Every year, curious friends and family ask me how I navigate Thanksgiving as a person who doesn't eat turkey. (I'm a pescatarian, for the record, not a strict vegetarian, but fowl are definitely a do-not-eat category for me.)
For my money, the best part of Thanksgiving dinner is the array of vegetable side dishes and carby casseroles. Give me a plate full of mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing, Brussels sprouts, corn pudding, cranberry sauce and mac and cheese, and I'm happy. A turkey-free Thanksgiving is not exactly a struggle meal. If I'm a guest at someone else's table, I will cheerfully load up my plate with everything but the bird and go home satisfied.
And yet it can be hard to shake the feeling that I've just gone to a steakhouse and ordered the vegetable plate. It's Turkey Day, after all. It's not that I miss or want to recreate the taste of turkey, mind you. I haven't eaten turkey in 15 years and don't care if I ever do again. But there is something undeniably festive about a meal built around a special main dish that signals the season and is distinguishable, in size and presentation, from its satellite apps and sides.
If I'm on the cooking team, I feel compelled to make a vegetarian main dish that can fill that role, even if I'm the only one eating it. I want this main dish to be substantial enough that it's not mistaken for a side and made from seasonal ingredients to keep with the harvest theme. And yet it can't be complicated or time-consuming, because there's enough going on in the kitchen already.
With apologies to the Field Roasts, Tofurkeys and Impossibles out there, I'll pass on the plant-based stuff in favor of actual plants. Nothing personal. I want this dish to be its own thing — not a substitute for something it's not. And if I'm the lone vegetarian at the table, as I sometimes am, it feels conspicuous to make my own personal curiosity dish that invites commentary and wary stares.
A roasted acorn squash stuffed with dressing fits all of my criteria.
(For the purposes of this article, I use "dressing" to differentiate from "stuffing," a side dish traditionally cooked inside the bird. My family calls all such baked bread-cube dishes "stuffing," no matter how they're made, and maybe yours does, too.)
The acorn squash has several good things going for it, starting with its size. A typical medium-sized acorn squash weighs about a pound. Halved lengthwise, it will serve two people and should be small enough to roast in most toaster ovens while the main oven is otherwise occupied.
Even better, the prep work is minimal. You don't peel an acorn squash's ridged shell — just bake it in its green and orange skin. And after the seeds and strings are scooped, you're left with a hollow that's just perfect for filling with a reasonable portion of dressing.
A few tools that make this easy dish even easier: You'll want a sharp, good-sized chef's knife to slice through a rigid raw squash. I find squash de-seeding to be a breeze with a flat-edged ice cream scoop. And a silicon brush for oil or butter results in faster clean-up than bristles.
You can get fancy and find a recipe for stuffing your acorn squash as it bakes, but I prefer to use the dressing that's already going on the table for everyone else and stuff it into the squash after it has roasted, right before serving. (As long as the dressing is vegetarian-friendly, that is.)
Recipe: Roasted Acorn Squash, suitable for stuffing
- One medium acorn squash per pair of vegetarians (half a 1-lb. squash per plate)
- Olive oil or melted butter
- Salt and pepper
- Other seasonings to taste
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- Slice acorn squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out seeds and strings and discard.
- Brush olive oil or melted butter on the squash flesh and place cut-side down on a baking sheet.
- Bake for 45 minutes or until tender.
- Season the squash, then scoop dressing into the hollow and serve.
If you're not a stuffing fan, you can use the acorn squash as a vessel for any other scoop-able side dish on the table. (Go nuts — make a holiday Famous Bowl.) And If you don't have an even number of vegetarians, slice the leftover squash half and serve as a bonus side.