Joe Yonan is the Food and Dining editor of The Washington Post and the author of “Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook.” He writes the Food section’s Weeknight Vegetarian column.
If you’re a vegetarian guest at someone else’s house for dinner, you have three choices: You can ask the host (politely, of course) to keep your dietary choices in mind when meal planning. You can keep quiet and hope for the best. Or you take matters into your own hands and offer to bring something.
It’s probably no surprise that I prefer the last one. I’ve taken mushrooms and tempura batter to a fish fry, tempeh and sauce to a barbecue. They were a little insurance for me, but the hosts were grateful, and the other guests enjoyed having more choices, too. This is an especially good strategy at Thanksgiving, when stress levels are higher and hosts typically appreciate all the help they can get — especially if you coordinate in advance, so there are no last-minute surprises.
When planning for this year’s feast, I wanted something that, like the dishes I cooked up last year, could stand on its own as a centerpiece if a meal is veg-focused — but could also be eaten as a great side dish.
Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence understand the challenge. As the writers behind the Chubby Vegetarian blog (and the new cookbook of the same name), “we’re usually charged with bringing the quote-unquote vegetarian dish,” Burks said. “Bring the Tofurky, bring something meatless. But that word bothers me: meatless, like you’re just doing without.”
Instead, what we all want is something just as celebratory as everything else on the table. To that end, I tried a veggie take on turducken — stuffing a zucchini inside an eggplant inside a butternut squash — but it was simply too much effort for the merely fine results. (Anyone who saw me with a ruler in the supermarket produce section that one day got a sense of what I mean.) And a “roast” made with seitan and filled with spinach and a vegan cheese sauce was plenty tasty, but I couldn’t imagine the carnivores wanting to tuck into it alongside their fowl.
I settled on a genius idea from Burks and Lawrence’s new book. They toss portobello caps and thick slices of eggplant in an easy pesto; thread them with onions, roasted red pepper and provolone onto skewers; and char the whole thing, like a giant kebab, on the grill. When set on a bed of couscous, the thing lives up to its name, Roast Beast, while paying tribute to the vegetables themselves.
I doubled down on seasonal flavors, adding delicata squash rings, slipping some sage into that pesto and using smoked Gouda instead of provolone. (I’ve also tried it with vegan cheese, to good effect.) This “beast” goes into a 500o oven for an hour; you roast it on a V-rack, and you occasionally turn it, baste it with its own juices and scrape up some of the cheese that has melted onto the roasting pan to scoop it back on top. By the time the beast is done, its edges are deeply browned, the cheese has crisped up in spots, and the kitchen smells amazing.
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, Burks and Lawrence graciously approved of my changes. They often encourage readers to put their own spin on Chubby Vegetarian recipes, and this was no exception. As Burks put it, “We relish the chance to tell people that Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be that hard, that they can just make good food that everybody will love.”