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What's Cooking Vegetarian Thanksgiving

Kim O'Donnel
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 13, 2008 1:00 PM

Calling all foodies! Join us for a vegetarian edition of What's Cooking, our live online culinary hour with Kim O'Donnel.

A graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education (formerly Peter Kump's New York Cooking School), O'Donnel spends much of her time in front of the stove or with her nose in a cookbook. She was online Thursday, Nov. 13, at 1 p.m.

The transcript follows.

Catch up on previous transcripts with the What's Cooking archive page. For daily dispatches from Kim's kitchen, check out her blog, A Mighty Appetite.

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Kim O'Donnel: We are now at T minus 14, the official Thanksgiving countdown, and we kick things off with this meatless chat for the folks who'd rather do without the bird, giblets and the oyster stuffing. Then next Thursday, Nov. 20, at the same time, I'll host the omnivorous Thanksgiving chat, perhaps the eighth annual. In between chats, there will be chat leftovers; I've dedicated one day a week until Tgiving to a Thanksgiving Chat Hotline, helping you prep and plan until the very last moment. So if your question goes unanswered in the live hour, you might just see it appear in the blog space next week -- and if you just can't wait because your mother-in-law is breathing down your neck over a recipe, feel free to post your question in the blog or send me an email at kim.odonnel AT wpni.com

Now, let's get this meatless party started.

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Reston, Va.: Just wanted to share the amazing vegetarian gravy dressing recipe from Whole Foods: Roasted Shallot Gravy.

We made it for the first time last year and it was a hit with veg and non-veg guests.

Kim O'Donnel: Fantastic, Reston. this is a great alternative to mushroom gravy, which I think can be too strong at times.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: I love mushroom gravy, but I would like to explore other vegetarian gravy options. Do you have any ideas?

Kim O'Donnel: Aha! Kismet. Check out the link just posted for roasted shallot gravy and see if this floats your gravy boat.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Hi Kim! I plan on making the tofu pumpkin pie for dessert (though am still figuring out whether to buy a pie crust or make one). So that's settled. While I will be celebrating a vegetarian Thanksgiving dinner, I'd like to maintain the traditional sides such as cranberry sauce, stuffing, sweet mashed potatoes and a wintry salad. Any suggestions on a veggie friendly stuffing? Also, I was originally going to make a salad of greens, walnuts and apples, but found out that my grandma cannot eat apples since she is unable to eat hard food. Anything else I can make or substitute it with?

Kim O'Donnel: Was just talking to Liz Kelly (Miz Celebritology) about making pie crust, and she finally gave it a whirl, using Earth Balance non-dairy spread, and she said it came out great. Wonder if she's around to share her report. Re: veggie-friendly stuffing: In addition to onions or shallots, and plenty of herbs, I'd add either celery or fennel to the mix. I tend to like my stuffing's simple, without a lot of stuff. It'd be nice if you can make your own stock, which you can do well in advance and freeze. For your salad, throw in persimmons or clementines or pears, or pomegranate seeds!

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Saltless in Seattle: Hi, Kim, the roasted shallot gravy looks great but I have to skip the salt. Is there any salt substitute (not MSG) that you recommend? Or in general can I just leave out the salt from recipes? Thanks!

Kim O'Donnel: Hey Saltless, Penzeys, the spice people, have several salt-free seasonings. There's one called Mural of Flavor which you may want to explore. Has anyone had first-hand experience?

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U Street: Hi Kim, Just wondering if it was possible to make a gravy without flour. Can I use pan drippings from roasting mushrooms and shallots? What would I do with the drippings? Thank you!

Kim O'Donnel: You can use pan drippings from roasted veg, yes, but if you leave out the flour, you'll end up with more of jus than a gravy. Gravy is fat, flour and some kind of liquid. You'd need to roast a lot of shallots to yield drippings, then you'd drain and add to some kind of stock. Just remember, it will never really emulsify...

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Silver Spring, Md.: I've tried Tofurky and while it tastes okay, what would be an alternative you'd suggest as a non-faux meat, non-casserole main dish for the veggie set?

Kim O'Donnel: I'm not a big fan of the Tofurky, either. While I think stuffed acorn squash is pretty, I'd much rather go with roasted delicate because it's so darn good. I've stuffed red onions before, a beautiful presentation, and you get your Tgiving stuffing with your main course. I've also done roasted root veggies with quinoa, which is tasty but not nec. festive. A mushroom mix could be nice, topped with an interesting grain, like faro...

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melis: Kim, I'm thinking about making some kind of pumpkin or squash risotto -- but of course kitchen time/space is at a real premium. Do you think I could make ahead and reheat? Or how much could I do in advance to minimize my time in the kitchen day-of?

Kim O'Donnel: I was just about to mention risotto in response to the previous post, but I decided against it not because of kitchen space but because of the commitment required to attend to it. Thanksgiving tends to be an eight-ring circus, and I think risotto would end up getting the short shrift. I would not recommend making ahead and reheating. The only way I'd do it is if your guests were made aware that you were serving risotto as a starter course and that it was being made to order. Otherwise, I think you're asking for a lot of stress.

