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In these times of demonstrative food preferences and sensitivities, planning for the Thanksgiving feast can become a host's worst nightmare.

First there are the vegans and vegetarians. Then there are the gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free, nut-free, fat-free and everything-but-meat-free folks.

Once you've got a roomful of picky eaters, carving the turkey like Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold seems like child's play next to the challenge of feeding the crowd.

If it were a more casual meal, the problem could be solved by a small-plates buffet. But Thanksgiving tends to demand a formal feast woven together like a fine tapestry, with equal parts warmth and comfort, flavor and nostalgia.

For your dining sanity, we gathered tips and recipes from a trio of North Bay chefs who came up with healthy yet delicious side dishes aimed at making everybody happy.

The trick is to celebrate what guests can eat, rather than creating an artificial substitute for something that they can't eat. In other words, why serve "tofurkey" when you can serve wild mushrooms and butternut squash?

"We call it creative cuisine," said Sid Garza-Hillman, staff nutritionist and culinary director at The Ravens restaurant in Mendocino. "You don't have to give up anything to eat healthy food that's good for the environment and compassionate."

The Ravens serves a delicious, all-vegan Thanksgiving dinner each year featuring special dishes like Layered Vegetable Pat? Handmade Pumpkin Ravioli and a Wild Mushroom Crepe with red quinoa, butternut squash, stuffed roasted apple, garden greens and roasted root vegetables.

Showcasing seasonal fall produce like squash, greens and root vegetables provides hearty entrees and sides that vegetarians and carnivores alike can appreciate.

"The vegetables of the season tend to be very rich and decadent in and of themselves," said Lia Huber of Healdsburg, founder of the wellness website Nourish Network. "The squashes are just wonderful, and kale is a very meaty green."

For the big feast, Huber suggests adding heft to the vegetables by adding meaty whole grains, such as farro, wheat berries or whole wheat couscous.

"Whole grains have a lot of protein, a great nutrient package, and all kinds of vitamins and minerals," she said. "Plus, they have healthy fats and fiber."

One of her favorite side dishes is a Roasted Acorn Squash Salad with Wheat Berries and Blue Cheese.

"That would be enough for a really nice, rich main course for a vegetarian," she said. "But it could also make an elegant smaller salad."

Another whole-grain dish that pairs well on the Thanksgiving plate is her Whole Wheat Couscous with Raisins and Almonds.

"It's tart and tangy, savory and sweet," she said. "It would be fantastic with turkey, but I also love it with roast chicken."

If you're catering to a crowd on a special diet, look at what's already on the menu, then just give it a little tweak, she said.

Instead of the traditional green bean casserole, braise some kale in garlic. Instead of serving mashed potatoes, Huber suggests whipping up a Sweet Potato Puree with Honey and Crispy Shallots.

For those who want to cut the dairy fat from the mashed potatoes, Executive chef Justin Wangler of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates in Santa Rosa advises cooking the potatoes until well done, then whipping half of them with olive oil and the other half with butter and cream.

"That way, you can make everybody happy," he said. "And there's not a lot of extra work."

For a vegetarian main course with a fall flavor, Wangler suggests serving a traditional torta (Spanish omelette) made with sweet potatoes instead of potatoes.

And as a hearty fall salad, he likes to toss some crisp Fuyu persimmons with black-eyed peas with chopped baby kale.

"We've been using the smaller kale leaves and chopping then up, then putting on a vinaigrette," he said. "It's got great colors, and it's very simple."

As a gluten-free stuffing, Wangler bakes his own cornbread in a skillet, then mixes it with walnuts, herbs and dried cherries for a delicious, vegetarian side.

The traditional desserts of the day can often be an issue for those sensitive to gluten. Kendall-Jackson pastry chef Robert Nieto likes to whip up a Kabocha-Buttermilk Panna Cotta with some Riesling shortbread cookies on the side.

"Kabocha, a sweet Japanese squash, adds a wonderful flavor to this gluten-free dessert," he said.

As a nibble before the meal, it's always a good idea to provide a bit of crunch. Huber favors a platter of bitter endive spears with a dab of Roquefort Mousse and walnuts.

