Thanksgiving changed the year I went vegetarian. I did not mind giving up the tender, moist turkey or the savory oyster-specked stuffing. But giving up the flavorful flow of mushroom-laden gravy was quite another thing. I watched enviously as my family ladled the luscious liquids over their mashed potatoes, turkey and stuffing. As I nibbled dryly on my carrots, green beans and salad, my lower lip protruded. I felt left out and deprived.
My brother, Dan, ever alert to the pouting big sister, came up with a solution.
“Next year I will make special vegetarian gravy just for you,” Dan promised.
Years later, that special vegetarian gravy has become one of my favorite Thanksgiving rituals. I begin fantasizing about it the moment the autumn leaves turn crimson. I know that in mere weeks, my brother and his family will arrive and I will have my yearly boost of family and feasting, highlighted by gravy.
When my brother calls to tell me his travel plans, I write his arrival time and GRAVY on my calendar. The night he comes to town, we make the shopping list together, avidly discussing how many pounds of mushrooms we need for both the carnivore and vegetarian pots of gravy. I relish the early-Wednesday morning trip through the grocery store, where Dan and I and our children carefully select the foods we will be making the next day. We linger in the produce aisle, filling several sacks with gleaming white mushrooms and buying rustling yellow onions.
On Thanksgiving Day, Dan and I and other family members spend long, luxurious hours cooking. Dan mans the stove and I manage the slicing and chopping. Together we snap, peal, slice and dice the vegetables that will accessorize the turkey. I take special pleasure in wiping clean and slicing the mushrooms, then bringing my brother the brimming bowlful. When he has nodded his approval, I get out the old copper pot I bought in Germany in the early seventies. This year, Dan is improving his already amazing gravy. With his new immersion blender, he creates a rich base of caramelized onions, whose flavor surpasses that of the lowly vegetable cube. He adds in a little flour, then gentles the mushrooms into the onion broth. When the pot is bubbling with thickening nectar, he says, “Taste this and see what you think.”
I always think the same thing—“Wow, this is great.”
We are in a state of giddy and satisfied exhaustion by the time our guests arrive. We share grateful prayers with everyone and lay out the feast, including plenty of turkey-based gravy for the rest of the family.
Then comes the moment I have been waiting for: I sit down, my own personal pot of gravy poised by my plate. I cover the mashed potatoes, carrots, green beans, and salad with the aromatic concoction and I savor every bite. But more importantly, I savor the bounty, creativity, and love that have gone into this simple dish. Through this gravy, my brother speaks with his hands and his heart, saying: “I care about you and I am going to make sure you are not left out and that you have something fantastic to eat.”
For that and so much more, I am thankful.
And now, if you’d like to create a Thanksgiving love story, bring home this delicious gravy.
Dan Barnett’s Chicago Style Never-Enough-Mushroom Vegetarian Gravy
2 large onions (chopped)
2 pounds (or more) white button mushrooms sliced (can add some portabellas for enhanced flavor)
1 cup of white wine (of lesser quality)
Salt & pepper to taste
2 tablespoons of cornstarch
For 5 cups of water, start out with 2 vegetable boullion cubes. Add more if needed.
To create the gravy base:
In a four-quart pot, pour a thin layer of olive oil and turn the burner on medium.
Add the onions and sauté for10-15 minutes until they are caramelized (golden brown)
Add water until the pot is about half full.
Simmer slowly for 30 minutes.
Blend the onion water mixture using either an immersion blender or by transferring the mixture to a food processor.
Add the 2 pounds (or more) of sliced mushrooms white wine and fill the pot with water until it is 3/4 full. Simmer for 15-20 minutes.
In a small bowl, put 2 tablespoons of cornstarch. Pour in a small amount of the broth. Once it’s a smooth paste, pour in more liquid to make it a runny paste. Then pour the mixture slowly back into the gravy while stirring. This will thicken it. You may have to do this a couple of times to achieve the desired thickness.
Simmer for 30 minutes and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Connecting in the Land of Dementia: Creative Activities to Explore Together and Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey.