In 2015, I made the jump from alternative Thanksgiving meat to (nearly) meatless Thanksgiving menu. My one concession was the crab cakes, but braised turkey legs almost got involved. To start, I planned on a couple big, semi-hippie vegetarian mains, one of which was a big fall kale salad. I thought it would be courteous to offer our small crowd of guests some turkey to add to their salad, so they didn’t blame me for a totally unorthodox Thanksgiving. Then, as I browsed recipes and wandered down the rabbit hole of the internet, I stumbled upon some images of glorious, very much alive, fully grown turkeys. In conversation, I generally provide every reason in the book for eating mostly meatless as a way of life, downplaying the ethical reasons as much as possible. Part of me doesn’t quite know how to explain it to unsympathetic ears, or I’m worried that I’ll get criticized and won’t have a logical, or even convincing, response.
But, in a moment of conviction, I decided to own my grievances with the majority of meat production. In this case, the raising of turkeys in captivity for tradition’s sake, when most Americans, myself included, couldn’t even tell you why turkey is the official bird of Thanksgiving dinner.
My goal is to avoid being preachy on this blog about going meatless (especially since I maintain a couple meaty recipes in the archives). I think anyone can appreciate the flavors and convenience of a meatless Thanksgiving menu, but whether you’re a full-time omnivore or lifetime vegetarian, I want to be honest about how I got to this point. There’s really no judgment here, so if you have something to add (like the facts behind eating turkey on Thanksgiving, etc.), let’s keep an open-minded discussion going in the comments or via email.
That said, if you’re curious about a meatless Thanksgiving menu, let’s talk about my spread! It could easily translate to Friendsgiving, Christmas, Sunday dinner, or whatever winter holiday you celebrate, even if that holiday is, “It’s-Saturday-night-let’s-have-a-meatless-dinner-party”. New favorite holiday, because it can take place any time. At least any Saturday.
You might notice the lack of photos, especially compared to last year’s extensive photography. There are several reasons (excuses) for that. One, we just moved(!), so it’s all I can do to locate my potato ricer, let alone my camera or artificial light setup. Two, sometimes I have to cook without a camera if I’m going to get any enjoyment from it. And if I’m not enjoying the prep, I really think it affects the quality and vibes of the food (getting all kinds of hippie on you now). Three, wine. So much wine impairing my artistic endeavors. So, there are a few shots where they’re available, but check out the external recipe links for more great photography, and wait for some of the recipes that I’ll publish in the coming weeks, in time for the rest of your festivities.
Meatless Thanksgiving Menu Planning
I already had the idea to replicate the hors d’oeuvres from our recent wedding as appetizers, moving the fourth–a caramelized apple and blue cheese mini pastry cup–to the dessert menu, to avoid pigging out too much before dinner. The winter squash soup shooter made the perfect divisor between heavy appetizers and our meal, helping to cleanse the palate without forcing us to down a whole first course bowl of soup (a mistake I’ve made in the past). Since, as I mentioned, the appetizers were all quite rich, I only planned a few, in moderate quantities.
For dinner, I centered the meal around two healthy, flavor packed, non-traditional entrees (see below). Then, to preserve tradition and make sure everyone got a taste of their Thanksgiving favorites (mashed potatoes please!!!), I surrounded the “entrees” with well-loved side dishes. I use the term “entree” loosely, as we were really feasting on an extensive menu of both elaborate and simple side dishes.
I pulled from my own recipe development, my favorite cookbooks, and the wide world of Pinterest. For the recipes that were both new to me and integral to the success of the meal (e.g., crab cakes, cranberry sauce) I tested in advance to make sure my desired tweaks would end well.
Our Meatless Thanksgiving Menu
More details below!
