A tofu-free vegetarian Thanksgiving main dish: Gnocchi with Roasted Root Vegetables

by Terry B on November 18, 2009

Seasonal roasted root vegetables turn homemade gnocchi into a satisfying vegetarian main course or a flavorful, colorful side. Recipes below.


At Thanksgiving, my role in the kitchen is pretty much limited to carving the turkey and maybe making a salad. In keeping with that tradition, I’m going to turn Blue Kitchen over to Marion for this post. Be sure to stick around for a couple of other non-traditional dishes that are traditions in our house. You’ll find the links at the end of the Kitchen Notes below.

This dish is to welcome our family members who are vegetarians to our Thanksgiving table. We don’t want to relegate them to the gulag of side dishes, and we want to prepare something honoring the time of year, the occasion and our family memories.

The answer, for those of us [see Kitchen Notes] who won’t ever allow Tofurkey in the house: Gnocchi. For us, this is something handmade, homemade and, with these beautiful roasted vegetables, transcending its humble origins—as simple and honest as our love for one another.

Gnocchi—not under that name—was a regular part of our family meals when I was a child. I am not sure how my mother—whose cooking style was definitely prewar Eastern European—came to make this pasta. Did she learn it from our Italian aunt? But she did make it, often, although not in the classical manner. They were small round balls. Interestingly, I clearly remember these as being the size of golf balls, or even larger, fairly daunting objects on my plate, but my sister clearly remembers them as being rather petite—cute marble-sized rounds. Typically, our mother served these with caramelized onions, and I really loved them. Still do.

My version goes with the traditional gnocchi rectangle shape, including the impress of fork tines, and adds in a little ricotta to make the pasta lighter in feel. In the Kitchen Notes is a vegan variation that is even simpler to make.

At this time of year, plenty of handsome root vegetables are still available at market. You may also use pearl onions, peeled and cubed celery root, carrots, leeks, or turnip, as well as eggplant, which I know is not a root vegetable but is awesome with this combination. I went with the produce that looked the best this weekend.

This makes a lovely, comforting dish, fragrant and rich, that says: here is the bounty of our land. We have so much to be grateful for. Welcome.

Potato Gnocchi with Roasted Root Vegetables
Serves four

For the vegetables:
2 or 3 medium beets— the top cut off, but not peeled, then cut into 1-inch cubes
2 parsley roots
4 parsnips
2 sweet potatoes
1 big red onion
4 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped
olive oil
1 teaspoon butter

For the gnocchi:
2 pounds potatoes [I used Yukon Golds, but Red Bliss or Russets will do fine]
10 to 12 ounces of flour [by weight]
1 egg, beaten
2 ounces ricotta
black pepper

For finishing:
4 or 5 teaspoons lemon zest
Parmesan cheese—1 tablespoon, freshly grated [optional]

Preheat oven to 350ºF.

Prepare the vegetables. For the parsley root, cut off the top and reserve it for another use [see Kitchen Notes]. Peel, then cut the thin end into 1-inch pieces and the thicker part into 1/2-inch sections. For the parsnips, peel, trim away the top and cut the rest in the same way as the parsley root. Peel and cut the sweet potatoes into 1-inch chunks. For the red onion, cut off the stem and point ends, peel, then cut into eight or ten wedges.

Coat a shallow roasting dish with olive oil.

Put the parsnips, parsley root and sweet potato into a bowl; add about a tablespoon of olive oil, then toss with your hands. Move these to another bowl.

Put the beet pieces into the bowl, add a bit more oil and coat the pieces. Pour the beet pieces into the roasting pan. Add the parsnip to the roasting pan. When you place the vegetables into the pan, don’t jam them all in tight—essentially, don’t let them touch each other. If the pan is getting crowded, start another pan. Sprinkle the vegetables with some of the rosemary, then slide the pan into the oven.  Roast for 10 to 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the onion wedges into the bowl, add a little more olive oil, then coat the wedges, working carefully to keep the wedges from breaking up.

