Thanksgiving is unique as an American holiday. Every other holiday is centered on consumerism, usually masked as giving to others. Well, maybe not Halloween but it’s not really a “Holiday”. Thanksgiving is centered on giving to others, but masked as consumption. We talk about being thankful, but the thing most people are thankful for is a good parking space at the shopping mall. We talk about giving to others, but we focus on stuffing our faces.
Other cultures have rich food traditions around holidays, but in America, other than hot dogs on the fourth of July, the Thanksgiving Turkey Dinner is our only food holiday. Turkey Day.
Benjamin Franklin had suggested the turkey as our national bird. Not because of his resemblance to a turkey, but because the wild turkey is a very clever animal, just ask any turkey hunter. They are aware of their surroundings and difficult to sneak up on, they spook easily so hunting requires lying perfectly still in wait and hoping one walks in front of your shotgun. The wild turkey displays our national colors, red, white and blue. Unbeknownst to Franklin, the turkey would be bred domestically into one of the stupidest animals on the planet, one that can starve to death if its food trough is moved to far, or drown if it feels a rain drop on its head and looks up to see what’s happening. Maybe the turkey was a better choice than Ben had realized.
Being a vegetarian at Thanksgiving gives one a wonderful perspective. In the same way that many people now do not know where milk comes from, they also fail to remember what vegetables are. The other symbol of Thanksgiving, the cornucopia, is filled with vegetables. The only meat at the table is the centerpiece bird, yet having a vegetarian to dinner causes panic. “What can you eat?” Everything except that big dead bird.
I don’t mind handling meat, in fact last year I roasted a turkey breast for my step son, wrapped in a bacon lattice. Our first Thanksgiving we spent with friends, and there was a glimmer of disappointment when our host remembered that we were vegetarians, and then that flash of panic as he tried to think what he could make for us at the last minute. He didn’t need to make anything, all the other dishes were vegetables.
This year we’ll be having dinner with friends again, but last night I made a specifically vegetarian dish that anyone can enjoy, and I’ll share it with you here. Portabello and caramelized onion lasagna. It takes a few hours to put together, I’m very sensitive to slicing onions so that’s the longest part for me. Here’s what you’ll need:
Lasagna pasta (I prefer the “ready for oven” type”)
3 large onions, thinly sliced (I use a mix, one red, two yellow)
4 portobello mushroom caps, gills removed, diced (you can go with 5 medium or 4 large)
one half cup red wine (that’s one glass, drink the rest of the bottle with dinner)
four cups baby spinach
two cups ricotta cheese
one cup basil (I get the live plants in the grocery store, it’s about every leaf from a good sized plant)
three tablespoons flour
two cups milk
two ounces of Gorgonzola cheese crumbled
one third cup crushed walnuts
fresh ground pepper
any extra basil for finishing
If you’re not using oven ready lasagne pasta, cook the pasta first. Cook a few minutes less than the package instructions, drain, and keep in the covered pot you cooked them in.
Heat the oven to 375F.
In a large pot heat three tablespoons of olive oil, then add the onions. stir them every few minutes as you’re preparing everything else. You’re going for a caramelized browning, this should take close to half an hour. Add the mushrooms, cook for a few minutes until they soften then add the wine and a little salt and cook a few more minutes until everything appears uniform, add a few grinds of pepper, then remove from heat.
In a food processor, place the spinach, then the ricotta, then the basil, an a pinch of salt. process until smooth.
In a medium saucepan, heat two or three tablespoons of olive oil (depending on what kind of flour you’re using), and whisk in the flour until it bubbles. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly. Cook for a minute or two, then slowly add the Gorgonzola while still gently whisking. Once the cheese is melted and blended, remove from heat.
Assembling the Lasagna
Oil a 13 X 9 baking dish, then cover the bottom with one half cup of the cheese sauce. My ladle is exactly one half cup. Place a layer of lasagna pasta over the sauce, spread half of the spinach mixture over the pasta, and top that with one third of the onion/portobello mixture. Spread another ladle of cheese sauce over the onion/portobello mixture.
Apply another layer of pasta, the remaining spinach mixture, and half of the remaining onion/portobello, then top with half the remaining cheese sauce. Then finish with another layer of pasta, the remaining onion/portobello mixture, and the remaining cheese sauce. I use a slotted spoon for this last bit of cheese sauce, letting it drip evenly over the onion/portobello mix.
Sprinkle with the walnuts and any remaining basil, cover the pan with foil. Bake for twenty minutes, remove the foil, and bake another fifteen minutes. Let stand for at least five minutes before serving.
If you want to add a holiday element, make cranberry sauce! Put one cup water, one cup sugar, a cinnamon stick, and an orange cut into eighths (cut in half, then quarter the halves) and bring to a boil. Remove the cinnamon and orange pieces and add one package of cranberries. Return to a low boil. the cranberries will macerate and and the skins will break in about ten minutes. Once the sauce begins to thicken, reduce the heat and add one quarter cup Grand Marnier (or more). When the sauce is a little thinner than you want, remove from heat. It will thicken as it cools, which may take a couple of hours depending on the ambient temperature.