"Endive leaves are the greatest little scooper," she said. "You've got a lovely, crisp green, a walnut and a little bit of pop from that Roquefort mousse."

The following three recipes are from Lia Huber, founder of Nourish Network. "These little spears are crowd pleasers; packed with flavor despite their diminutive appearance," she writes. "The cheese mixture keeps for up to five days, so you can prep everything ahead of time and then pipe just before people come to the door."

Endive Spears with Roquefort Mousse and Walnuts

Serves 24 as appetizer

6 ounces Roquefort cheese

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

? cup cream cheese, softened

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons snipped chives

4 heads endive (about 96 leaves)

24 walnuts, toasted and broken into pieces

Blend together Roquefort, garlic, cream cheese, vinegar, salt and pepper and chives in a blender until smooth. Chill for 20 minutes. Transfer Roquefort mixture to a pastry bag and pipe a teaspoon mound onto the end of each endive spear. Top with a toasted walnut piece.

"I'm always on the lookout for a good whole grain dish," Huber writes. "This one's a winner on several fronts. It's tart and tangy, savory and sweet."

Whole Wheat Couscous with Raisins and Almonds

Makes 4 servings

1? cups water

1 cup whole wheat couscous

? cup golden raisins

? cup red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

? cup lemon juice

? cup green onions, thinly sliced

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

? cup sliced almonds, toasted

Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add a pinch of salt and the couscous, cover and remove from heat. Let stand for 10 minutes, until tender.

While the couscous is steaming, soak the raisins in the vinegar in a medium salad bowl.

When couscous is ready, whisk olive oil, lemon juice and onions into the vinegar. Fluff couscous with a fork and add to the dressing, tossing to coat well. Season with salt and pepper and toss again. Top with toasted almonds.

"This is an incredibly versatile side dish that shows just how delicious healthy can be," Huber writes. "Serve it with a holiday turkey or a simple roast chicken. Or top it with a mushroom saut?for a meatless feast."

Sweet Potato Puree with Honey and Crispy Shallots

Makes 12 servings

4 pounds garnet sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 cup finely chopped shallots

4 tablespoons butter

? cup lowfat milk

3t ablespoons honey

3 tablespoons soy sauce

Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Bring a large pot of boiling, salted water to a boil and drop in potatoes. Return to a gentle boil over medium heat and cook for 12-15 minutes, until tender enough to pierce with a fork. Drain in a colander and transfer half of the potatoes to a food processor.

Heat oil in a large saut?pan over medium heat and saut?shallots for 10-12 minutes, stirring frequently, until deep golden brown (be careful - they go quickly from golden to burnt in the last minute or so). Transfer to a paper towel.

Add half the butter, milk, honey and soy sauce to the food processor with the sweet potatoes and puree for 30 seconds, until smooth. Scrape into a bowl and repeat with the remaining ingredients. Combine the two batches of puree, season with salt and pepper and stir in all but 2 tablespoons of the shallots.

Scrape into a serving bowl and top with remaining shallots.

This gluten-free vegetarian stuffing from Justin Wangler, executive chef at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates, is a flavorful addition to the Thanksgiving meal. If one of your guests has celiac disease, use the gluten-free cornmeal from Bob's Red Mill (cornmeal is gluten-free, but it may have been processed in a plant that also processes wheat products.) This dish pairs well with the Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Pinot Noir.

Cornbread Stuffing

Makes 8 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

? onion, minced

2 stalks celery, small dice

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup walnuts, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh sage, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced

1 cup dried cherries

2 cups pumpkin stock, warm (recipe below)

1 recipe cornbread, cut into 1-inch squares (see recipe below)

Preheat convection oven to 375 degrees (or a regular oven to 400.)

In a 12-inch cast-iron pan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion, celery and salt and cook for approximately 5 minutes. Add walnuts, sage and thyme; cook for 2 minutes. Add the cherries and stock; stir to combine. Gently add the cornbread and cover the pan. Place in oven and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover the pan and bake for 15 additional minutes or until golden brown.