After the 10-12 minutes has passed, take the roasting pan out of the oven. Gently add the onion wedges to the vegetables already in the pan, sprinkle with another couple of teaspoons of the rosemary and return to the oven.

Roast everything until it is starting to turn soft and beautifully golden. Some of the vegetables may finish ahead of the others—take those out and place in a big shallow bowl.

Once the vegetables are nicely roasted, you may reserve them in the refrigerator, covered, up to two days before finishing them for the gnocchi.

Prepare the gnocchi. Peel the potatoes, then place in a saucepan with water just to cover and simmer until they are just tender. Do not overboil or you will need buckets of flour to compensate for the sogginess. I know many people prefer gnocchi made with baked potatoes, but I prefer the boiled kind. It just works better for me.

When the potatoes are just tender, quickly drain them and dry them in the pan.  Mash them lightly, adding a little salt. You may also pass them through a ricer if you prefer. Don’t use your food processor for this—you’ll make glue gnocchi, so sad at the holidays.

When the potatoes are mashed or riced, let them cool a bit, then turn into a big bowl or onto a floured board. In a separate bowl, mix together the egg, ricotta and black pepper. Add to the potatoes and mix with a fork. Then begin adding flour, but not all at once. You may not need it all; you may need a bit more. The objective is to make a dough that holds together well, and that is not sticky or so dry it cracks.

When the dough is mixed, place the bowl in the refrigerator and let it rest for about 15 minutes.

Turn it onto a floured board. Cut into four segments, and roll each into a rope about an inch thick. Slice each rope into pieces about 1-1/2 inches long. Arrange the gnocchi on a plate.

When all the gnocchi pieces have been sliced, take a table fork and press lightly into each, leaving score marks. If you are not cooking the gnocchi immediately, cover all with a slightly damp cloth.

Finish the dish. If the vegetables have been cooked and then held in the refrigerator, reheat them in a 275ºF oven for about 20 minutes. Next, put 2 teaspoons of olive oil, the 1 teaspoon butter and the remaining 1 teaspoon of rosemary into a skillet. When the butter has melted, stir these ingredients with a spatula [I use a flexible silicon spatula for this part], then take the vegetables out of the oven and pour into the skillet, turn them in the oil to coat, and gently heat them for a few minutes.

Cook the gnocchi. Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil. Drop the gnocchi into the water and simmer—it will take about 4 to 5 minutes for them to cook through. When they rise up to the surface, they are cooked and ready to take out right away. Using a strainer or pierced spoon [I use a big flat Chinese strainer with a bamboo handle], lift out the gnocchi, let them drain a bit, then carefully place in a clean bowl.

When the gnocchi has been cooked and drained, pour it all into the skillet with the vegetables. Add half the lemon zest and stir everything together carefully, then pour into a shallow serving bowl or platter. Scatter with the remaining lemon zest and the cheese [if you’re using it—see Kitchen Notes], and serve.

Kitchen Notes

Fake turkey. Please. I don’t want to hear that Tofurkey is “not so bad.” Neither is a sinus headache. I’m not serving it, and you can’t make me.

The cheese. You may grate Parmesan or Romano over this at the end, just before serving, but really, this dish does not need it. The roasted vegetables, the rosemary, the freshly made gnocchi taste so satisfying that you won’t miss it.

Parsley root. This is just a terrific addition to a bevy of roasted vegetables. Right now our friends at mado are serving parsley root purees with various meat dishes. The tops, of course, are parsley leaves. Reserve them to use as an aromatic in a soup or stew. The roots are an elegant pale yellow-gold color—that’s how to tell them from the parsnips in the roasting pan.

Also on top. Gnocchi is also great with tomato-based sauces, with sautéed mushrooms, with pretty much anything. In the spring, I intend to try this with grilled asparagus.