Mini crab cakes with classic remoulade
Smoky winter squash soup shooters
Autumn kale salad with spiced chickpeas and brown butter vinaigrette
Olive oil and roasted garlic mashed potatoes
Mini caramelized apple and stilton tarts
Fresh whipped cream
All the red wine
- Both the crab cake and remoulade recipes come from Joy of Cooking. Pages 381 and 581 in the 75th anniversary edition. One recipe (one pound of crab) yields about two dozen mini cakes, formed from two tablespoon scoops. I baked the cakes from frozen (see below for make ahead options), about 35 minutes total in a 375 degree oven. Watch for my variation of the cakes and sauce coming to the blog in time for New Year’s Eve.
- I used my butternut squash soup recipe (also from Joy of Cooking), but I used half acorn squash and half butternut squash to tone down the sweetness. I substituted yellow onion for leeks and garlic for ginger, then seasoned with smoked paprika once the soup came to a simmer. It was so fun to serve these in shot glasses with a dollop of creme fraiche, seasoned with a bit of smoked paprika. For the record, even though it’s in a shot glass, feel free to sip and savor the soup.
- For the salad, I used plenty of lightly massaged kale tossed with fried spiced chickpeas, toasted pepitas, Cornish yarg cheese (similar to cheddar in taste, but easy to crumble), pomegranate seeds, and brown butter vinaigrette, of my own recipe. The fried chickpeas are a component of this Dragon Bowl recipe from The Chew. Even though I fried them just before serving, I didn’t have to attend to them much. Just make sure to keep the stove area clear, as there is a bit of hot oil involved (alternatively, you could roast the chickpeas in the oven on a baking sheet). The recipe for the whole salad, plus an easier-to-find cheese option, is coming soon to the blog.
- The wine glazed lentils and veg is a fantastic, filling, vegetarian main with plenty of complex yet classic flavors going on: garlic, red wine, tomato paste, and dijon. The recipe is from Deborah Madison’s The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, but I first discovered it via Heidi’s blog. For the mirepoix, I kept the onion, but otherwise substituted a few parsnips, a couple rutabagas, and a bag of baby brussels sprouts. I doubled the recipe and easily could have served 12. The lentils are also good heaped over the salad.
- Shockingly (it’s one of my favorite foods), I’ve never made homemade mashed potatoes before. Deborah Madison’s recipe in TNVCFE, a ricer, and seven pounds of Yukon golds made it easy. I don’t have measurements, because, with the help of my brother-in-law, we added most of the dairy in the refrigerator, plus a cup of my best olive oil and two heads of roasted garlic. I haven’t figured out why (maybe the combination of oil and butter), but the leftovers stayed creamy in the fridge, instead of solidifying into a hard, crumbly mass.
- Like last year’s stuffing recipe, I will never need another gravy recipe after finding this one. I used the wine, as suggested, and omitted the marmite. Mine took longer to reduce than the recipe instructed. I also used the shallots, but I strained the whole mixture at the end for a traditional, smooth texture. This would be even better with homemade stock.
- Instead of chopping up and adding mint to the cranberry sauce, I infused the sauce with a couple sprigs to avoid black herb chunks later. Substituted grapefruit for orange for a nice, tart sauce, and I made a “smoothie” of the dates and liquid before starting, to ensure no chunks of dates in the final product. The end result was a beautifully tight, tart jam that I’ve been savoring with brie and crackers and on toast or oatmeal for breakfast. Watch for my adaptations coming to the blog soon–the recipe is perfect for winter, not just Thanksgiving.
- For the mini tarts, I used pre-baked mini phyllo tart shells. I piled in a generous spoonful of crumbled stilton, then caramelized apple chunks, then a final sprinkle of cheese. I must admit I was quite tipsy by this point, but I believe I baked at 350 until the cheese melted, then broiled to get some color on top. As I learned from my life-saving bro-in-law who HAS caramelized apples before, caramelized apples are not necessarily the deep brown you’d expect from any experience in caramelizing onions. For the apples, I used a mixture of maple syrup and organic cane sugar.
- Always make someone else bring the pumpkin pie, but make the whipped cream fresh.