Gluten-free Cast-Iron Skillet Cornbread

2 ounces, plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

2 cups cornmeal

2 tablespoons masa or corn flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon kosher salt

6 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 cup buttermilk

1 cup sour cream

1 egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Generously brush the cast-iron skillet with 2 tablespoons butter; set aside remaining butter.

In a mixing bowl, sift together dry ingredients.

In a separate bowl, combine remaining melted butter, buttermilk, sour cream and egg; whisk to combine. Add the dry ingredients and combine thoroughly.

Place pan in the oven and allow to preheat for 5 minutes. Remove pan from oven and carefully pour batter into preheated pan. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until cornbread is golden brown and a toothpick inserted off-center comes out clean. Flip cornbread out onto a rack and allow to dry overnight if possible.

Vegetarian Pumpkin Stock

3 stalks celery, chopped

1 onion, large dice

2 carrots, diced

1 bay leaf

3 sprigs fresh thyme

2 pounds pumpkin, chopped

1 teaspoon kosher salt

In a large pot, add all ingredients and cover with 1 gallon of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for 1 hour. Strain stock, reserve liquid and discard vegetables. Extra stock can be refrigerated for up to 1 week or frozen for 3 months. Makes an excellent base for vegetarian pumpkin soup.

The smoked olive oil in the vinaigrette replaces the flavor of bacon in this vegan, soul food dish. The Smoked Olive Oil can be found at the Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg, The Olive Press in Sonoma, and the Redwood Empire Farmers' Market at the Santa Rosa Veterans' Building on Saturdays. The dish pairs well with the Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Pinot Noir or Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay.

Black-eyed Peas, Persimmon & Baby Kale Salad

Makes 8 servings

1 quart black-eyed peas, cooked (recipe below)

3 Fuyu persimmons, peeled & diced (about 1 cup)

5 ounces baby kale, washed

1recipe The Smoked Olive Oil vinaigrette (recipe below)

— Kosher salt

— Freshly ground black pepper

In a large bowl, add black-eyed peas, persimmons and baby kale. Drizzle with smoked olive oil vinaigrette and toss. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature.

Black-eyed peas

? pound black-eyed peas, dried

1 tablespoon olive oil

? large yellow onion, cut in half

4 cups water

1 bay leaf

4 sprigs thyme

1 medium size carrot, peeled

1 stalk celery

1 tablespoon kosher salt

Pick through beans and remove any pebbles. Rinse thoroughly. In a large bowl, soak beans in 6 cups cold water. Refrigerate overnight.

The next day, remove beans from the refrigerator and drain.

In a large heavy-bottomed pot, add all the ingredients and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for approximately 1 hour or until beans become tender, but not mushy. Remove pot from heat and pour beans into a bowl set over an ice bath. Allow to cool. Strain off liquid, remove herbs and vegetables and discard. Set beans aside.

Smoked Olive Oil Vinaigrette

1 tablespoon Chardonnay verjus

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 teaspoons Dijon mustard

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons smoked olive oil (from The Smoked Olive company)

In a small bowl, add the verjus, lemon juice, mustard and salt. Whisk to combine. Slowly whisk in the olive oil.

This sweet potato torta is a Southern play on the traditional Spanish torta. Pair it with the Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay or Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Riesling.

Sweet Potato Torta

Makes 4 servings

? cup Kendall-Jackson Estate olive oil

? medium yellow onion, julienned

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 pound sweet potatoes (Garnet yams), peeled & sliced ?-inch rounds

1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped

4 eggs, beaten

Preheat convection oven to 325 degrees (or a regular oven to 350)

In a small non-stick pan over medium-high heat, add the olive oil and heat for 10 seconds. Add onion and salt; sweat onion for 5 minutes or until light golden brown. Add the sweet potatoes and cook for approximately 12 minutes, occasionally tossing or stirring, until potatoes begin to caramelize and become golden brown. Add the thyme and stir. Add the eggs and stir to coat sweet potatoes. Allow to cook for 1 to 2 minutes to let eggs set. Place pan in oven and cook for 15 minutes. Remove pan from oven and flip torta onto a serving plate. Allow to cool to room temperature. Slice and serve.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@rpessdemocrat.com

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