11/28/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Stuffing the Pumpkin: How to Satisfy Vegetarian Guests While Avoiding Autumn Trauma

If you are a magazine and blog addict the way I am--and if you're paying attention--you will at some point begin to notice some universal truths about the concept of trend, be it design or food-related. For example, I never in a million years would have thought that that teak Scandinavian wall unit that my father set up in the corner of our 1968 living room (right next to the Barcelona chairs) would have come back into fashion. All it took was one design-worthy blogspot about the style, and now, everyone wants it, at least for the moment.

Food is no different, of course, and over the last year or so, we've had a massive public interest in the macaron (no, not the leaden coconut thing that you used to eat at Passover, but the macaron--as in French macaron, as in Pierre Hermes and Laduree), local eating, salted chocolate, and now, god help us, the stuffed pumpkin, which has shown up everywhere from Gourmet to the blog of one of my favorite food writers, the glorious Dorie Greenspan.

I should be clear: I have nothing against macarons (particularly if they come from Laduree). I'm a big proponent of local eating (even though I live in Connecticut, where we can successfully grow at least twelve different varieties of turnips for a good part of the year), and I adore salted chocolate. But when, in the course of one week, I saw at least four major feature articles from some of the industry's greatest food writers espousing the cozy, frugal loveliness of the stuffed pumpkin, I balked: the most traumatic event I have ever experienced in the kitchen came as the direct result of my stuffing a pumpkin and roasting it for a pack of hungry vegetarians one Thanksgiving long ago and far away.

Coming to the table were lacto-ovos and vegans; some were politically motivated, some had religious restrictions, and others had serious health concerns, so (being a proponent of turkey on Thanksgiving), I tearfully relented and set about making what I assumed would be a most magnificent presentation, worthy of Martha: the vegetable-stew-baked-inside-a-hollowed-out-pumpkin. Unfortunately, I used a carving pumpkin, and after an hour in the oven, it collapsed in on itself as though it were cleaved in half, leaking its overcooked and utterly flavorless contents (carrots, turnips, rutabaga, spinach, garlic, onions, lentils, and, obviously, pumpkin) revoltingly all over the inside of the oven and onto my friend Tim's stunning eighteenth century, wide-plank (pumpkin) pine upstate New York floors.

Since that fateful Thanksgiving, I've come to accept that any large dinner party is bound to be faced with a wide variety of dietary issues and hurdles, not the least of which is basic, run-of-the-mill vegetarianism: this guest may be on a gluten-free diet, that one might not be able to eat yeast. This one has high cholesterol or an allergy to cranberries, and your cousin's husband's throat closes up at the mere sniff of a chestnut. This one keeps kosher, and that one's lactose intolerance is a nightmare when his wheat sensitivity isn't acting up; you'd settle him into your favorite comfy chair and pour him a glass of wine, but the sulfites in the Pinot Noir will give him a rash.

But never--unless one really knows what one is doing (like Dorie, above: she stuffed her pumpkin with a bunch of ingredients that, when cooked together, take on a flavorful if extremely dense, almost paste-like consistency, thus preventing leakage)--should one attempt to roast a pumpkin for the holiday masses.

That said, everyone today suddenly is talking about what they can't eat and why, what they should eat, and what they shouldn't. The tan-paged vegetarian cookbooks of the 1970s, like Thanksgiving at the Commune and Tofu Turkey Made Easy, are making a vigorous comeback. Forget sausage stuffing: frightened carnivorous Thanksgiving celebrants everywhere are uttering the words lentil nut loaf and making restaurant reservations instead of having to deal with their gluten-free relatives. What to do to keep the culinary peace and the familial minions together? Create hearty, modern, and elegantly simple vegetarian dishes in quantities large enough to serve as sides for the meat-eaters, and main-courses for the vegetarians. Pour some great wine, take out the nice china and the silver, and put away that weird 1970s pottery and your McGovern buttons. It's time to eat grown up vegetarian food.

Miraculously, Thanksgiving falls right smack in the middle of root vegetable season, and these extraordinary gifts from the earth--many of which actually get sweeter after the first frost-- form the foundation for a myriad of dishes so savory and luscious that even the most meat-loving fressers among us will dive right in. In November, any good market will be packed full of turnips, carrots, rutabagas, sweet potato, and parsnips. Peeled, rough cut on the bias into large pieces, tossed in an oblong baking pan with a few cloves of crushed garlic, a handful of rosemary, and drizzled with a decent glug of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, this stunning mélange of glazed winter vegetables, roasted quickly at high heat, is downright easy to prepare, and is spectacular hot or at room temperature. If you have a hankering to serve something really over the top (and who doesn't, when the good linens are being laundered in preparation for such an important meal), stun your guests with individual beet and chevre Napoleans, which admittedly sound much fancier then they are. Oven-roast and peel fresh beets (red is fine, golden is great, but a combination is truly beautiful): once tender, slice them into quarter inch thick rounds, and layer them, alternating a slice of beet with a nickel-sized dollop of young, herb-coated goat cheese, drizzle with olive oil, and pop back into a 350 degree oven in individual muffin rings set on a cookie sheet, or in a muffin tin to hold them upright. Even beet haters (myself included) love this gorgeous dish, which positively reeks of healthful vegetarian extravagance, even though it's a relatively thrifty dish. The beet greens? Sauteé them with olive oil and garlic, and stuff them into an omelet the next morning.

