For a vegetarian feast, try stuffing a pumpkin instead of a turkey

Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners are not especially difficult for vegetarians to plan, but there's no question the main meal is strongly associated with turkey - a challenge, but not an impossible one.

The answer is to have a spectacular main dish to take its place, and to include all the vegetable, nut, and sweet dishes usually served at holiday time.

Twenty years ago a vegetarian was an oddity in America. Today there is a rapidly growing minority, including our sons and daughters, neighbors and co-workers. Cooking for vegetarian guests is no longer as daunting as it used to be. Many of us are preparing meatless meals for ourselves once or twice a week.

For Thanksgiving, traditional foods like corn, chestnuts, pumpkin, and cranberries can provide a well-balanced and beautiful meal.

A savory stuffed pumpkin, brought steaming to the Thanksgiving table, makes a wonderful centerpiece and will satisfy anyone interested in the traditional bread-crumb stuffing. It's quicker to bake than a turkey and needs no basting.

To select a pumpkin for stuffing, look for a four- to five-pound sugar pumpkin or other variety grown especially for eating.

Good squash choices are Turkish Turban or Buttercup, a dark green round squash with a creamy yellow interior. Choose a vegetable with a flat bottom so it will remain upright while baking.

The following meatless recipes offer traditional foods and bright colors of a harvest season feast.

Baked Stuffed Pumpkin (or Winter Squash) 1 4- or 5-pound pumpkin or winter squash 4 tablespoons melted butter or oil 1 onion, chopped 1/2 cup chopped celery 2 cups cooked brown rice 2 cups crumbled dry whole wheat bread 2 small tart apples, cored and chopped 1 cup cooked, peeled, and chopped chestnuts 2 teaspoons mixed herbs of your choice: sage, savory, marjoram, thyme, rosemary Salt and pepper to taste 1 cup or more vegetable stock

Wash pumpkin and carve out a top lid. Remove seeds and stringy pulp. Rinse seeds then roast in 350-degree F. oven, about 30 minutes, for a snack.

Saute onion and celery in 2 tablespoons of melted butter until onion is clear , about 3 minutes.

Combine sauteed vegetables with rice, bread, apples, chestnuts, and seasonings in mixing bowl. Mix well with hands.

Add remaining butter and enough stock to moisten, not soak, the stuffing.

Pack loosely into pumpkin, replace lid, and bake on oiled cookie sheet at 350 degrees F. 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Pumpkin is done when a fork pushes easily into flesh. Transfer to platter, slice into wedges. Makes 5 to 6 main dish servings.

Bake extra stuffing 1 hour in a buttered, covered casserole.

Cashew-Mushroom Gravy 1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced 1/2 cup chopped onion 1 1/2 cups boiling water 1/3 cup raw cashew nuts 1 tablespoon soy sauce 1 tablespoon cornstarch 2 tablespoons cold water 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger, optional

Place mushrooms and onion in vegetable steamer over boiling water and steam 5 minutes. Reserve cooking water.

Grind cashews to a fine powder in blender or food processor. Add 1/2 cup of reserved stock to blender or processor and process briefly to combine.

Pour contents into saucepan with remaining stock, steamed vegetables, and soy sauce.

Stir and simmer 3 minutes. Dissolve cornstarch in water and stir into saucepan until gravy thickens. Add ginger. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

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