The surprise vegetarian guest can send the coolest cook into a tizzy, generally resulting in a plate of sides hastily assembled into an entree. But to make a veg feel welcome, one pantry staple will do the trick: vegetarian stock, broth, bouillon paste, or bouillon cubes.
Each allows for a fantastic feat: the transformation of a collection of already tasty sides into a truly special plate, all through the magic of gravy.
And you’re likely to find that all your guests enjoy the vegetarian gravy on its own merits. Lighter than traditional, pan-dripping gravies and more complex and savory than anything from a packet, vegetarian gravies, like their meaty friends, reflect the flavor of their primary ingredients. While using turkey drippings grants a very specific “Thanksgiving” flavor, choosing among vegetarian bases can change the tenor of your meal.
The fastest route is a can or Tetra-pak of vegetarian broth. As a go-to, I like the readily available Swanson’s, which has the bright, clear look and flavor of a balanced broth you might whip up from a traditional mirepoix mixture (equal parts carrot, onion, and celery). More complex broths, often found in the natural-foods aisle or at your local co-op, will tend toward either a stronger carrot flavor or a darker, earthier mushroom flavor.
The gravy connoisseur will prefer a bouillon paste. We picked Better than Bouillon for our photo-shoot-and-gravy-party. This brand’s thick, dark paste looks a bit like molasses, and a cursory sniff reveals a deep, almost meaty mushroom scent. In the final product, this stuff brings the umami.
If you want to go all out with a vegetarian gravy, the options are endless. Adding thinly sliced, caramelized shallots or finely chopped fresh herbs (sage and rosemary just feel like the holidays), or splitting the gravy into two batches and doctoring one with pan drippings, are ways to delight your diners.
Your gravy’s final flavor will be dictated by the ingredients you have on hand, but the starting point for any quick-and-dirty version is knowing the proportions for a gravy roux — 2 tablespoons of fat and 2 tablespoons of flour to 1 cup of liquid. Assume a half cup of gravy per guest, and adjust as needed. And there’s no need for hand-rolled artisanal butter; a stick of Land O’Lakes will work just fine here.
Bjorn Christianson contributed to this story.
Simple Vegetarian Gravy
4 c vegetable stock or broth or reconstituted bouillon*
8 tbsp butter (one stick, ¼ lb)
½ c flour (8 tbsp)
herbs, salt, and pepper to taste
1. Bring liquid to a boil. Remove from heat and set aside.
2. Melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. As butter begins to froth, whisk in flour (one spoonful at a time), and stir the resulting roux over heat until golden brown.
3. Add the liquid slowly, whisking continuously. The gravy will thicken at once and can be served immediately, or it can develop over low heat as you add herbs and spices to taste. Gravy continues to thicken as it cooks and cools, so don’t be alarmed if it’s a little thin at first.
*If using bouillon cubes or paste, make 4 cups liquid as directed.