For a Killer Thanksgiving Vegetarian Main Dish, Stuff Your Pumpkins
Everything you need to know about eating and cooking with curds
We all know what to expect each year at Thanksgiving. There are logistical headaches, including the annual game of fridge-space Jenga and the monumental task of trying to serve a lot of hot food to a lot of people, all at the same time. As for the food itself, there will be stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, the turkey, pie, and the inevitable appearance of that “signature side” some twice-removed cousin always brings, even though you diplomatically twice-reminded them that they really didn’t need to go to the trouble this year.
One thing that can’t be counted on for Thanksgiving dinner—a vegetarian centerpiece. Most vegetarians are experienced at cobbling together a holiday meal of side dishes, which isn’t awful, but it often means forgoing the best items on the menu (stuffing, a gravy moat for mashed potatoes, the iconic turkey). Dinner can end up feeling like an afterthought.
Attempts at inclusivity in the form of tofurkey are a lot like your uncle’s conversational use of “lit” and “AF”—well intentioned, but painfully out of touch. To be fair, pulling off a vegetarian alternative to a large roast of meat is no simple task.
For one, there aren’t many vegetables that have the scale to be presentation-piece-worthy on their own. And, while whole roasted heads of cauliflower are definitely having a moment, they aren’t exactly holiday comfort food. Forcing a like-for-like vegetable-as-meat parallel isn’t the answer.
Instead, we can embrace the sides-as-main-course angle and just put a bit more thought into it to come up with a cohesive and satisfying dish. By using ingredients that most people already have on hand for Thanksgiving dinner, I was able to come up with a well-considered vegetarian main course that’s not only a complete thought but also a dinner-table stunner. Behold: the stuffed roast pumpkin.
Stuffed pumpkins are one of the few made-for-Pinterest foods that are as tasty as they are adorable. They’re classic cold-weather comfort food, a genre that the French have on lock (cassoulet, anyone?).
In France, this dish is commonly made using a squash varietal called potimarron, which gets its name from a combination of the French terms for “pumpkin” (potiron) and “chestnut” (marron). This squash is known as red kuri here in the States, borrowing the Japanese word for “chestnut” (kuri).
As these names suggest, kuri squash takes on a rich, nutty flavor when roasted. Potimarron farci (stuffed kuri squash) can be filled with any number of ingredients, beginning with a hearty base ingredient like lentils, rice, or grains. My favorite version uses pieces of dried bread as a foundation, saturating them in cream, cheese, and herbs to make a savory bread pudding, in a pumpkin. Traditional recipes load up the hollow gourd with salty pork parts, but to make this vegetarian, I obviously left those out.
My mission was to create a vegetarian stuffed pumpkin that felt even more at home on the Thanksgiving table. I wanted to create a main course that delivered all those classic autumnal flavors, while also providing the visual wow factor of a holiday roast.
I started by using sugar pumpkins instead of red kuri squash, since they’re more widely available in the United States (plus, they deliver a true jack-o’-lantern look), but then added a kabocha squash purée to the filling, which introduces a nutty flavor similar to that of the red kuri squash.
I also replaced the salty pork with sautéed shiitake mushrooms and lacinato kale, sprinkling in toasted pepitas and pecans for a nutty crunch. A generous amount of warm-spiced heavy cream and Gruyère cheese should lay to rest any concerns that going vegetarian has to mean compromising richness.
All of these components get layered into the pumpkins, which I paint with a salty-sweet miso-honey glaze before roasting. Yup, you can eat the whole thing, skin and all. I’m not always one for foods acting as cooking or serving vessels (big fan of the We Want Plates subreddit right here), but this is no chowder in a sourdough-bread bowl; this is a Thanksgiving stuffed pumpkin to make the turkey-eaters jealous.
Bake What Your Menu Gave You
Before we embark on this roasted-pumpkin journey together, I want to make clear that this recipe is not meant to be rigidly prescriptive. Like cassoulet, this dish has humble roots, and, as Kenji pointed out in his treatise on French stewed beans and meats, it’s the kind of recipe that is designed to make do with what is available.
For our purposes, that means filling your pumpkins with whatever you’ve already got for the rest of your Thanksgiving menu. This is a stressful enough meal to execute as it is, so there’s no need to make your life harder just for the sake of a recipe.
