Below you will find a gracious plenty of vegetarian Thanksgiving recipes. These are side dishes and sauces that are still staples in my kitchen. This collection reflects many, many years of cooking at home and professionally, and my list of side dishes is always growing. I'm thrilled to share these professionally tested and truly tasty vegetarian sides with everyone, so that you have plenty of options to chose from for your Thanksgiving.
I was not born an intuitive cook and I didn't have the benefit of family to teach me. In fact, I never learned from my mom, or even from my grandmother much. Instead, I taught myself from books and television as a kid, and then from years of experimentation. Over the years, I've attended a zillion cooking classes, volunteered and worked at restaurants (in some cases, in other countries) and sat beside a bunch of other people's moms and grandmothers, asking questions and taking notes. Eventually I did indeed attend formal culinary school, and I even worked for one. I have also been a corporate caterer and recipe developer for many years. Everyone assumes that I pull out all the stops for Thanksgiving and that I must have some incredible turkey recipes. I don't really. I focus on the sides, the appetizers, the drinks, and the desserts. They are my favorite things to cook and—you betcha—I do get a bit crazy.
My Thanksgiving cooking experiences have taught me about the value of great sides, salads, starters and desserts. To this day, I keep all—yes, all—of my Thanksgiving side dishes vegetarian and make sure that some are vegan. I make sure some are also gluten free. The point, for me, is that everyone has plenty to eat. The recipes are all flavor forward, bold and celebration worthy.
But there was a beginning. My first Thanksgiving cooking wasn't exactly a success (in the strictest sense of the word, or in any sense, really). I learned about the importance of timing and planning, practicing in advance, reliable recipes, and the value of skills (only a few which I had) before experimentation, and the ultimate need for serving plenty of food, as well as a wide variety that showcase texture, taste and appearance. I also learned about family and love.
I became a vegetarian at 12. I was already crowned family cook for about two years, since both my parents had been working full time since I was a tot, and my sister and I were had been deemed old enough to be latchkey kids (and not stay with my grandparents). I felt wildly experienced as a cook, so I took on the Thanksgiving cooking duties with unfettered and utterly foolhardy excitement.
Armed with copies of books by Perla Meyers, Martha Rose Shulman, Mollie Katzen, as well as assorted newspaper clippings from Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey, I created our family’s first all-side-dish-and-dessert Thanksgiving.
I intended to create a faux turkey. And this was before the advent of Tofurky (which is fine for what it is—tofu, which I love). I envisioned serving a tasty, attractive faux-bird to oohs and ahhs at my great expertise and ingenuity. My “creative” mixture of tofu and rehydrated texturized vegetable protein was, at the very most, fascinating. Big surprise, it wasn't tasty or by any measure whatsoever attractive. My faux-gobbler actually bore quite a resemblance to a football. After my addition of a parsley garnishes to cover up imperfections, it looked remarkably like a prehistoric chia pet. I chucked it. Then I realized people were actually coming to eat, and I had spent so much time on making that monstrosity, that now the clock was counting down.
Scouring the refrigerator, I made a variety of vegetable dishes from whatever I could find. I made an eggy, (overly) sweet noodle kugel with pot cheese that had way too much brown sugar and cinnamon, and everyone ate it. (Dessert for dinner? Why not?) I made two dressings, one from leftover challah and another from my mom’s leftover corn muffins. I cooked and semi-chilled cranberry sauces on the fly. The carb-loaded and sugary recipes came from my head. The lentil nut loaf from Martha Rose Shulman was rich, but in all honesty, it tasted "healthy."
Wait—where was the Thanksgiving green bean casserole, you ask? It’s vegetarian, right? I never had it as a kid, never, ever saw it on any table—and frankly, it’s still not my fave. At the time, I hadn't cooked green beans much at all. I only recall them being available from a can, and those were soggy and flavorless (totally a fan of the real thing now—love haricots verts, and my son, in particular, has loved them since I pureed them as baby food). The canned soup is dairy and not marked as kosher and besides, the turkey is meat, and never the twain shall meet. I grew up in a strictly kosher home, you see.
I breathed a sigh of relief and had fun with desserts. I followed those recipes with great care and, damn it, they all worked! There was a cranberry anadama bread and wheat germ and oatmeal raisin cookies. A flourless chocolate cake (my first!), a carrot cake, and chocolate cake from a mix that I embellished with additional chocolate chips in the middle that resulted in a pre-Wolfgang Puck-ish molten chocolate center. The cakes were festooned with orange "Happy Thanksgiving" script, which slid off when we tilted them for their Polaroid portraits.
My grandparents were very kind. Now my grandfather was not the sort to give many compliments. Ever. Cantankerous, opinionated, and deeply pious, he told me I made too much food. He told me how silly I was to do all this work for six people. He told me that I should be studying. That I should be meeting a nice boy. Soon. Very soon. There was plenty of fretting in Yiddish to my grandmother that I knew was directed at me. But while my mom was cleaning the kitchen, he announced that I would make a real balabusta. A good Jewish homemaker. A good wife. A caretaker. A good "goil.” A real eishet chayil—a woman of valor, precious as a ruby, in the words of the Sages. It was one of the few overt compliments he ever offered me and yes, it wasn’t to me. I took it all the same.
My grandmother told me that I was a better cook than she was, which was not true, but was nice to hear. My mother, a hummingbird-sized Southern lady to the core, pecked at each dish, as usual, but she oohed and aahed and told me it was perfect and the best-best-best. My father, a picky eater, ate platefuls. He didn’t say much about the quality, but he continued to eat the lentil loaf and cakes reheated from the freezer, for weeks.
Then came the true test. My older sister, the pickiest eater I know even to this day—a person for whom a single detested pea could infect an entire plate of food and render it inedible—picked cautiously. She questioned every ingredient.
“It's good, Boofus,” she declared.
I've made other all-side Thanksgivings on and off through the years. When I married my wonderful Bruce, Thanksgiving became my mother-in-law’s holiday, which was fine with me. I had three small very active kids, held many community positions, helped start and run a music school, and was already teaching cooking.
Since my mother-in-law moved to a retirement community nearby, I have almost always been asked to make and host Thanksgiving. And I have been happy to do so.
Not that it was all smooth sailing. Upon hearing my plan to create a vegan Thanksgiving, my mother-in-law, a died-in-blue bloody-rare beef lover, spoke to my husband about her concerns.
“Well, okay,” she told him, “I’ll eat before I come.”
She told me afterward that, to her great surprise, that she didn't miss the turkey at all. She was shocked at how delicious the meal was and how satisfied and full she felt. Years later, I realized that she doesn't care for turkey at all. I suspect if I had served some rare meat, she might have been far happier, and nowadays, often I make a roast beef or lamb chops. Of course, nothing is so simple in any family, and one of my sisters-in-law, who yearned for the turkey, started bringing her own pre-made heritage turkey.
The upshot? Turkey or no turkey, in my world, it’s still the sides and the desserts that make the meal.
Here's a bunch of side dishes that are great for Thanksgiving this year—or any year!