Making this dish vegan. Because the vegan version is made without the egg or ricotta to bind the potato mixture together, they’re more delicate and require a little special handling. Use only the potatoes, black pepper and flour. Cook the potatoes and mash or rice them.  When they are fairly cooled, turn into a bowl. Carefully add flour, mixing until the dough is soft but not sticky. You may not need all the flour; you may need more flour. Cut the dough into four segments. Roll each into a rope the thickness of your thumb. Put each segment on a plate and place the plate in the freezer [not the fridge] for about 20 minutes. When you are ready to cook the gnocchi, bring the water to a simmer, then working quickly, remove the plate from the fridge and cut the “snakes” into gnocchi pieces; score with the fork and boil them.

To make this a completely vegan recipe, when finishing the vegetables, omit the butter and, of course, the cheese.

Non-traditional traditions. A couple of other dishes that have become a family tradition for us are Marion’s Sweet Potato Vichyssoise, a cool, surprising, elegant first course, and Kasha, a staple of Marion’s childhood that is now an essential part of our Thanksgiving dinner. Try them once and they could become traditions for you too.


{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Amber @ Native Food and Wine November 18, 2009 at 5:27 am

Thank you! A vegetarian meal that does not include some form of imitation meat (which I consider tofu to be). I am definitely not a vegetarian, though I do sometimes go for days with out eating meat. I think that true vegetarians would not need a substitute for meat. Vegetables, pastas, soufflés, quiches, grains and dairy products offer so much.

This recipe sounds great! Happy Thanksgiving!

dani November 18, 2009 at 6:34 am

I’m also not a vegetarian, but I love vegetables. I don’t know why I don’t think to roast them more often. These look and sound delicious! I just saw a recipe earlier today for gnocchi with just carmelized onions. Your recipe is much more appealing to me. Can the gnocchi be frozen before cooking? Have a great Thanksgiving.

Terry B November 18, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Since Marion wrote this post, I’m going to let her field most of the comments here. But I just wanted to weigh in on Amber’s comment. Yes, tofu is sometimes used to create fake meat, but more often, it’s used in its own right as a source of protein that readily takes on the flavors of whatever it’s being cooked with. So that makes it a great addition to the vegetables, dairy and grains you mention. And some fake meat products are pretty decent. We often have fake burgers and chicken patties in the freezer—they’re reasonably convincing, reasonably satisfying ways to cut down on our meat intake. And Marion recently sampled some fake bacon that she said was pretty darned good. But fake turkey? No, thanks. All that said, when we have vegetarian dinner guests, we try not to rely on fake shortcuts and to instead make dishes like this one.

Lauren November 18, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Bravo Marion! Way to hold your ground on tofurky! I think of it as an insult to vegetarians. Why make something so vile when there are countless other, more delicious options? Your gnocchi is a perfect example.

altadenahiker November 18, 2009 at 6:02 pm

What are you feeding us today? Ah, little ears. Very pretty. The only thing that sounds less appetizing than tofurkey is turducken.

(On the tofu debate, I sampled tofu chorizo and liked it so much better than the real thing.)

dick November 19, 2009 at 1:53 am

I agree on the tofu turkey.

A few years ago I had a contract at a Seventh Day Adventist hospital. The cafeteria served all kinds of fake meats – Wham looked like ham, veggie burgers, etc. I wondered then and still do why with all the wonderful vegetable dishes there are out there – I am thinking of the stir fries from China, the Thai and Japanese and Vietnamese dishes, the dishes from the Middle East and Morocco, etc – they bothered making that fake stuff that tasted terrible. They also did not have pepper shakers at the tables. If you wanted pepper you had to go to the cashier and she would let you use the pepper shaker from her drawer but you had to give it right back to her. Never did get an explanation for that one at all.
I like some of the other commenters can go days without eating meat at all. I have loved almost all veggies since I was a kid. Only exceptions are mushrooms as I am allergic and I have never developed a taste for okra or eggplant. Tried but have not as yet succeeded. Any other veggie I ever tasted I liked. This dish looks like a real winner to me and I will be giving it a shot before long. Thanks.

Chip November 19, 2009 at 2:52 am

Someone who won’t eat meat but will eat soy-based meat subs is like when my kids say “darn” instead of “damn”. What’s the difference?? You still meant damn!

