I’ve always been way into Thanksgiving. Instead of costumes, wasteful and expensive gift exchanges, or greeting-card-company-manufactured pressure to express sentiments according to the calendar rather than your own rhythm, it’s a day to hang out with people you love and eat delicious food. (Yeah, I only wish Thanksgiving were totally politically neutral like that. It’s far from it, but, well—I have to remain in some kind of denial so I can carry on with my maple-glazed sweet potatoes, ok?)
Thanksgiving didn’t become my absolute favorite activity, though, until a little more than 10 years ago, when my then-partner and I started hosting it at our house. He worked in retail, so the chance of getting time off to go anywhere was about zero, which made for a great excuse to duck out on family obligations and gather with chosen family instead.
The first many Thanksgivings I hosted weren’t vegan or even vegetarian—said partner was as obsessed with the turkey as I was with the sides. After we split, I found myself with no desire to learn how to roast a bird and a posse of veg friends who were psyched to go somewhere for the holiday where they could eat everything and not have to look at, smell, or otherwise deal with the usual meaty main event.
And so vegan Thanksgiving at my house became the new tradition. The right main dish took a little while to figure out, but years of trial (curried lentil-stuffed squash) and error (a tofu and nut loaf that I practiced for weeks beforehand but could never get to hold together and taste good at the same time) later, I’m happy to report that I’ve gotten it down. It’s pretty and special, as befits the holiday, but surprisingly unfussy to put together (don’t let the length of the recipe fool you). Plus, it’s loved by vegans and omnivores alike.
Squash, Lentils, and Greens in Phyllo
This will make two good-sized phyllo rolls, enough to feed a dozen or more people if you’re serving a lot of sides. Which you should be, because, hello, it’s Thanksgiving.
You can prepare the fillings a day or two in advance and assemble the phyllo rolls on the day-of. (They can sit for about three hours before you bake them, but more than that and sogginess can set in.)
Don’t expect the layers to stay totally separate when you slice the finished product; things will get a little crumbly. Embrace it.
- 1 cup green French lentils (aka lentilles du Puy; don’t use a different kind of lentil—these are the only ones that won’t get mushy)
- a bay leaf or 2
- 1 tablespoon dijon mustard (optional)
- a little red wine (optional)
- a medium or large butternut squash
- 1 head of garlic (you probably won’t need the whole thing, but it can’t hurt to be prepared)
- 2 bunches kale, chard, collards, or whatever your favorite dark leafy green is (lacinto kale is my pick here, and I don’t recommend spinach—it’s got too much water)
- 1 package frozen phyllo dough (they’re making organic whole-wheat phyllo nowadays, which is so frickin great, but if you don’t have access to a market that stocks it, just use what’s available)
- lots of olive oil (half a cup or more total)
- salt and pepper to taste
- The night before you’re going to cook, take the phyllo out of the freezer and put it in the fridge to thaw. This is important; if you try to thaw it faster on the counter it will get unworkably gummy.
- Preheat the oven to 500º (this is to roast the squash, not cook the phyllos).
- Put the lentils, three cups of water, the bay leaves, and and a teaspoon or so (see the “to taste” part above) of salt in a saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil, turn the heat down to low, and simmer, covered, until the lentils are tender and most of the water has been absorbed (about half an hour). Stir in the red wine and/or mustard, if using, and simmer a bit more, uncovered, until the extra liquid has evaporated or been absorbed. Grind some pepper into it and stir again. Set aside.
- While the lentils are cooking, peel the squash and chop it into large chunks (between 1 and 2 inches square). Don’t worry too much about the size; you’re going to mash them later. Put the chunks on a cookie sheet or jelly-roll pan.
- Add about 10 garlic cloves, separated from each other but not peeled, to the cookie sheet.
- Pour 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil over the squash and garlic; sprinkle with a teaspoon or so of salt. Mush it all together with your hands. If you’re not sure how much oil to add, the squash chunks should be very shiny, but there shouldn’t be any oil pooling under them on the pan.
- Roast for about 17 minutes, stirring halfway through (all the chunks should be soft all the way through).
- If you’re going to assemble and bake the phyllo soon, turn the oven down to 350º. If you’re just prepping your fillings, turn it off—no more oven for this today.
- Put the squash and garlic into a mixing bowl and set them aside for a bit. When things cool down enough to handle, squeeze the garlic cloves out of their papery skins (into the bowl, duh). Grind some pepper in there, then mash the roasted garlic and squash together with a fork or a potato masher. Set aside again.
- Meanwhile, mince 5 or so cloves of garlic. Heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet or sauté pan and add the garlic and about a half teaspoon of salt (I really meant it when I said “to taste,” above). Stir frequently and keep an eye on the garlic/adjust the heat as necessary. Garlic can burn fast, so be conservative.
- When the garlic is super-fragrant and starting to get tender and/or a little bit golden brown, add the greens. Cover and let cook, stirring every minute or so, until they are thoroughly wilted (how long will depend on what greens you’re using).
- If you’re prepping ahead, now is when you’d taste everything to make sure you’ve got the salt and pepper how you want it, then put everything in separate covered containers in the fridge until you’re ready to proceed. Which you would do by preheating the oven to 350º.
- First, set up your assembly area: clear off a few square feet of clean counter space; get yourself a quarter cup or so of olive oil in a little bowl and put your pastry brush next to it; dampen a clean dishtowel. Line up your fillings. It’s important to have everything ready, because you have to work pretty quickly with phyllo or it will dry out. If you’ve never worked with phyllo before, read the package directions as well as this recipe.
- Take the phyllo out of the fridge, remove it carefully from its package, unroll it onto half of your clean countertop, and keep it covered with the damp towel all the time that you are not taking a sheet of phyllo off the main pile.
- Take one phyllo sheet and move it to the other half of your clean countertop. Brush it lightly with olive oil all over. Try not to tear it, but don’t sweat it if you do; this stuff is delicate, and there’s a reason you’re going to use 10 sheets.
- Repeat the above step 9 more times. Refill your bowl of olive oil if you need to.
- About 4 inches in from the edge, spread a layer of lentils the short way across the phyllo. The layer should be about 4 inches long and an inch thick. Leave about two inches free of filling at each end.
- Do the same with the squash, and then the greens.
- Fold your extra 4 inches over the layers of veggies, then fold the sides (those other two inches you left clear on each end) in. Continue rolling it all up and folding the sides in as you go.
- Place the roll seam side down on a cookie sheet or in a baking dish.
- Repeat steps 15 through 20.
- Brush the tops of your rolls with olive oil and bake until they are golden brown on top and hot all the way through, 20 to 30 minutes (consider whether the original temperature of the fillings when judging doneness).
- Serve to your guests and accept their compliments graciously.
Phew. That got long, but it really is easy, trust me.
Next up: Classic Sage Stuffing, Maple-Glazed Sweet Potatoes, and Broccoli and Cauliflower with Lemon-Mustard-Chive Dressing. (As much as I dream of preparing the entire meal, I am not insane. I assign my guests to bring mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, and dessert.)