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gravy without flour: Could the poster use cornstarch or arrowroot instead (mix first with a bit of warm water to smooth, then work into the gravy)? Or a touch of gumbo file if the gravy flavors are strong enough.

Kim O'Donnel: Yes, yes. When I first read the question, I was thinking no binder at all, but of course, these would make excellent flour-free gravies. Thanks.

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New Haven: Interesting article comparing veg turkey substitutes in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal today. Most I've tasted are nasty and rubbery -- those thinking of a veg Tday should make some kind of casserole themselves, rather than spend the dough on fake "turkeys," in my opinion.

Kim O'Donnel: Field Roast, which is actually based here in Seattle, is proving to be the most palatable in this genre. It's not shaped like a turkey but rather a roast, and it's flavored with either lentils, mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes. I really like their "sausages" and I know folks who have enjoyed the field roasts for Tgiving.

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Sausage-less: I'm doing Thanksgiving at my house this year. My sister and her bf are coming over and both are vegetarians (not vegans). I'm trying to change my cornbread and sausage stuffing to work for them. While using veggie broth works great, it seems to be lacking something without the sausage. What's a good substitute? Maybe add extra butter or something for depth?

Kim O'Donnel: Try these Field Roast "sausages" I just mentioned, I think you may be pleasantly surprised.

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Ohio: For the person making shallot gravy. Cornstarch would work for the thickener, and would be free of any gluten, etc.

Kim O'Donnel: Unless of course, the person has corn issues, which often is the case with folks who have celiac. Thanks, Ohio!

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U Street: Hi Kim, just wanted to report that my mom and I are going to try your tofu pumpkin pie this year and we are VERY excited. We both have to go gluten-free so our plan is to crumble our favorite g-f wafer cookies and mix with Earth Balance sticks for crust -- do you think that will be okay? Also, we're going to try not to tell anyone there's tofu in the pie... it will be interesting to hear the reactions!

Kim O'Donnel: Woo hoo! I love it when people are excited to try something new in the kitchen. Re: crust: you can also get your hands on a GF flour mix...or here's another idea...GF graham crackers for a graham cracker crust...

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re: Gravy without flour: Thanks Kim! I will call it jus and be happy. Thanks for the advice.

Kim O'Donnel: But your fellow savvy readers have also reminded me that if you can't use flour, you can use lots of gluten-free alternatives. See their suggestions earlier in the hour!

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Dressing: Use veggie stock for dressing -- only change needed for veggie, but vegan -- I don't know what to use instead of all those eggs (I use about 8 in our cornbread dressing). I did this for my veggie MIL, and she loved it.

Kim O'Donnel: I never use eggs in my stuffing. I know people do, but I never found a need for them. Do you have time to do a practice run on an egg-less dressing??

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main dish idea: I haven't yet made this recipe but it looks so cute I think it is worth a mention (saw in Veggie Times I think) -- you make little cornucopias by wrapping puff pastry around aluminum foil molds, then serve them filled with roasted baby vegetables. We always just do a stuffed pumpkin for the veggie main course because it is so easy.

Kim O'Donnel: That's a fun idea and you could play with all kinds of veg. A veggie pot pie is also a fun idea as a main course for the meatless set.

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Ithaca, N.Y.: Earth Balance in pie dough -- I use the Earth Balance buttery sticks in virtually all of my baking where recipes call for butter. Pie dough's have worked very well (basic as well as tart dough). Texture is excellent and flavor very good (not quite the same as butter but perfectly fine).

Kim O'Donnel: Thanks, Ithaca. I have used Earth Balance in cakes and cookies and am thrilled to hear it works well in pie crust.

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New England: Hi Kim, I've been enjoying our wonderful fall veggies (mostly roasted, thanks to you!) and thought a nice veggie or bean loaf would round things out nicely. I found a lentil loaf recipe I liked in Rose Eliot's cookbook, but am looking to branch out. Do you have a favorite? Thanks.

Kim O'Donnel: New England, I have yet to experiment with veggie and bean loaves, but let's see if there are veteran loaf makers out there willing to lend a hand...

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squash as main dish: I took this from 'stuffed merliton' known outside of New Orleans as chayote and do it with most any squash. You boil the squash and scoop out the innards, being careful to keep the shape for stuffing later. Soak some dried mushrooms, reserving water. Saute onion, bell pepper and celery - add seasonings and mushrooms and squash innards, saute a little, add reserved mushroom juice. Add breadcrumbs or better yet ripped up stale bread. Get them all jiving together. Stuff squash shells, sprinkle with cheese and cook in over until brown.

Kim O'Donnel: Ah, yes, mirliton! Godo call. Love your stuffing ideas. Thanks much.