A vegetarian who eats that stuff in public probably has bacon in the freezer at home.

And how I do love gnocchi. I like to make sweet potato or butternut squash gnocchi. But, if adapting your traditional gnocchi recipe, use more flour as these two are very moist.

And, may I suggest adding a bit of nutmeg to your traditional gnocchi? Mmmm! And brown butter, too!!!

Altadenhiker, how can you not like turducken? I’m surprised! Have you tried it?

Marion November 19, 2009 at 3:46 am

Thanks, Amber!

Dani, I ‘ve never tried to freeze potato gnocchi, although I understand you can–the recommendaiton seems to be to prepare them the day before and freeze for 24 hours. I hope you have a great holiday too!

Lauren, yes, vegetables themselves are just. so. good. and such a vast universe.

Altadenahiker, there is a Chinese mock-roast-duck dish made of tofu that is amazing and pretty darn (or, agreeing with Chip, damn) duck-like. I don’t know how it’s achieved, but it’s delicious–even has a layer of “skin.” Crazy.

Dick, maybe it was her own pepper shaker? I keep a bottle of soy sauce and a bottle of Cholula in my desk at the office and don’t let them wander far afield. Regarding your eggplant thoughts, when we were in Toronto this fall we had an eggplant gnocchi at an otherwise meaterrific place, and once we figure out the recipe, I will share it here. It may make a convert of you. And I hope you enjoy this dish. Thank you!

Chip, thanks for the advice about the nutmeg. I will try that–I love nutmeg as it is, and I can see how it would add a note of mystery.

Toni November 19, 2009 at 6:28 am

I’m grateful that I’ve never even HEARD of tofurkey! I’ll eat tofu, but I’m not a fan of anything that purports to be something else. Terry wrote that you found a fake bacon you liked? I’ve never had that pleasure. I decided that bacon is not a health food and that’s that. So I don’t eat it too often. But when I do, I want bacon!

All that being said, your gnocchi sounds terrific! I’m so on this one….

Alta November 19, 2009 at 12:39 pm

Wow. Okay so first I do love this dish – sounds incredible. But what really has me intrigued is the parsley root. I’ve heard of celery root, but I just never considered parsley root. I wonder – once my parsley in my garden has given all it can (when the frost hits), can I just dig up the roots and use them? I feel ignorant for never thinking of this – but wow, I’m excited at the possibility.

Marion November 19, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Toni, I was offered the fake bacon at someone’s home, and thought it tasted much better than the same product had a couple of years ago. I put it in the “quite acceptable” range. Still not real, magical, marvelous bacon, but when we are looking at the achievements of the flavorists, it definitely falls on the positive side.

Alta, parsley root is a different variety of Petrosilenum crispum than the kinds grown for their leaves. But maybe, if you have a sunny window, you could try transplanting some of your parsley to a pot and holding it inside over the winter?

Lena November 19, 2009 at 6:03 pm

Hello, Marion. I think you found their size daunting because, unlike me, you were not convinced that everything on one’s plate had to be consumed or someone in another part of the world would starve by proxy. Your recipe sounds wonderful! Well done!

Kate November 19, 2009 at 9:05 pm

I just sent this to a Canadian friend of mine who was wondering what she should make for her veg-friendly Thanksgiving gathering. She was tired of dealing with tofurkey and a bunch of side dishes. Hopefully this recipe will find its way to her table next year!

Ashley November 20, 2009 at 5:55 am

This is a beautiful meal! What a great combination of flavors – definitely great for fall :)

Laura November 23, 2009 at 2:37 pm

How beautiful! I rarely eat gnocchi with anything other than browned butter and sage so you’ve opened my eyes with this one! So perfectly autumnal, excellent option for the veggies…

[email protected] November 30, 2009 at 7:54 pm

I am the one who heads straight to the veggies, IF they look like these, roasted, real, fresh, natural, delicious. I am not a vegetarian, and I would never eat meat substitutes or much tofu, but just a little meat and lot of color makes me happy.

P.S. Thanks for the email and I would be happy to add you to my blog roll.

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