For the Thanksgiving vegetarian, root vegetables are the gods of the table, but mushrooms are the Mighty Aphrodite: redolent of sexy earthiness, and available in every variety from the leggy Oyster mushroom to the bulbous and mildly pornographic Morel, these fantastic fungi can thankfully be had all year round in their dried form, a process that also somehow manages to retain their remarkable depth of flavor; the strongest and most delicious I've ever tasted were Cepes which my cousin dragged all the way back from Burgundy. Even basic supermarket-brand white button mushrooms can be pushed well beyond their typical blandness simply by combining them with dried wild mushrooms that have been soaked and reconstituted in anything from red wine to vegetable stock to water. Sautéed with shallots, garlic, fresh thyme, and a splash of sherry and their strained soaking liquid, dried wild mushrooms are magnificent served on rounds of toasted fresh bread, rubbed with a sliced garlic clove and spread with a layer of fromage blanc; tossed with a combination of rices - basmati, wild, and brown - wild mushrooms will tempt even the most avid meat lover to forgo sausage stuffing.

But perhaps nowhere else do wild mushrooms sing then in a thick, stew-like mushroom and barley soup that has been drizzled with Madeira, and then crowned with a garlic-laden homemade crouton. Served in small crocks as a soup course, or as a main course in large bowls accompanied by a small plate of roasted root vegetables, a chunk of freshly baked artisanal bread, and perhaps a wedge of Maytag Blue cheese, wild mushroom and barley soup is reason enough to say thanks.

So if your Thanksgiving finds you facing some specific dietary restrictions, don't be afraid: go to a good market or your local farm stand and talk to them what knows. Buy seasonally, forget about Tofu Turkey, and bear in mind the phrase We Gather Together, so cook with love, even if you're grinding your teeth together.

Just do yourself a favor: leave the stuffed pumpkin to Martha.

Wild Mushroom and Barley Stew with Garlic and Fromage Blanc Croutons

Serves 6-8, depending on bowl size

2 ounces of dried wild mushrooms (most dried mushrooms come in 1 ounce packages)
Good quality dry red wine
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup roughly chopped onion
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
1/4 cup minced shallot
1/2cup roughly chopped celery
1 cup roughly chopped carrot
1 pound fresh mushrooms, sliced (White Buttons, Cremini, Baby Bellas, Oyster, or a combination of all three are suitable)
4 cups water
4 cups vegetable stock (or chicken, for non-vegetarians)
1 cup pearl barley
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
Fresh parsley sprigs

For Croutons:
1 plain (not sourdough) baguette or loaf of French bread
2 cloves garlic, sliced in half
1/4 cup Fromage Blanc* or softened goat cheese

In a medium-sized bowl, soak dried mushrooms in red wine to cover. Set aside.

In a large stockpot, heat the olive oil until rippling but not smoking. Add onion, garlic, shallot, celery, and carrot. Cook until softened, about 8 minutes. Add sliced fresh mushrooms, and combine well with other vegetables. Continue to cook until mushrooms begin to release some of their liquid. Add water and stock, and bring to a simmer.

Strain dried mushrooms through a fine sieve, and reserve the soaking liquid. Add dried mushrooms to stockpot, along with their soaking liquid. Add barley, sage, and salt and pepper to taste. Combine thoroughly, cover, and continue to simmer for an hour, until barley and all vegetables are thoroughly cooked. Season with salt, as needed. If soup is too thick, add more water or stock as needed to thin. Serve in warm bowls or crocks, topped with a light drizzle of Madeira, a sprig or two of parsley, and a Garlic Fromage Blanc crouton.

Garlic Fromage Blanc Croutons

Slice baguette or French loaf into rounds approximately half an inch thick. Rub each slice (top and bottom, or to taste) with half a clove of raw garlic. Spread one side of each slice with a thin layer of Fromage Blanc (or, if unavailable, a softened goat cheese). Toast, cheese side up, under broiler until golden brown, and place on top of each soup bowl.

*Fromage Blanc, available from the Vermont Butter & Cheese Company, is a boon for cheese fanatics who are watching their fat intake: made from skim milk, it contains 0% fat and 0% cholesterol, but has the full-fat flavor of the most luxurious Marscarpone combined with sour cream.

Pour some great wine, take out the nice china and the silver, and put away that weird 1970s pottery and your McGovern buttons. It's time to eat grown up vegetarian food.