Food & Drink

For meat alternative, go into beast mode

Vegetarian roast beast doesn’t try to look like a turkey, and as such may appeal to all.
Vegetarian roast beast doesn’t try to look like a turkey, and as such may appeal to all. Washington Post

When 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 can 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 if there’s turkey on the table.

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. 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.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, Burks and Lawrence approved of my changes. 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.”

Vegetarian roast beast

8 servings

To make this vegan, substitute a vegan cheese of your choice; we recommend Chao by Field Roast.

You’ll need three 17-inch-long flat metal skewers.

MAKE AHEAD: The eggplant needs to rest, salted, for a total of 1 hour. The roasted “beast” can be cooled and refrigerated for up to 3 days; wrap it tightly in several layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Leave it wrapped for reheating in a 300-degree oven until warmed through, about 30 minutes.

Adapted from a recipe in “The Chubby Vegetarian,” by Justin Fox Burks and Amy Lawrence (Susan Schadt Press, 2016).

1 medium Italian eggplant (1 pound), sliced into 1/2-inch rounds

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 large red bell peppers

1/3 cup pine nuts (may substitute slivered almonds)

3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

15 cloves garlic, smashed

2 cups lightly packed parsley leaves and tender stems

1/2 cup packed sage leaves, plus more for garnish

1/3 cup red wine vinegar

5 large portobello mushroom caps

1 small (1 pound) delicata squash

1 large white onion, cut into 1/2-inch slices

1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper

6 ounces (4 large slices) smoked Gouda (may substitute smoked mozzarella or a vegan cheese)

Cooked orzo or couscous, for serving

Balsamic vinegar, for drizzling

Rosemary sprigs, for garnish

Sprinkle the eggplant slices on both sides with 2 tablespoons of the salt and set them in a colander in the sink. Let them sit for about 1 hour, until they give off moisture, then rinse, gently squeeze each slice between your hands to rid it of extra moisture, and pat them dry.

Meanwhile, position an oven rack 6 inches from the broiler element; preheat the broiler. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the peppers on the baking sheet; broil until charred black on all sides, turning them with tongs as needed. Transfer to a heatproof bowl and top with a plate to steam. Once the peppers are cool enough to handle, rub off and discard the charred skins. Tear each pepper carefully in two, removing and discarding the stems and seeds.

Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Line a large roasting pan with foil, then seat a V-rack inside it.

Set a small skillet over medium heat. Add the pine nuts and toast, tossing them in the pan occasionally, until they are lightly browned in spots and fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Immediately transfer them to a plate to cool.

Return the skillet to medium heat and pour in the oil. Once it shimmers, add the smashed garlic and cook until just browned, 4 minutes. Let cool to room temperature.

Combine the pine nuts, parsley, sage, vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt in a food processor. Pour in the garlic and its oil (from the skillet), and pulse until the ingredients are well incorporated but still a little chunky. Transfer the pesto to a large bowl. Add the portobello caps and eggplant slices, and gently turn them in the pesto to coat, using a rubber spatula to smear the pesto all over the vegetables. You’ll have some pesto left over; reserve it for serving.

Use a sharp serrated knife to cut the squash into 1/2-inch-thick rings. (Leave the squash unpeeled; the skin is tender enough to eat when roasted.) Use a spoon to scoop out and discard the seeds and pulp from each ring.

Lightly season the squash rings, onion slices and roasted red pepper halves with the pepper and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt.

Thread the vegetables onto a skewer: If you’d like, stand the skewer on your counter with the sharp end pointing straight up and the ring end on the counter, and thread from the top down. Start with a mushroom cap, with the outside of the cap facing the ring end of the skewer, and follow with a slice of eggplant, a squash ring, half of a roasted pepper, a slice of Gouda and a slice of onion. (The first skewer will not pierce the flesh of the squash rings, but try to keep them even with the other vegetables as you work. You basically will be making a giant kebab.) Repeat this pattern more times, packing the kebab tightly as you go. End on a mushroom cap, with the outside of the cap facing the pointed end of the skewer. Press the stack tightly together and pierce all the way through it at an angle with the two other skewers, using them if possible to go through the flesh of the squash rings. (Reserve any extra vegetable slices for another use.)

Transfer the kebab to the rack and roast, turning it every 10 minutes, for 30 minutes, until the vegetables are browned and almost tender, and much of the cheese has dripped out.

Use a serving spoon to scrape up the cheese and lay it back on top of the kebab, and baste the kebab with the pan juices. Cook for an additional 20 to 30 minutes without turning, continuing to scrape up the cheese and baste every few minutes, until the eggplant and squash offer no resistance when pierced with a fork.

Remove the kebab; scrape up any more cheese and spoon it on top, along with pan juices; tent with foil and allow it to rest for 10 minutes. (Some cheese may have burned on the foil; that’s okay.)

Transfer to a platter of orzo or couscous, pouring any remaining juices over the top. Top with the remaining pesto, then drizzle with balsamic vinegar and garnish with rosemary sprigs and sage leaves.

Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.