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re: field roast: That Field Roast stuff is amazing, but it can be hard to find. Their site does list retailers, but not all of the retailers carry all of the items, and some only carry them some of the time. Like Whole Foods uses a lot of Field Roast stuff in their hot bar, but then only the roast is available and only during the holidays (at least the one by me). So good if you can find it. Even worth spending money to ship it. mmmm.

Kim O'Donnel: I am going to place a call today to Field Roast and see what I can find out for you. Stay tuned.

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Risotto: When I am in a rush I have made risotto in a pressure cooker (a recipe from the Washington Post from a few years ago where they compared several methods of fast risotto) in 7 minutes. It is especially good to use this method of butternut squash because I can just throw it all in together and the squash cooks at the same time. I also recently saw a TV chef cook risotto like they do in restaurants. Cook it to about 2/3 done and then finish it off (more stock and reheating) as it is ordered. Haven't tried that method myself.

Kim O'Donnel: Thanks for the reminder about the pressure-cooker method. I have worked in restaurants where risotto is pre-cooked, and I got to tell you, I think it's subpar. Call me a purist, but I truly believe that the rice needs to be slowly coaxed into starchy goodness, with the cook tending to its every need. Ah well.

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Alexandria, Va.: Personally, I have always had a lot of success taking a few cans of pinto beans (the number of cans depends on how many I am serving) - and molding the peas into the shape of a turkey.

One year, I soaked hard beans and it tasted better, but for convenience using pre-soaked beans out of the can is a fantastic time-saver!

I take the turkey-shaped mash of beans, and top with olive oil and sprinkle with some chervil, savory, and various colored pepper.

It really is fantastic when baked at 350 until the center is warm!

Kim O'Donnel: Tell us more, Alexandria. Do you have a photo? Make one and I'll post it in the blog!

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Main course: A few years ago I made a vegetable pot pie -- a Barefoot Contessa recipe that has fennel, potatoes, asparagus, carrots, butternut squash, small whole onions, Pernod, and saffron. (I probably left out the Pernod.) The original recipe calls for chicken stock, but that's easy to swap. It was a surprisingly elegant alternative -- especially when doubled and put in a large casserole rather then individual portions.

Kim O'Donnel: Yes, yes! Love it. What a nice Tgiving entree. I may have to make this over the weekend and share details in the blog space.

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Columbia, MD: I've used this recipe for vegan gravy for many years.

I use vegetable stock instead of water, and it turns out tasty every time!

Kim O'Donnel: Thanks, Columbia. Recipe is a mushroom-based gravy "meated" up with nutritional yeast. Cheers.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Kim, I found a fantastic looking recipe for Brussels sprouts, white beans and Pecorino cheese. The things is I've never made Brussels sprouts before and am not sure how to "trim" them. I don't want them to be bitter. Also any thoughts on sauteing versus roasting? The recipe calls for a saute, but a few of the comments on the website said they roasted them instead. Which option is likely to lead to more caramelization? Thanks!

Kim O'Donnel: You can make a little "x" with a knife at the bottom of the brussels. I love them roasted, just love them, but I also am very fond of shredding them and sauteeing with apples. If sprouts are large, you can cut in half to help speed up cooking. Tell me more about the recipe, and we'll steer you right.

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Personally, I have always had a lot of success taking a few cans of pinto beans (the number of cans depends on how many I am serving) - and molding the peas into the shape of a turkey.: THIS HAS GOT to be a joke! Really?

Kim O'Donnel: Hey, anything is possible. If I can get my hands on a photo, well, then, the joke is on us.

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Nutritional yeast?: Is this ingredient essential to the gravy recipes?

Kim O'Donnel: Nutritional yeast gives vegan food an "umami" quality -- that you find in cheese, soy sauce, mushrooms...and vegans find that it gives their food more "oomph."

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Philadelphia: For U-Street: Please, please don't keep it a secret that you've put tofu in the dish, unless you know with absolute, 100 percent certainty that no one eating it allergic to soy! Please. One of my oldest friends is deathly allergic to soy and it's very difficult trying to convince people that no, she's not being stubborn, she cannot have it or anything made with it. (Things are more difficult by the fact that she's also a vegetarian.)

No one wants to spend a holiday in the emergency room, especially for something that should have been easy to avoid.

Kim O'Donnel: It's a good point. When I first made this pie, I wanted to keep it a secret from my meat-loving family, but disclosure is only fair if you don't have a running list of everyone's allergies.

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Washington, D.C.: I am really stumped for green veggie ideas. Brussel sprouts, broccoli, zucchini, peas, and green beans have all been vetoed as "boring." I hate salads on holidays because it is difficult to pre-dress without wilting on the holiday table, and adding your own dressing is just not as good as a perfect toss. Any ideas?

Kim O'Donnel: what about roasted kale? A celery root gratin? Wilted spinach with raisins, garlic and pine nuts?

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Kim O'Donnel: Already time to run! Thanks for stopping. Hope this is whetting your holiday appetites! As promised, leftover questions will be answered in next week's blog space,, and I'm available for consultation for the next two weeks. Take a deep breath as you plan, and have a ball. Till next.

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