Thursday, November 21, 2013

Thankfully, Vegetables Take the Stage

Tamari-Roasted Brussels Sprouts.
(Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
A funny thing happens when you host a vegetarian Thanksgiving: The whole shebang gets a heck of a lot easier.

Consider all the questions you no longer have to answer: Did I order the turkey in time? Is it fresh, or frozen? If frozen, do I have time to thaw it? Do I have space? Should I brine? Wet or dry? Do I have a bag or bucket big enough? Space in the fridge? 

And that’s before the oven even gets preheated.

I’ve long said that vegetarianism too often focuses on the absence of the meat rather than the presence of the vegetables, that the produce itself gets short shrift when the dishes are defined that way. (Hence, I wish we had a day of the week that starts with the letter V so we could have Vegetable V-days rather than Meatless Mondays.)

Still, I have to admit that the best thing about cooking my first all-vegetarian Thanksgiving last year might have been the fact that there was so much more room — in the oven, on the table, on the to-do list and, finally, in our stomachs — because we had declared the whole event to be fowl-free. In its place, thankfully, were all the vegetables we wanted to celebrate.

Persian-Spiced Sweet Potato Pie.
(Photo by Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post)
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for cooking because its roots, so to speak, are those of a harvest festival, which is one of the reasons I’ve loved spending it for the past 10 years or so at my sister and brother-in-law’s Maine homestead. Last year, when I participated so intensively in the planting, manure-shoveling, weeding and bug-killing that successful small-scale organic vegetable growing requires, the harvest celebration was all the sweeter.

As always, we did most of the cooking in the wood-fired brick bread oven that my brother-in-law, Peter, built several years ago. It’s a thing of beauty, but it requires planning — and negotiation. One holiday tradition is the annual when-are-you-going-to-fire-up-the-oven-so-we-have-manageable-heat-when-we-want-it discussion between Peter and my sister, Rebekah. The first year I cooked Thanksgiving dinner there, we roasted a 20-pound turkey so quickly (in what I think must have been around 800-degree heat) that I had to tent it with foil after a mere 20 minutes because it was already so browned. Another 20, and the thing was pretty much done.

Sometimes it’s the opposite problem. Last year, the afternoon before the holiday, Peter called up to my third-floor bedroom with the notification I had requested: that the oven was at 500 degrees. I had planned to put several pies in shortly thereafter, but I foolishly waited another hour, and then by the time the crusts were defrosted and the fillings put together, the oven temperature was in the low 300s — and falling fast. We built another fire, let it burn out and swabbed down the interior, and then the temperature was at ... 600. Such is the trade-off when cooking with fire.

Nonetheless, without a turkey to worry about, we had time to wait for the temperature to fall; then we put in the pies, including one I’ve made for more years than I can count, a cranberry-apricot number based on a recipe in the “Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook” of the early 1980s. I also had time for a major pie experiment: We had grown sweet potatoes, but rather than boil and puree them into a custard, I took inspiration from an open-faced apple pie by Rose Levy Beranbaum and thinly sliced the sweet potatoes, arranging them in the crust like so many petals. I brushed on a mixture of butter, brown sugar and Persian spices and put it in to bake. It was a bit of a mystery; when the crust was browned and the sweet potatoes were soft, I pulled it from the oven, but the slices seemed to be swimming in the pooling butter. Would this be pleasant enough to eat?

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