Already have bread cubed up and dried out for stuffing? Use that. Don’t have shiitakes, but you did buy a ton of creminis for a stuffed-mushroom hors d’oeuvre? Awesome, those will work just fine. Have more mashed sweet potatoes than you need for that casserole? Sub them in for the kabocha purée in this recipe; nobody will know, or judge.
Oh, and one final thing—if you have only a couple vegetarians coming over to dinner, you should absolutely stuff the extra pumpkins in this recipe with bacon or sausage, or both. Just make sure to mark them in some way, or Thanksgiving dinner could get even more uncomfortable than usual (and that’s saying something).
Before You Begin: Pick Your Pumpkins
One ingredient you will need to get is pumpkins. No, you can’t repurpose the rotting jack-o’-lantern that’s been sitting on your front stoop since October. Sorry. What you’re looking for are small “sugar pumpkins” that roast up creamy-fleshed and sweet (truth in advertising!). As with all winter squash, pick pumpkins that are mostly blemish-free, with no visible bruising, soft spots, or mold.
A common refrain calls for choosing specimens that “feel heavy for their size” when you’re selecting squash. I’m not sure I lift enough squash in my life to know exactly what that means, and certainly don’t condone pumpkin body-shaming, but in this case, you’re looking for four sugar pumpkins, and one kabocha squash, that all weigh around two pounds each. (Of course, you can double or triple or even halve this recipe, if desired.)
How to Make Thanksgiving Vegetarian Stuffed Pumpkins
Step 1: Prepare and Par-Roast the Squashes
Once you have your pumpkins, it’s time to get to work, starting with all of the squash. First, halve the kabocha, and use a spoon to scrape out the seeds and stringy pulp.
Next, prepare the sugar pumpkins. It’s just like prepping a bunch of mini jack-o’-lanterns—use a paring knife to take their tops off, then go in with a spoon to perform the same seeds-and-pulp surgery. Make sure to clean the undersides of the tops as well (again, a paring knife gets the job done quickly), and try to avoid the temptation to carve a face.
Now, let’s talk squash seasoning. While we’ll be stuffing the pumpkins with plenty of savory goodies, it’s important to properly season the pumpkins themselves. In early rounds of recipe testing, I took a light approach with salt and pepper on the pumpkins, and it made for an uneven dish, as the muted flavor of the pumpkin clashed with the confident seasoning of the filling.
I hate eating at restaurants where dishes come with instructions telling you, “In order to enjoy this properly, make sure you get a bit of everything in each bite.” Food shouldn’t require a user manual; every component of a dish should be well calibrated for seasoning.
In this case, that means drizzling and rubbing the flesh of the pumpkins and kabocha with olive oil before seasoning them assertively with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. The oil provides not only fat and flavor but also a more adhesive surface for the salt and pepper to cling to.
I arrange all the squashes on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet and pop them in the oven to roast for about an hour, until the kabocha is tender and the pumpkins have just begun to soften. Once they come out of the oven, I set the baking sheet aside to cool, removing the tops of the pumpkins to allow steam to escape.
Par-roasting the pumpkins before stuffing them not only speeds up the final baking time on the back end of the recipe, but also ensures that the finished stuffed squashes are perfectly cooked inside and out. That’s especially important given that the pumpkins’ flesh requires a longer cooking time than the stuffing ingredients, many of which are already cooked prior to roasting. While the squashes are in the oven, there’s plenty of time to put together the other components for the filling.
Once the kabocha is cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh and roughly mash it in a bowl with a large spoon. Season it with salt and pepper, then set it aside.
Step 2: Cook the Mushrooms and Kale
While the pumpkins are par-roasting, I turn my attention to sautéing the mushrooms and kale. I start by heating a couple of tablespoons of oil in a 12-inch skillet until shimmering, then add a full pound of thinly sliced shiitake mushroom caps. At first, this may look like a ton of mushrooms overcrowding the skillet, but don’t sweat it—let the shiitakes do all the sweating.
They’ll soon cook down, releasing water, and once that’s happened, they’ll begin browning. Make sure to actually let them get some good color. You don’t want to rush things and end up with a sad pile of steamed mushrooms. If your skillet gets too dry and begins to smoke, you can always add a touch more oil and reduce the heat a bit.