- Chocolate chess pie changed my life. It was my baby sister’s contribution (so proud!), and although there is very little method to her baking madness, French silk pie has been ousted as my favorite chocolate pie, in favor of this safer, fully baked version. It’s crunchy with baked sugar on top, like a brownie, and rich and gelled on the inside, a little like a flourless chocolate cake and chocolate pudding had a baby. After this spiritual dessert experience, you can find my first homemade pie recipe here.
Make Ahead Options
Sometimes, you see some really delicious looking Thanksgiving dinners in food blog land, but can you really execute them while working full time and attending to all your social and family obligations? In this case, I like to think so. To help me test that theory, I spent most of my days, including the weekend, before Thanksgiving moving, not cooking. I didn’t do my shopping until the Monday before Thanksgiving, and I didn’t work on cooking until at least early evening each day. Several of the options below are freezer friendly, so you could clear your Thanksgiving week schedule even further by preparing the appetizers, gravy, and cranberries weeks in advance. More time to attend to a house full of crazy relatives!
Besides the make ahead options below, I keep things otherwise simple, with minimal decor and serveware. I avoid place cards by serving dinner in a buffet line, and I save on dishes by serving items out of the pot they were made in. The lentils look rustic served right out of the skillet, and a colorful Le Creuset holds the sacred mashed potatoes. The Kitchen’s Thanksgiving episode (hi GZ) reminded me that gravy still tastes divine served from the saucepan, a big liquid measuring cup, or even a French press. I don’t switch to fancy glassware or china, and the focal point of decor, for me, is always a pretty bouquet. Finally, don’t mess with a tablecloth, as long as your great aunt won’t have choice words about that later: on top of dishes, you don’t need to be doing laundry, too. I guarantee you that your friends and family will remember the food and the mood, not the awkwardly large serving platter you break out once a year.
- Weeks ahead, make and freeze crab cakes, mushroom filling, soup, cooked lentils (the first step in the wine braised lentils recipe), roasted garlic, gravy, and cranberries.
- Up to five days ahead, grocery shop, clean the mushrooms, prep the kale (wash, chop, and massage with a pinch of salt and a few drops of olive oil), toast the pumpkin seeds, purchase alcohol. Make sure you have enough plates, cups, and silverware, plus shot glasses (glass or disposable) for the soup.
- A few days ahead, make the remoulade, crumble cheese for the salad, dry out the bread for the stuffing, grate parmesan for potatoes, thaw everything except the crab cakes.
- The day before, assemble the mushrooms, plan serving and heating dishes, chop vegetables for the lentils, prepare pomegranate seeds, mix vinaigrette except for butter and oil, and prepare and parbake the stuffing.
- The day of, fry the chickpeas, prepare the lentils and mashed potatoes, brown butter and mix the vinaigrette, toss salad, finish baking the stuffing, and enjoy the meal!
Voila! It is finished. Having tested the plan, I think it’s pretty reasonable. My biggest recommendation is to enlist one competent, semi-sober cook as your sous chef. I found the biggest help was having my brother-in-law take over the mashed potatoes (only somewhat voluntarily) while I finished the vinaigrette, fried the chickpeas, and set up the buffet line.
If it’s any indication of taste, our leftovers were demolished by four people by Saturday afternoon without any crazy Thanksgiving sandwiches involved. Whether you make the whole menu for the upcoming winter holidays, wait until next year to try your own meatless Thanksgiving menu, or pick and choose a few tips and dishes to make your next dinner event more vegetarian friendly, I hope you found something to help you eat and feel healthy, happy, and stuffed!
P.S. If you’re feeling the cuteness of turkeys like I am, Farm Sanctuary has an Adopt-a-Turkey program!
Note: This page contains affiliate links. It does NOT contain sponsored content. Affiliate links (to products I recommend, on Amazon) offset my ingredient and website maintenance costs, so I can keep bringing you meatless menu ideas like this one. Thanks!