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November 15, 1999


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A Very Veggie Thanksgiving Dinner

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Mabel Fernandes

Even as a fresh immigrant Sharon Singh had known that America's second biggest event after Christmas, Thanksgiving Day, was not complete without turkey.

Singh wanted to share the American tradition of Thanksgiving, inviting home some elderly and poor people in her New York neighborhood but she had a major problem -- she is a vegetarian. Yet she did not want to disappoint her guests.

For several years, she served them turkey dinner, ordering it from a restaurant nearby.

"There was no concept of vegetarian Thanksgiving 15 years ago," she says, as she gets ready for yet another Thanksgiving dinner this year. But this time it is going to be a vegetarian dinner.

For most Americans, to have Thanksgiving without turkey would be like a birthday without cake, Christmas without the tree, the Fourth of July without fireworks.

"But in recent years, I have become smarter," Singh says, chuckling. "I serve the veggie Thanksgiving dinner, with a desi touch. And no one is complaining."

"In fact, my neighbor who is fighting high blood pressure and overweight says he never had an idea that veggies can be so tasteful."

Singh says she has been inspired to serve a Vegan Thanksgiving dinner by the efforts of Shri Chinmoy and Vaswani missions as well as the Hare Krishnas to popularize vegetarian food. She is also aware of the efforts made by organizations like to have meatless holidays across America.

She remembers reading an article which posed these questions and came out with commonsense answer: If you are going to be hosting a Thanksgiving feast, and expecting a vegetarian or two, or if you are a vegetarian heading for a non-vegetarian gathering, what should you do? Before you panic, consider the holiday's true meaning as a harvest festival.

Just as it was hundreds of years ago, when Governor William Bradford of Massachusetts proclaimed in 1621 that the Pilgrims set aside a date in late November to "render thanksgiving... for the abundant harvest of Indian corn, wheat, beans, squashes, and garden vegetables." There were no turkeys at early Thanksgiving feasts, Singh remembers reading. It is a fact thousands of vegetarians across America proudly proclaim.

Vegetarian historian Eugene Rynn, author of Famous Vegetarians and Their Favorite Recipes and Food for the Gods: Vegetarianism and the World's Religions notes that the story of the Pilgrim's First Thanksgiving -- and the turkey's place in it -- has been shown to be largely a myth. It was only in 1863 that Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving to be a national holiday -- mainly as a public relations ploy to whip up a sense of patriotism and national unity during the Civil War. The Pilgrims themselves didn't become a part of the national celebration until the 1890s.

The legend that 100 odd English men and women who landed at Plymouth Harbor feasted on turkey and all the trimmings is a myth. When they first arrived, on November 11, 1620, the settlers had so little food that they raised the houses of the Native American inhabitants and made off with stores of beans and corn. There was simply no animal flesh to be had.

It is likely that the first Thanksgiving could have had to have been a vegan one, consisting of corn and beans served on pottery that the so-called Pilgrim Fathers stole from the Red Indians.

The folklore taught in schools has it that the Pilgrims originated the Thanksgiving festival and that they provided the Native Americans with a feast they had never seen. In fact, the opposite is true.

In November 1621, one year after the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, the Pilgrims celebrated harvest festival jointly with the Native Americans -- a harvest festival that the native inhabitants had been celebrating for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Most of the food at this festival was supplied by Native Americans. It was a meal that the Pilgrims had never witnessed, consisting of native American foodstuff.

The main meal was a sort of corn meal mush along with nuts and fruits such as gooseberries, strawberries, plums, cherries, cranberries and a groundnut known as the bogg bean. Popcorn and popcorn balls made by the Indians with maple syrup were served as a sweet. There was a variety of bread, such as cornpone, ashcakes, and hoe cakes, all made by Native Americans from their own recipes. It is also possible that other native foods such as pumpkin and squash were served.

In his Food Encyclopedia, James Trager also says it is possible that turkey was not served. It is true that the Indians provided some deer meat, and game birds, but they were side dishes and not the focus of the meal.

Over the last five years, Sharon Singh has served vegetarian Thanksgiving dinners to vegetarian and non-vegetarian guests alike. They feature the seasonal ingredients this holiday is meant to celebrate -- xorn, squashes, sweet potatoes, apples, nuts, cranberries, and greens.

"With each Thanksgiving, I become smarter and wiser," she says. Even her children, who are non-vegetarian, love her Thanksgiving treats.

Here are some of her favorite alternative main dish and stuffing, plus a sophisticated way to serve that traditional Thanksgiving vegetable, Brussels sprouts. If you are the host, these will serve your vegetarian guests nicely; if you are going to be a guest, volunteer to bring this enticing main dish. Meat-eaters can certainly enjoy these as side dishes but make sure they leave enough for the vegetarians!

Butternut squash with whole wheat, wild rice, and onion stuffing

Serves 8.

Even those of us who have given up turkey welcome a Thanksgiving dish that has been "stuffed". This satisfying dish makes a handsome centerpiece for the holiday meal.

4 medium-small butternut squashes (about 1 pound each)
3/4 cup raw wild rice, rinsed
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 heaping cup chopped red onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 green chile, minced
1 piece of tender ginger, nicely crushed
2 1/2 cups firmly packed torn whole wheat bread
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon each: dried sage, dried thyme
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
1 tablespoon ghee
1 cup fresh orange juice
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Halve the squashes and scoop out seeds and fibers. Place them cut side up in shallow baking dishes and cover tightly with covers or more foil. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until it's easily pierced with a knife but still firm.

Meanwhile, bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a saucepan. Stir in the wild rice, reduce to a simmer, then cover and cook until the water is absorbed, about 40 minutes.

Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the onion, chillies, ginger and garlic and sauté until golden. Add the ghee.

