My general approach to the Thanksgiving meal, back when I ate meat and now that I don’t, is that it is all about the sides, and the sides are all about the gravy. All the same, it took a few years of meatless eating for me to realize I cared much less about creating a remote approximation of the holiday meal’s iconic centerpiece than about creating a luscious, savory sauce to ladle over everything else at the table.
The perfect gravy, I decided a couple of years ago, might actually be less condiment and more centerpiece: substantial enough to preclude the need for a central hunk of sustenance and built around ingredients that would be in harmony with the flavors of a traditional Thanksgiving table. Better, it would be versatile enough to carry with me through the winter. No need to limit gravy to the holidays.
In pursuit of that ideal, I called on three elements I frequently turn to when I want to create a fullness of flavor or texture in my cooking: bean broth, dried mushrooms and their soaking liquid, and a roux.
Each of those components is worth space in a cook’s toolkit on its own merit alone. The broth drained off a pot of cooked beans, full of body and clear flavor, is indispensable as a foundation in any number of broth-based dishes, from soups and stews to savory bread puddings and risotto. Dried wild mushrooms (such as porcinis and chanterelles) and the concentrated soaking liquor resulting from reconstituting them bring earthy, gamy notes to the same applications. And a roux, whether cooked just until it loses its raw flour edge or browned to a deep sable, will thicken sauces, gravies and soups at the same time it lays down a creamy, nutty backdrop of flavor.
Together, they create a full- bodied, rich-tasting gravy, savory and spicy and studded with meaty bits of mushroom and sweet, creamy beans, that wears no dietary ideology on its sleeve. The resulting dish also puts up a good argument that deeply satisfying vegan cooking doesn’t require technical trickery or a library of esoteric pantry staples.
The ingredient list is minimally fussy, the process straightforward. You need to plan ahead for the beans and their broth and set aside a few uninterrupted moments for the roux, but the basic method is an uncomplicated one and, for most cooks, probably familiar.
You begin with a slurry of flour and oil, which you will stir steadily, watching as it tips from cream-colored to malt to caramel and a nutty fragrance fills your nose. You’ll add minced onion and garlic, a little carrot, a few pinches of thyme and a good deal of black pepper, and cook just until the vegetables begin to shrink and brown.
You’ll then stir in the reserved mushrooms that you soaked a little earlier and, after that, your broth — the bean-cooking and mushroom-soaking liquids — in a slow stream, whisking until the liquid is smooth. It will thicken almost instantly, but it’s best to give it another 15 minutes or so to cluck at a simmer, allowing the flavor a bit more time to develop. You’ll stir in the cooked beans last.
When it’s ready, the gravy will be glossy, and thick enough to coat a spoon. It will wait while you finish prepping the rest of your meal; if it thickens past your liking, whisk in a little more bean broth and leave it until you’re ready to serve.
The recipe is yours to tinker with. Add a couple handfuls of fresh mushrooms, sauteed separately until golden; change up the herbs. Experiment with different varieties of beans, different types and combinations of dried mushrooms. You might even leave out the beans, using only their cooking liquid, depending on the weight of the rest of your meal, and save them for another use.
One advisement: After you’ve cleared the plates, don’t lock this dish away in the holiday file. Serve it with a heap of braised greens and a grain, and you have a meal for two or for six. It’s lovely over soft grits or polenta for dinner, over biscuits for Sunday breakfast. Leftovers, spooned over a steaming roasted sweet potato, are just right on a Monday night. Throughout the cold of fall and winter, it will keep you warm and well fed. Gravy as the main dish? Yes, please.
Horton is a freelance writer living in Seattle. She will join our Free Range online chat with readers at noon Wednesday.
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4 to 6 servings (makes about 4 cups), Healthy
Ladle this over mashed potatoes, grits or rice.
MAKE AHEAD: The beans need to be soaked (see directions). They can be cooked up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated in their cooking liquid. The gravy can be prepared up to 3 days in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container. Reheat in a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Once it is warm, thin to the desired consistency with a few tablespoons of water or more bean broth.
From food writer Emily C. Horton.
3/4 cup dried small-to-medium-size brown, pink or lavender beans, such as pinto, pinquito, rio zape, eye of the goat or Good Mother Stallard
5 cups water, plus more for soaking
1 1/8 teaspoons sea salt, or more as needed
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1 ounce dried chanterelle mushrooms (may substitute another variety, such as oyster or lobster mushrooms)
3 cups boiling water
1/4 cup peanut oil (may substitute sesame or canola oil)
1/4 cup flour
1/2 medium yellow onion or
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 carrot, scrubbed well and diced
1 rib celery, diced
1 teaspoon thyme leaves, minced
1 teaspoon rosemary leaves, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed
Place the beans in a large bowl and cover with water by 2 inches. Soak for at least 8 hours or overnight. (Alternatively, cover the beans with water as above but bring them to a boil in a heavy saucepan, boil for 1 minute, remove the pan from the heat and let the beans soak, covered, for 1 hour.)
Drain the beans and transfer them to a medium, heavy- bottomed saucepan. Cover with the 5 cups of water and add 1/8 teaspoon of sea salt, the bay leaf and the extra-virgin olive oil. Bring barely to a boil over medium heat, then reduce the heat to low, partially cover and cook for 45 to 90 minutes, depending on the beans’ age and variety, until they are just tender. (They will continue to soften as they cool in their cooking liquid.) Remove from the heat, cover and let rest for at least 30 minutes. (If you cook the beans a day or more in advance, cool them completely and then refrigerate. Warm them on the stove in their cooking liquid over low heat before using.) Drain the beans, reserving 11/2 cups of the cooking liquid (add water if needed to make 11/2 cups). Discard the bay leaf.
While the beans are cooling, place the dried mushrooms in a medium bowl and cover with the boiling water. Let stand for 20 to 30 minutes, until softened. Remove the mushrooms from the bowl, squeezing them lightly to remove excess water, and reserve 1 cup of the soaking liquid. Chop the mushrooms into small pieces.
To make the roux, whisk together the peanut oil and flour in a large, heavy saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-low heat. Cook for about 30 minutes, whisking constantly, until the roux darkens to a caramel color. If the process is taking considerably longer, you may increase the heat to medium, but make sure to avoid scorching, and keep whisking.
Add the onion, carrot and celery, stirring to coat, then cook for 5 minutes or until lightly browned. Add the thyme and rosemary, garlic, black pepper and the remaining teaspoon of salt; cook for 3 minutes.
Whisking constantly, pour the reserved bean broth and the reserved cup of mushroom soaking liquid into the pot. Continue stirring until smooth, and bring to a simmer. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is thick and glossy, about 15 minutes. Reduce the heat if necessary to keep the gravy barely bubbling. Add the beans and cook for 5 minutes. Taste, and add salt and/or pepper as needed.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 6): 240 calories, 8 g protein, 24 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 410 mg sodium, 8 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar
Recipe tested by Kara Elder; email questions to email@example.com
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