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Winter's Bounty

Delectable winter squash dishes are sure to please everyone at your Thanksgiving table.

By Lavinia Spalding

roasted pumpkin salad HP

When Sara Forte was invited to a Thanksgiving gathering last year, she was asked to bring a dish that could double as a main course for vegetarians and a side dish for meat eaters. Forte, a vinyasa practitioner and the author of the cookbook The Sprouted Kitchen, baked a savory casserole of creamy ricotta, garlicky Swiss chard, and rice—a healthful, straightforward, one-pot dish with flavors everyone could enjoy. "If I'm feeding vegetarians and omnivores," says Forte, "I always try to make sure there's a nice balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates in the dish—vegetarian dishes can be heavy on the carbohydrates. I like greens for freshness, an herb garnish, and something rich like cheese or caramelized onions to give it depth. There were only two vegetarians there, but that dish was wiped clean!"

If you're a vegetarian heading to a holiday dinner party this year, chances are you too will be asked to bring a double-duty dish. You'll want something hearty to satisfy the non-meat-eaters, enticing enough to please the omnivores, and easy to prepare and transport. Not to worry: With a little forethought and attention to detail, you can create a dish that everyone at the table will celebrate.

Plan Ahead

When choosing what to make, your first priority should be maximizing time with family and friends—which means avoiding frenzied last-minute cooking. Look for recipes with make-ahead ingredients. Grains, for example, can usually be cooked until tender a day in advance and refrigerated without sacrificing quality. You can trim and wash most veggies, including winter squash, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and leafy greens, ahead of time. And root vegetables—beets, parsnips, carrots, garlic—can be roasted and refrigerated for up to two days. Prepare dressings and sauces the day before, soak beans, marinate mushrooms. The key is steering clear of recipes that call for excessive attention at the end. "I'm all for relatively simple, minimal-fuss preparations that leave one free to hang out," says Heidi Swanson, the author of the cookbook Super Natural Every Day and the blog 101 Cookbooks. "I prep as much as possible in advance. This way, the amount of attention needed to get something on the table is manageable."

Hoping for a work-free holiday morning? Choose a recipe you can prepare entirely in advance. Many dishes, such as soups, stews, casseroles, and curries, taste better when the flavors have a day to mingle. Michael Natkin, the author of the new cookbook Herbivoracious, suggests a delicata squash stuffed with orzo, sage, and cranberries. Cooked a day ahead, it can be finished in the oven and garnished just before serving. "One half makes a satisfying, festive entrée for the vegetarians," says Natkin, "and it's easy to cut smaller pieces as a side dish."

For a fun touch, make your dish in single portions baked in ramekins or edible bowls. Think stuffed portobello mushrooms, or sweet potato halves with nuts, maple syrup, and caramelized onions. "People love it," says Forte. "It feels special, and it looks very intentional." Plan for portability, too: Once you've settled on a recipe, gather serving platters and utensils, and dig that summer cooler out of storage—it will keep your dish warm during transport.

Most popular Thanksgiving dishes are equal parts tradition, nostalgia, and comfort. More often than not, we face the standard spread: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing. As a result, Thanksgiving is practically synonymous with ending the day stuffed and sleepy. But who wouldn't prefer to feel satisfied and healthy? For a meal that sits better, base your dish on vibrant, flavorful fall produce.

Memorable Vegetables

Swanson takes her cue from what looks good at the market, admitting to a fondness for winter squashes like pumpkin at this time of year. "I think about what sounds good to me. When I sit down at the table, I like to have a nice balance of greens and vegetables, color, protein, and flavors on my plate," she says. For a memorable grain salad that doubles as a main course, she roasts cubes of sweet pumpkin and tosses them with cooked wild rice and sweet shallots.

While winter squash are a hearty, colorful, and nutritious mainstay, other cool-weather vegetables make a good compliment. "I like doing a mix of baby beets, winter squash, and Brussels sprouts in big chunks, roasted for a while so they're nice and caramelized and crispy-edged," says Forte. "I try to make the vegetable the thing you remember."

When shopping for produce, choose squash that are heavy for their size, with unblemished, firm skins, and store them in a cool dark place. Ask about varieties you don't recognize, and don't be afraid to substitute: Butternut squash, pumpkin, and kabocha squash are all great for cutting in cubes and roasting, while delicata and acorn squash are good choices for baking and filling with a savory mixture.

As you go about preparing your dish, keep in mind that because food is a vehicle for prana (life force), it's always beneficial to cook with a positive attitude—and this is especially so on a holiday dedicated to giving thanks. So remind yourself to bring gratitude into your kitchen and hold it as you cook. By cultivating appreciation for the food and for the people you're preparing it for, you're likely to feel less stressed, take more pleasure in the day, and be genuinely thankful.

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Lavinia Spalding is the author of Writing Away: A Creative Guide to Awakening the Journal-Writing Traveler.

November 2012

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