Easy Thanksgiving side dishes that will delight traditionalists and vegans, alike

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Thanksgiving without the turkey may strike worry into the heart of even the most intrepid cook. Yet a meal without the bird or any other animal product — yes, a vegan Thanksgiving! — can still feel rich.

Of the many Thanksgiving meals I’ve cooked, the ones that have been the most memorable have also been the most simple. Now, this may seem to go against the whole idea of Thanksgiving in terms of celebrating the abundance of the harvest with an equally abundant table, but hear me out. Simple doesn’t have to mean dull, and it certainly doesn’t have to eschew tradition, even if you go the sans-bird route as I’m planning to this year.

In other words, a Thanksgiving without a turkey needn’t be boring. One glance at the gorgeous produce currently available should inspire a plant-based menu that can be enjoyed by vegans and omnivores alike.

My strategy is to serve an elegant, restrained Thanksgiving menu that won’t leave my guests wishing they’d skipped seconds. I love to pare down and focus on the in-season produce that reflects fall’s beauty. It’s easy to keep things festive with a little creative forethought.

If you’re expecting guests who are vegan or vegetarian, or if you want to lighten your table a bit from the more traditional fare that can often feel like too much, try making this streamlined menu highlighting seasonal produce. Or choose one or two of these recipes to contribute to a Thanksgiving meal or to serve as your vegetarian offering.

For the sake of keeping things easy, each recipe included here is vegan, meaning it is without any animal-sourced ingredient and is thus suitable for those who keep to either a vegan or vegetarian diet.

These could serve as your complete Thanksgiving menu. Start with bowls of smooth, rich-tasting butternut squash and coconut milk soup topped with a squeeze of lime juice and sprinkled with toasted pumpkin seeds.

Then it’s on to your main course of thick cauliflower steaks generously drizzled with a fresh herb pesto fragrant with lemon juice and served on a bed of pearl couscous. Serve crispy, pan-fried Brussels sprouts alongside and finish with a not-too-sweet cranberry-apple crisp.

Want more? You could add a pan of roasted vegetables such as peeled and cubed sweet potatoes, little red russet potatoes, carrots and parsnips to your menu. Or swap the veggies for the pearl couscous. If you’re pressed for time, omit the herb pesto meant for the cauliflower steaks or top them instead with a handful of toasted, sliced almonds for a bit of crunch.

Similarly, if you prefer green beans to Brussels sprouts, substitute trimmed green beans for the sprouts and cook according to the directions below. It’s lovely to have a component of something raw to balance out the cooked dishes so I like to serve an apple-fennel slaw or a spinach salad with sliced Fuyu persimmons in another nod to seasonal produce.

And a pear sauce — prepared the same way you’d make an apple sauce — with a touch of cinnamon is a nice change from the usual cranberry sauce, especially if you make the cranberry-apple crisp for dessert.

A few years ago, we were living in Casablanca, Morocco, an incredibly busy city sprawled along the Atlantic Ocean. As I learned during our years living overseas, when you’re far from home you tend to cling to your traditions. Thanksgiving is certainly a North American hallmark, and one enjoyed equally by American expats and their local guests.

The weekend before Thanksgiving, we visited the downtown produce souk marketplace for an array of vegetables, including purple Japanese sweet potatoes, cauliflower, green beans, potatoes and spinach. Morocco taught me to be flexible and to keep my dinner ingredients pared down — you never knew exactly what might be available when you showed up at the market, and culinary creativity was essential.

I did bake a small turkey breast in a nod to American sensibilities, but the rest of the meal was completely plant-based and on the lighter side. We left the table satisfied but still able to enjoy a slice of persimmon cake without feeling like we overdid it.

As it turned out, the act of gathering together to share a meal was the tradition we were most hankering for. We didn’t have cranberry sauce or a whole roasted turkey (to buy a whole turkey, I was told, would have been difficult, and it would have been enormous) and we didn’t miss them. Delectable vegetables and good camaraderie were more than enough.

Back in Sonoma County to celebrate Thanksgiving for the first time in five years, I’m looking forward to visiting the farmer’s market to source the ingredients for my feast.

I’ve already stashed some of the beautiful golden delicious apples from our prolific tree to tuck into my dessert. I’ll use the rosemary from my little herb garden to season my meal, and we’ll all give thanks for the bounty of the harvest.

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This is a divine soup, velvety smooth and just a touch rich from the coconut milk. The curry powder adds a hint of warming spice, but it is perfectly fine to omit it if you prefer a more traditional soup. Lime wedges and pumpkin seeds make a wonderful finishing garnish.

