Designing the Meal

Sbicca notes that many people are used to composing courses much like nonvegetarians: a main course of protein, a starch and a vegetable. But, she points out, the beauty of vegetarian courses is being able to focus on just one or two primary vegetables and back them up with flavors that enhance.

“For instance,” she says, “grilled eggplant with sautéed shiitake mushrooms, goat cheese and tomato jus with herbs.”

Keep it simple, she adds. “It’s very easy for cooks to combine so many vegetables on a plate that it gets messy in terms of flavor. Try a stuffed Acorn squash with a simple vegetable medley or grain with bright flavors to contrast with the creamy, earthy and sweet flavors of the squash.” And, she adds, “stuffed vegetables are a hit for presentation and the combinations are endless.”

Chef Ricardo Heredia of Alchemy emphasizes the importance of using what is in season. “Fall is all about greens, root vegetables, pumpkins and squashes, wonderful citrus fruits, apples, pears and persimmons. I’m not a fan of fake meats so I like to use grains to add flavor. Also, contrast textural elements of dishes to put them in the forefront rather than have a table full of side dishes. Stuffed Acorn squash with quinoa, Swiss chard tamales and parsnip au gratin are all dishes that can stand up proudly to any turducken.”

Many of these dishes above work well as main courses. Build around them with complementary salads.

“I love making salads with all the wonderful things that are in season,” Altmann says. “One of my favorites is greens with gorgonzola, toasted hazelnuts, persimmon slices, cranberries and a pomegranate vinaigrette.”

Saffron’s Su-Mei Yu loves to incorporate noodles—cold or hot—on the holiday table. “You can mix wheat, rice or glass noodles with greens to make an interesting dish,” she says. “Yes, this is root vegetable season, but in San Diego we have all sorts of great greens, plus eggplants, pomegranates, avocadoes and cauliflower of different colors. All of them can be transformed and combined with noodles or grains to make a festive looking dish.”

And don’t skimp on the good stuff—rich cheeses, chestnuts, morels and chanterelles, even truffles—says Mary Kay Waters of Waters Fine Catering. “My thing is to splurge a little for the holidays. Just because you don’t eat meat doesn’t mean you can’t still indulge in culinary treats.”

For Waters, that could mean a gorgeous puffy cheese soufflé as the meal’s centerpiece, or a truffle mac ’n’ cheese or an omelet roulade filled with spinach and roasted peppers. Even a root vegetable potpie spiked with truffles, with a rich sauce made from root vegetable stock. And Waters and cookbook author Jill O’Connor both suggest sautéed or roasted vegetables snuggled rustically in phyllo packages—which have the additional benefit of being able to be made in advance and frozen before cooking. O’Connor wraps each portion individually with a big fluffy knot of phyllo on top, and uses olive oil instead of butter when cooking for vegans.

The idea boils down to having a holiday feast that highlights a few main dishes with side dishes and salads to complement them. As Altmann says, “I don’t like going to people’s homes and they tell me I can eat the side dishes. I might want to eat something more than mashed potatoes.”

And what about Hanukkah? From personal experience, even as an omnivore, I can say this is easy. Even for meat eaters, Hanukkah is all about the latkes, or fried potato pancakes. Nobody pays much attention to anything else so focus on the pancakes and you’ll be a hero. You could make a latke bar with traditional pancakes, curried sweet potato, zucchini or, as Su-Mei Yu suggests, bitter greens, taro or green onion pancakes. Serve a variety of sauces, along with sour cream (or crème fraiche) and applesauce. Add some green salads and you’ve got a great holiday meal, sans meat.

A Strategy for the Evening

Karen Krasne, owner of Extraordinary Desserts, may be known for her sweets, but she’s a trained chef and vegetarian who entertains regularly. She has five tips for hosting a vegetarian holiday meal, from apps to dessert:

  • Go heavy on the hors d’oeuvres and stretch out the cocktail hour. It’s a great way to offer a variety of flavors and options to appeal to a range of tastes and diets without having to deal with traditional holiday expectations.
  • Family-style dishes allow for a variety of options that guests can pick and choose from. Include a range of choices from lighter salads to heavier entrees made with potatoes and corn so the meal is filling and hearty.
  • If making a lot of salads and vegetable dishes, mix in ingredients like cheeses and nuts to make them heartier. Accompany them with sides like bruschetta, do-it-yourself garlic bread or flatbread—some of which can be gluten-free.
  • There are lots of great mock turkey or meat items—or tofu—that can be added to a main dish, like a stir fry.
  • Finish up with a variety of desserts that include something chocolaty, something light with fresh fruit, something vegan and something gluten-free. Not only will you have delicious options for people with varied dietary restrictions, but you’ll have a stunning display on your holiday table.

Heredia adds that it’s important to prepare as much as you can ahead of time. “I like to start three days prior with washing and breaking down my veggies, cooking off my grains, and preparing dough for bread and pies.

“I don’t know about you,” he says, “but I like to relax on holidays and enjoy my company and good wine. Isn’t that what it’s all about?”

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