Once the shiitakes are golden brown, I push them to the outer edges of the skillet and add the kale. Again, what initially seems like an overcrowded skillet will soon be much more manageable as the kale wilts down. We aren’t looking to fully cook the lacinato here, just wilt it slightly, as we still want it to have a little texture and bite in the end. (Lacinato kale is much sturdier than the curly stuff, and therefore better suited for this recipe.)
I repeat the process of pushing everything to the outer edges of the skillet, then add a few tablespoons of butter to its now-empty center. Once the butter melts and begins to foam, I add minced shallots, garlic, and chopped fresh thyme, then stir constantly for a few seconds, just until I’m hit with the sweet smell of alliums and the woodsy aroma of crackling thyme. I finish the mushrooms with some sherry, plus a touch of sherry vinegar for acidity.
Step 3: Whisk Together the Spiced Cream
As I mentioned in the beginning, this filling is essentially a savory bread pudding, and that means we need some creamy liquid to moisten and bind everything together. While there aren’t any eggs in the recipe, I do use plenty of cream, cut with a little whole milk and seasoned with plenty of warm spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and clove.
Step 4: Layer the Stuffing
Gather together the rest of the stuffing mise en place: cubed and dried bread, shredded Gruyère, and the toasted pepitas and pecans. It’s time to load those pumpkins up.
First things first—we’ll be layering all of the components inside the pumpkins, twice. Keep that in mind as you begin dividing the ingredients between the pumpkins. I layer everything in the following order: a large spoonful of the mashed kabocha, a small handful of bread pieces, then some of the mushroom-kale mixture, followed by the pepitas and pecans, and then a showering of Gruyère.
To finish off the first layer, I pour half of the cream mixture into the four pumpkins, then use my hands to gently press everything down and evenly saturate the ingredients with the spiced cream.
Repeat this layering process once more, making sure there’s a good amount of Gruyère peeking up over the rims of the pumpkins, so it can get gooey and melty in the oven.
Depending on the size of your pumpkins, you may have some leftover filling ingredients. I’m of the mindset that for a project like this it’s always better to have a little extra than not enough. If you have enough stuff left over, you can always put everything in some small ramekins and bake them, sans pumpkin.
Step 5: Glaze the Pumpkins
Since the goal is for every bite to be well seasoned, that means we have to give the pumpkin skins some attention. If we’re willing to spend the time tending to the delicious, burnished, crispy skin of a Thanksgiving turkey, then pumpkin skins should be afforded the same care and consideration, and here that means a glaze.
I wanted to make sure that glazing the pumpkins wouldn’t make them too sweet, as I’m not a fan of dishes that are billed as “savory” but then pile more sugar onto the natural sweetness of squash. We’re trying to make a main course, not dessert. I decided on a simple mixture of red miso, honey, and a little bit of water—the salty funk of miso pairs really well with root vegetables, while the honey balances out that salinity and provides subtle, floral sweetness that isn’t overbearing.
After whisking this mixture together, I use a pastry brush to paint the glaze on the pumpkins. This step, I want to stress, is totally optional. If you don’t have miso kicking around in your fridge, don’t worry about it. The pumpkins will be delicious, glazed or not.
Step 6: The Final Roast
We’re now in the home stretch. Place your pumpkins back on that parchment-lined baking sheet, and roast them, without their tops, until that top layer of Gruyère is melted and lightly browned and the pumpkins are fully tender. (Use a paring knife to check them; the blade should be able to pierce the pumpkins with little resistance.)
Open the oven, replace the tops on your gourds, and bake them a few more minutes to make sure every bit of pumpkin is heated through. If you’re at all worried, you can always use an instant-read thermometer to double-check that everything is hot (at least 150°F/66°C in the center).
Take them out of the oven and let them cool for a few minutes, until the cream settles down a bit. All you have to do now is carefully transfer them to a serving platter and portion them out as you see fit. You can either carve them up with a knife and pop a serving spoon in each one for cheese-pull scooping, or, if you have some famished vegetarians on your hands, just serve them individually. One pumpkin should be more than enough for two people, but it’s Thanksgiving. Unbuckle that belt, and do you.
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