A Gourmet Vegetarian Holiday with Deborah Madison

You wouldn’t be alone if the idea brings up images of fake turkey made of tofu or a table full of vegetable side dishes. Whatever you may have thought about vegetarian holiday fare, today top chefs are creating delicious, festive and satisfying vegetarian holiday menus that may leave you wondering if turkey has been long overrated.

Deborah Madison, award winning author and founding chef of the celebrated Greens Restaurant in San Francisco, offers some practical advice — and mouth watering inspiration — for creating a vegetarian holiday menu.  I started my interview ambivalent, but by the time we got to the brown butter and sage…I was all in!  Here is what she had to say.

What are some of the benefits of choosing a vegetarian feast for the holidays?

“I don’t see that the benefits are much different than they are for any other meals. In fact, if people do eat turkey, what would really make a difference would be to obtain one that is well raised and not mass-produced—preferably a heritage breed, which has amazing flavor. But aside from that, Thanksgiving is a great opportunity for having a meal based on vegetables because it’s such a generous time of year and so many traditional vegetable recipes are already associated with the meal. It’s actually one of the easiest meals to make vegetarian if you do it in a traditional way.”

A lot of omnivores shy away from making their holiday meal vegetarian because they don’t know what to use as the centerpiece, which is traditionally meat.  What would you suggest to overcome this dilemma?

“I really don’t think it’s a problem on Thanksgiving, again because the meal is usually one that has many vegetable dishes. Even if you have the turkey, it’s a minor part of the whole spread—that is, if you’re having a traditional meal with all the trimmings (the pumpkin, sweet potatoes, green beans, cranberries, Brussels sprouts etc.).

“This is a problem for other meals that aren’t so elaborate or that don’t include so many vegetable dishes from the start. I’ve written about the center of the plate a lot—and I conclude that if people are uncomfortable about the lack of the center provided by meat, then they need to make a dish that has some complexity and focus that draws the eye and makes it the center. Anything that’s stacked, layered, stuffed, or rolled can fill that role. Or a vegetable (winter squash) timbale turned out onto a bed of greens (braised kale), a sauce (red wine and shallots) included gives a feeling of focus and completion. Stews and stir-fried dishes don’t fill that role so well, or a collection of simple side dishes.

“If you’re having more of a fine dining meal than the traditional feast, then this becomes more important, but it’s not necessarily difficult.”

Holidays are a time of indulgence (although more often over-indulgence).  Some might think of vegetarian holiday fare as just a meal of veggie side-dishes.  Can you create an indulgent vegetarian holiday meal?

“Of course!  Just make foods that a little richer than everyday fare. Use cream if called for instead of milk. Add a cheese course. Don’t stint on butter. Have nuts play a role.”

What suggestions can you offer those wishing to plan out a vegetarian holiday dinner?

Don’t worry! It’s really about the people and the event.

Shift the focus.  Make it a meal that celebrates your local harvest by getting everything from your farmers markets or garden, or those of your guests and friends. Celebrate the season and all its possibilities.

Make something that is special to you that you don’t get to make often because it’s too time consuming or too rich or for whatever reason. For example, this might be a good time to make squash ravioli with brown butter and sage leaves, a wonderful seasonal dish that takes more effort than everyday life allows. Or the rich and dramatic sizzling risotto gratin, a wild mushroom lasagna, or beautifully formed and tied stuffed cabbage roles, a galette, or something costly and rare, like a dish that features a truffle.

Choose your wines with care. Serve in courses instead of having everything crammed on a plate, especially if you’ve taken the time to make something like those ravioli. Feature them! Have flowers. Don’t eat on paper plates. Make it a beautiful table.

What’s most important is that you cook. It needn’t be fancy, expensive, complex—or it can be. But your effort to put your hands to work is what will really be appreciated and noticed. Food from Costco or take-out just won’t say the same thing as home cooked food. And because we’re all pressed for time and money, share the effort with friends. Not in a haphazard potluck sort of way, but figure out a menu ahead of time and divide the cooking. You will find that people feel very strongly about what must be on the table on Thanksgiving or any other holiday, but eventually you’ll come up with a menu.

“As for specific dishes, I think if you look at Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone or Vegetarian Suppers from Deborah Madison’s Kitchen you’ll find plenty of dishes that would be fine for Thanksgiving or any special meal. I don’t put them in one chapter—they can be found throughout the book. Take the time to read the recipes and come up with something you really want to cook and that you feel will work in the center of the plate.  Even a simple gratin can do the trick. Here are a few from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that would be good possibilities, and there are many more.”


Sizzling Risotto Gratin

Rolled and Stacked Souffles

Giant Cheddar (or Goat Cheese) Souffle

Winter Squash Galette

Butternut Squash Ravioli with Roasted Pecans and Sage

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Check out Deborah’s book

Editor’s Top Vegetarian Picks

Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World

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Vegan, Vegetarian, Ominvore: something for everyone at the table