Last year around this time, I was crowing about the fact that without a turkey to worry about, Thanksgiving planning and cooking get a whole lot less complicated. But now that I’m working on my third vegetarian version of the holiday dinner, I’m realizing that I start with the same decision every year: what to cook that will look impressive enough to take its place at the center of the table. Call me Rockwellian, but I can’t let go of the idea that the feast needs a focus, particularly visually.
Part of my impulse can be traced to a firm belief that vegetarians and vegans deserve to be served something special, something that doesn’t seem like a side-dish afterthought — and, of course, something that glorifies the vegetables themselves. Why concoct a centerpiece dish that is vegetarian merely by virtue of the absence of meat? No big bowls of pasta, no layered egg-and-cheese dishes at my table. Not this year.
I decided to seek out candidates for centerpiece status that didn’t rely on animal products at all — not because I’m vegan, but because I wanted to see whether that would force me to elevate the produce that is (or should be) at the heart of this harvest festival.
I realize that something I’ve made for parties a few times could be just the ticket: a whole roasted cauliflower, a la Alice Waters. In “The Art of Simple Food II,” she writes about making one as a festive appetizer, letting guests pull off florets to dip in one pungent sauce or another. But with all the glorious colors cauliflower come in at farmers markets these days, I imagined one (or more, depending on my guest list) as a stunning main course. Coincidentally, Michael Ruhlman’s new book “How to Roast” suggests the same idea, calling for the head to be basted with butter during roasting, then covered with the classic polonaise (hard-cooked eggs, bread crumbs, parsley) before being cut into wedges at the table.
I went with something in between the two ideas, using a simple but generous drizzle of olive oil instead of the butter basting, and serving the cauliflower with a sharp chimichurri sauce and sliced almonds. The only dilemma I had when testing was deciding which I liked better: the purple Graffiti variety or the orange cheddar one. It’s a tough call, but if I find a chartreuse-green Romanesco cauliflower, with its fractal-pattern pyramid shape, in time, that’s probably what I’ll roast for the holiday.
At the other end of the spectrum, I also like the idea of something individual, like the mushroom-and-stout potpies I found on the beautiful Web site The First Mess. Writer Laura Wright, who lives in Ontario, Canada, put together a beautifully deep-flavored mushroom base, then spiked it with dark stout beer and enlivened it with tart olives. The crowning touch: spirals of thinly sliced sweet potato as the crust. I made them in a combination of cocottes, some of them stoneware and some cast-iron, plus some large ramekins and even a coffee mug or two.
For Thanksgiving, I imagine presenting them on tiered platters, instructing guests to grab one (carefully — they should be served hot!) as they’re filling their plates.
Which way to go: big or small? At the risk of seeming indecisive, I’m thinking both. I realize I was setting out to find one focus for the table, not two, but because this is a holiday about bounty, I have a feeling I can make it all work.