Butternut Squash Soup

Makes 6 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons curry powder (optional)

1 large butternut squash, about 2 pounds, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 can unsweetened coconut milk

2 cups vegetable broth or water

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 tablespoon soy sauce

— Salt and pepper to taste

— Lime wedges and toasted pumpkin seeds, for serving (optional)

Warm the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until it begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another 1 to 2 minutes. Add the curry powder and sauté a minute more.

Add the squash, the coconut milk, broth or water, maple syrup and soy sauce. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook until the squash is soft, about 30-40 minutes.

Puree the soup until it’s smooth and velvety. An immersion blender makes this easy and safe, but you can also carefully puree the soup in batches in a food processor or blender.

Before serving, generously squeeze lime juice into each bowl and top with a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds if using.

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This is a hearty main course that is filling without being heavy. Feel free to skip the pesto if you’re short on time, and season the cauliflower with a mix of dried herbs of choice before roasting.

Cauliflower Steaks with Herb Pesto and Pearl Couscous

Makes 4 servings

For the steaks:

2 tablespoons of olive oil plus 2 teaspoons of olive oil

1 medium sized cauliflower

1/2 teaspoon salt

Heat oven to 400 degrees and grease a large cast iron pan or roasting pan with 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

Place the cauliflower stem side down on a cutting board and, using a large knife, slice it in half down the middle. Cut each half in half again to make four steaks.

Lay the steaks in the pan in an even layer and drizzle with the remaining olive oil. Sprinkle with the salt and place in the oven for 20 minutes. Check to make sure it is not burning and roast for another five minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven, gently flip the cauliflower to the other side, and roast for another 20-25 minutes, checking often to make sure it is not overcooking. Remove the steaks from the oven.

To assemble: Using four plates, create a 1/4 cup bed of the cooked couscous, drizzle with the herb pesto and serve immediately. Alternatively, use a large serving dish to plate the batch of couscous, laying the steaks atop and drizzling with the pesto to serve family style.

Herb pesto

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 cups of mixed fresh herbs: basil, sage, rosemary thyme, in equal proportions

3 tablespoons walnuts

3 large cloves garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon fine grain salt

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

3-6 tablespoons water

Combine the herbs, walnuts, garlic, lemon juice and salt in a food processor and mix until a paste forms. Keeping the machine on, add the olive oil a tablespoon at a time. Stop and scrape down the sides, then turn back on and add the water a tablespoon at a time until a thick, pourable sauce forms. Taste and add more salt if desired.

Pearl Couscous

Makes 4 servings

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

11/2 cups Israeli/pearl couscous

21/2 cups vegetable broth or water

In a large heavy bottom pot, warm the olive oil over medium heat. Add the couscous and toast for about one minute until golden, stirring occasionally. Add the broth or water, bring to a boil, then simmer, covered, until the water has been absorbed, about 15 minutes. Couscous will be al dente.

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Brussels sprouts stand out when they’re quickly pan-fried with garlic and red onion until lightly crisp, never soggy.

Crispy Pan-fried Brussels Sprouts

Makes 4 servings

1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil

1 clove of garlic, finely chopped

1/2 small red onion, finely chopped

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed

— Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large cast iron skillet or frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and, stirring often, cook for two minutes; stir in the onion and cook for about five minutes until soft.

Add sprouts and cook without stirring until the undersides of the sprouts turn golden brown, five to seven minutes. Flip the sprout over and cook other sides until golden brown, another five to seven minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

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I’ve skipped the traditional cranberry sauce in my menu but Thanksgiving is not Thanksgiving without the appearance of cranberries in some form. Here, they’re paired with sweet apples and folded underneath a crisp oat topping and baked until bubbling.

Cranberry-Apple Crisp

Makes 8 servings

— Coconut oil (for greasing pan)

— For filling:

12 ounces fresh or frozen cranberries

3 pounds sweet apples, such as Gala, peeled and coarsely chopped

3 tablespoons whole wheat pastry flour (or all-purpose)

1/4 cup maple syrup

— For topping:

1 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or all-purpose)

1/2 cup packed dark or light brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

6 tablespoons coconut oil (solid)

Heat oven to 375 degrees and lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with coconut oil

In a large bowl, combine the cranberries, apples, whole wheat pastry flour and maple syrup and stir well to combine and coat the fruit with the flour and syrup.

Pour into the prepared baking dish.

In another large bowl, whisk together the oats, flour, sugar and ginger. Cut in the oil with a fork or pastry blender until a coarse meal forms. Spread the topping in an even layer over the fruit.

Place pan in the oven and bake until topping is browned and juices are thick and bubbling around edges, 55 to 60 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool 15 minutes before serving. Can be served warm or room temperature, with a scoop of coconut yogurt if preferred.

Nicole Spiridakis is a Sebastopol-based food writer. Reach her at nspiridakis@gmail.com or through her blog cucinanicolina.com.

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