeg or cinnamon. In either case, a dollop of sour cream is not only a fine garnish but, unless the guest is vegan, a welcome addition.

But back to entrees from appetizers that the non-vegetarians will wish they had. Do you have noodles - egg or egg-type noodles? They're a pantry staple. Do you have sour cream? Do you have a packet of kosher brown gravy or mushroom gravy mix? (Check packets oF Brown gravy mix and mushroom gravy mix. Many of them have no meat products in them and many are kosher or available in vegetarian sections in the grocery. I always keep a few of these around for kosher or vegetarian recipes to speed things up.) You'd better have a spare onion! No mushrooms? Make a mad dash to the store - this is a job for the guest who's begging to help but is in the way - and get some fresh sliced baby portabella mushrooms. Because, unsurprisingly, mushroom stroganoff is one of the most delicious things known to humanity. And the carrots and the Brussels sprouts will go perfectly with it. If you're feeling guilty, and feel that you have to put in something meatlike, get some vegetarian beef crumbles or dice some veggie burgers to go with the mushrooms. This is a dish that's ridiculously easy, and there is no known human who hates stroganoff. As with the soup, the other guests may be jealous of the vegetarians.

A quick pasta dish that isn't one more "look, I made a lasagna," and that has color and flavor, is always festive and will be satisfactory to a visiting vegetarian guest for whom you want to do more than say "here, the vegetables are okay." By the way, even if you already know a vegetarian is coming, they also taste better than Tofurkey, trust me, and your vegetarian guest is already going "what if there's another lasagna?" Stuffed mushrooms or mushroom stroganoff are easy, but are also absolutely delicious and will tell your guest that you love them completely. They are comfort foods of high degree, just like turkey and potatoes. (And that stuffed mushroom is begging for your mashed potatoes to go with it.)

Basic kitchen staples and a healthy amount of vegetables that normally make their way to the Thanksgiving table anyway but can be diverted into another recipe, as well as some handy mushrooms mean that surprise vegetarians can not only be accommodated, but will feel right at home and welcome at your table. Happy Thanksgiving!

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From This Author Marakay Rogers