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Foodie confession: I was a vegetarian for nearly 10 years. During that decade, I ate a lot of terrible, god-awful vegetarian food. But worse than the microwave dinners and portobello mushroom burgers was the onslaught of Tofurkey, the go-to Thanksgiving option of aunts who try to please their picky vegetarian nieces. I’ll never truly understand why vegetarian cooking has to mean tofu, seitan, and—worst of all—that gelatinous mixture of “natural vegan flavors” that masquerades as a viable food option come Thanksgiving.
Part of the reason I headed to culinary school in the first place was to tackle the awful vegetarian cooking of the early aughts: the overcooked pastas, the cheese fries masquerading as real food. Culinary school coerced me into cooking—and, eventually, eating—meat, but I’m still an advocate for vegetarian cooking. And while today’s vegetarian landscape has improved a thousandfold, Thanksgiving still relies on sad packaged mains or, more likely, a mix of side dishes that’s meant to add up to a complete dinner, without a centerpiece to focus on.
No more! With a little vegetable finessing (read: weeks and weeks of vegetable finessing), I created a vegetarian main so delicious, so satisfying—and yes, so crazy—that vegetarians will weep with joy. A meat eater may even shed a tear, too. Because the Vegducken is just as ludicrous as turducken—and a lot more delicious. Here’s how I did it.
Turducken (a chicken stuffed into duck stuffed into turkey) is strange as hell, but at least it makes sense anatomically—each bird has a built-in cavity for the smaller bird to be stuffed into. Stuffing hard, raw vegetables into each other seemed nowhere near as easy. But after doing a little research (where I came across Dan Pashman’s veggieducken, which he created for the Cooking Channel a few years ago) I realized I could cut the vegetables in half and scoop out the insides, creating a cavity for the next vegetable. I started with the biggest butternut squash I could find, and then looked for vegetables that might fit inside it. Eggplant was a natural choice, then zucchini after that. And to fit into a zucchini? A tiny scallion, obvs. After scooping out the insides—not a super easy task, but totally doable—I was left with a big bowl of vegetable flesh. So I went #wasteless and decided to turn it all into a stuffing that I could spread between each vegetable layer.
Using all those vegetables scraps to make the stuffing was a given, but I wanted to boost the dish with hearty autumnal flavors as well. That came by way of a vegetarian’s best friend, mushrooms. By sautéing the vegetable scrapings with mushrooms, garlic, shallot, and thyme, then adding in breadcrumbs and parmesan, I made a mixed-vegetable version of the classic French mushroom duxelles—and, in turn, made my vegetarian entree, well, meaty.
To give the final dish even more flavor, I took a nod from the concept of turkey basting and created a hyperflavored butter sauce—a mixture of thyme, garlic, red-pepper flakes, maple syrup, and melted butter—to brush over each layer. Not only did this help season the vegetables and keep them moist, it created a nice sweet/savory flavor throughout the mighty Vegducken. And brushing the outer squash layer before roasting helped give it a beautiful glistening finish (kind of like, you know, a roast turkey).
Once I was done composing each half of the Vegducken, I had to figure out a way put the two halves back together. Make no mistake—the Vegducken is a total beast, and just as butcher twine keeps a turkey’s legs in place, so too does it tame the Vegducken. I carefully laid one Vegducken half on top of the other so that they lined up as perfectly as possible. Then I laid the whole thing over three pieces of butcher’s twine. Pressing down on the squash to keep it tightly together, I tied each piece of twine into a tight knot. (I eventually realized this is easier done with a friend.)
There’s no point in being modest: a roasted Vegducken is downright glorious. It’s majestic when whole, and undeniably fabulous when cut into colorful slices. And yet I wanted it to have something more. So I returned to that butter sauce, stirred in some fresh herbs and lemon juice, and found myself with a bright gremolata. Like gravy over turkey, I thought as I spooned the gremolata over a Vegducken slice. Then I took a bite, and never thought of turkey again.