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BWW Cooks: Vegetarian Holiday Entrees to Impress Guests

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Ah, the perennial holiday crisis: what to feed visiting vegetarians. For some reason, great cooks with fabulous vegetable recipes at hand go blank with horror when the dreaded vegetarian guests are announced. Yes, it might be one thing if they show up by surprise, but there's no reason to think the world's come to an end when you find out you have to present your nicest dishes to someone who probably won't touch your food.

That's just wrong thinking, and we'll settle it here. There are delicious things to make for vegetarian guests, even easier if they're not vegan, and the people who know that best are kosher cooks. Since in kosher cooking, dishes containing dairy items and dishes based on any meat or poultry must not be served at the same meal, Jewish cooks have spent centuries coming up with dishes that aren't based on meats to be served as entrees.

Sometimes they haven't even "come up" with recipes, but have noticed that a particular recipe simply is meatless. The dish called kugel ("pudding") is a baked casserole that can be based on noodles - noodle kugel is a well-known Jewish dish that can be sweet or savory, filled with dairy or with no dairy at all - or on potatoes, sweet potatoes, or other vegetables, and in large portions makes a delicious entrée. It does contain eggs in all of its manifestations unless you have a good vegan egg substitute binder, and thus, even without dairy, has protein, if that's a concern. (Non-vegetarians worry far too much about vegetarian protein matters, I find. But the stated RDA for protein is deliberately overstated for fear that people would not consume enough protein otherwise. Relax.) There are a number of delicious kugel recipes available, especially for noodle kugel and potato kugel. Sweet dairy kugel goes well with fruit additions - try craisins, mandarin oranges, and crushed pineapple as variations. But also look for recipes for Jerusalem kugel, a savory noodle dish with black pepper. Broccoli kugel, or a broccoli and potato kugel, is also a delicious entrée.

But noodles, cheese... macaroni and cheese is another vegetarian entrée. So is spaghetti with marinara sauce and any number of vegetables sautéed and added to the marinara. And spaghetti betokens eggplant parmesan, which calls to mind stuffed eggplant, stuffed acorn squash, and any number of other stuffable vegetables. Try stuffing mix, rice, quinoa, couscous, and any number of other starches as the basis of your stuffing. Add sautéed onions, celery, bell peppers of all colors, shredded carrot, and other vegetables, just skip the meat (or, if you must, try some vegetarian ground beef or sausage in them if you feel more comfortable adding something meat-like when you cook). Add chopped nuts, which have protein, texture, and flavor. Walnuts and pecans are especially good here, although chopped pistachio goes very well with eggplant if you're playing with eastern Mediterranean flavors.

Root vegetable stews are delicious and full of fall colors. Sweet potatoes, carrots, potato, and onion, with celery and peppers, is a good start. Parsnips are a wonderful addition, and a small turnip or two will not go amiss - although if you have a rutabaga, there's no need for turnips. Even if you don't love turnips as a side dish, in soups and stews they bring excellent texture and slight sweetness. Don't be afraid of them here. Season well. Thyme, if you want European spicing, saffron for a southern Mediterranean flavor, or cinnamon and warm Moroccan spices if you'd like it a bit more African. It's similar, if dry, to a tagine, so serving it with couscous is a delicious option, while freekeh will bring smoky undertones as the accompanying grain.

One of the great secrets of vegetarian cooking is substitution, and not of meat with veggie burgers or soy chicken. In that stew, or in the making of rice or couscous or many other starches, or as a soup base, you may, as your non-vegetarian cookbooks may, have an automatic bias towards chicken stock. The great vegetarian substitution is vegetable broth or vegetable stock. In many cases, and your stuffing is one of them, you may never notice that the liquid isn't chicken broth.

If you adamantly need chicken flavor, kosher cooking comes to your rescue again. No kosher cook would be without powdered pareve (meat-free) chicken bouillion. This comes in cubes and in tubs of powder, are vegan, and although it can be high in sodium, so is any canned or UHT-packaged broth. But try pure vegetable broth first, as it lets the flavor of the vegetables themselves shine. If the only non-vegetarian element of a recipe is chicken stock, there's no reason to make two batches of your dish; serve the vegetable stock version to everyone. There's no real nutritional difference to the dish with the substitution unless you're a bone broth user, so don't think you're affecting anyone's health by cheating them on something. Vegetable broth and pareve chicken bouillion are powerful weapons in the vegetarian pantry and the vegetarian table. But definitely don't use the chicken base in the root vegetable stew. The vegetables are the absolute point here.

Bright colors for the holidays aren't just in vegetables but can be in soup too - think about, returning to kosher inspirations, a pot of Russian or Roumanian borscht, glistening red with beets, with hot potatoes steaming in it and white sour cream floating on top. If you have a kosher section to your grocery, it's available in jars, but canned beets and their liquid make a great base as well for a simple but delicious borscht. You'll want to add a bit of finely diced onion, thyme, and a dash of a good vinegar, either red wine or apple cider, when you cook it. If you follow classic vegetarian cookbook author Mollie Katzen's more complex recipe you'll have a full vegetable soup on your hands that will serve an army, but the plainer, mostly clear, version with almost only beet in it is a great tradition, eaten by this writer in mass quantities back when the Polish Tea Room ruled Broadway, and it looks like a bowl of liquid rubies.

Rice and grain dishes are also great entrees: think about pilafs, whether rice, couscous, or ancient grains. Sautee the grains first, and cook in vegetable broth. Add sautéed chopped onions, celery, and other vegetables, as well as sprinkling the dish with parsley or cilantro and with chopped nuts. Or do a fruit pilaf; my own specialty for gluten-free vegetarians is a brown and wild rice pilaf with craisins, sweet onions, and chopped pecans. Grains and cheese go well together, just like pasta and cheese or noodles and cheese. Mollie Katzen topped all of these recipes with her Enchanted Broccoli Forest, for which her second cookbook was named. It's a showy but easy dish, and the recipe and a number of variations are on line; the "forest" is the broccoli florets trimmed and standing upright, looking like a cluster of trees in a forest soil of grain and cheese. Her recipe is classic, but don't be afraid to play with it. This, a root vegetable stew, or a noodle kugel make showy entrees for the vegetarians at your table, as does a classic eggplant parmesan. Root vegetable stew with a grain side, or a pilaf with oil instead of butter, will persuade any vegans present that you really are their friend.

It's not hard to cook for your vegetarian, and even vegan, holiday guests. (All right. If you're doing a full Italian seven fishes Christmas Eve dinner, cooking even one more thing may seem overwhelming, and you probably feel obligated to produce at least three vegetarian dishes as well.) And most of these dishes are familiar enough, and delicious enough, that you may find yourself less afraid to do meatless upscale dinners for yourself instead of cheese pizza or veggie burgers and frozen fries. You may find yourself thanking your vegetarian guests for introducing you to these, as much as they'll thank you for serving them. Happy holidays!

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From This Author Marakay Rogers