In a mixing bowl, combine the cooked wild rice with the sautéed onion and the remaining ingredients. When the squashes are cool enough to handle, scoop out the pulp, leaving firm shells about 1/2 inch thick. Chop the pulp and stir it into the rice mixture. Stuff the squashes, place in foil-lined baking dishes, and cover.

Before serving, place the squashes in a preheated 350 degree oven. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or just until well-heated through.

Walnut-apple stuffing

Serves 8 or more.

Vegetarians won't want to eat stuffing that has been cooked in the bird. Here's a tasty stuffing that bakes separately.

6 cups firmly packed diced whole grain bread
1 l/2 tablespoons canola oil
1 1/2 cups chopped red onion
2 green chillies, finely chopped
1 l/2 cups peeled, diced tart apple
3 bunches coriander or mint leaves
1/2 teaspoon each: dried thyme, savory
3/4 teaspoon seasoned salt, more or less to taste
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
3 tablespoons currants
2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper to taste
l l/2 cups apple juice
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the diced bread on a baking sheet. Bake 10 to 12 minutes, or until dry and lightly browned.

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the red onion and sauté over moderate heat until golden. Add chillies and apple and sauté for another 5 minutes.

In a mixing bowl, combine the bread cubes with the onion and apple mixture. Add all the remaining ingredients except the apple juice and toss together. Sprinkle in the apple juice slowly, stirring at the same time to moisten the ingredients evenly. Transfer the mixture to an oiled shallow 1 1/2-quart baking pan. Bake 25 to 30 minutes, or until browned and still slightly moist. Stir once during the baking time. Transfer to a covered serving container.

Wine and honey-glazed Brussels sprouts

Serves 8.

The slightly sweet glaze of wine and honey makes Brussels sprouts taste deceptively rich.

2 pounds Brussels sprouts
1/2 cup dry red wine
3 tablespoons honey
1 l/2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamarind juice
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

Trim the stems from the Brussels sprouts and cut an X into the base, about 1/4 inch deep.

In a small bowl, combine the wine, honey, and soy sauce or tamarind juice and stir together. Transfer to a 3-quart saucepan along with 1/2 cup water and the Brussels sprouts. Stir together, then cook, covered, at a gentle simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Uncover and cook, stirring occasionally, for another 10 minutes.

Dissolve the cornstarch in a small amount of water. Stir into the saucepan quickly, then cook for another 5 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer to a covered casserole dish to serve.

Three Sisters stew

Serves 8.

In Native American mythology, squash, corn, and beans are known as of the "three sisters." These are the very crops, along with garden vegetables, that the harvest festival of Thanksgiving is meant to celebrate!

1 small sugar pumpkin or 1 large butternut or carnival squash (about 2 pounds)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small piece of ginger, nicely minced
1/2 medium green or red bell pepper, cut into short, narrow strips. Trim the stems from the Brussels sprouts and cut an X into the base, about 1/4 inch deep.
14- to 16-ounce can diced tomatoes, with liquid
2 cups cooked or canned pinto beans
2 cups corn kernels (from 2 large or 3 medium ears)
1 cup home-made or canned vegetable stock, or water
1 or 2 small fresh hot chilles, seeded and minced
1 teaspoon each: ground cumin, dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 tablespoons minced fresh coriander or mint leaves
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the pumpkin or squash in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and fibers. Cover with aluminium foil and place the halves, cut side up, in a foil-lined shallow baking pan. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes, or until easily pierced with a knife but still firm (if using squash, prepare the same way). When cool enough to handle, scoop out the pulp, and cut into large dice. Set aside until needed.

Heat the oil in a soup pot. Add the onion and sauté over medium-low heat until translucent. Add the garlic, ginger and chillies and continue to sauté until the onion is golden.

Add the pumpkin and all the remaining ingredients except the last 2 and bring to a simmer. Simmer gently, covered, until all the vegetables are tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

If time allows, let the stew stand for 1 to 2 hours before serving, then heat through as needed. Just before serving, stir in the coriander or mint. The stew should be thick and very moist but not soupy; add additional stock or water if needed. Serve in shallow bowls.

Baked sweet potatoes and apples

Serves 6 or more.

A cheering winter recipe, and a great side dish for Thanksgiving, it gets its New England character from maple syrup.

4 large sweet potatoes
2 tablespoons whipped butter or natural canola margarine, melted
1/2 cup maple syrup
2 large apples, peeled, cored, and thinly sliced
Ground cloves
1/2 cup apple juice
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Bake or microwave the sweet potatoes until done but still firm. When cool enough to handle, cut them into 1/2-inch-thick slices.

Oil a deep, 1 1/2 quart baking casserole. Arrange half the sweet potato slices on the bottom. Drizzle with half of the butter, then half of the maple syrup. Top with the apple slices. Sprinkle lightly with the cinnamon and cloves. Repeat the layers, then pour the apple juice over the top. Bake for 30 minutes, covered, then for another 10 minutes, uncovered. Serve at once or cover and keep warm until needed.

Cranberry-apple relish

Serves 8 or more.

This relish adds vivid color to fall harvest meals, and is a nice change of pace from jellied cranberry sauces for holiday meals.

12-ounce bag fresh cranberries
4 sweet cooking apples (such as Cortland), peeled and diced
1/2 cup light brown sugar or Sucanat
1/4 cup apple juice
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
Pinch of allspice or nutmeg
1/4 cup golden raisins

Combine all the ingredients except the raisins in a large saucepan. Stir together, bring to a simmer, then simmer gently, keeping it covered until the cranberries have burst and the apples are tender, all of about 20 to 25 minutes.

Stir in the raisins and allow it to cool, uncovered. Transfer to a serving container and serve at room temperature.

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