Pecans deserve more than pie, just as vegetarians deserve more than side dishes.

For too many Thanksgivings, pecans have been relegated to the dessert table or forever locked within armor-hard shells in the sadly neglected nut bowl. If we’re lucky, they might show up in a salad or on top of the roasted vegetables. But that’s where the pecan’s fun ends.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Just as vegetarian dishes work exceptionally well when given greater prominence at the Thanksgiving table, these healthful nuts easily move to the center of the plate and provide a hearty, totally plant-based entrée around which all the traditional vegetable sides can coalesce.

This year, I plan to bring Pecan-Oatmeal Stuffing Bites to the very vegetarian-friendly Thanksgiving dinner at my in-laws’ home.

I developed these stuffing bites knowing that pecans and oats complement each other and that I wanted something to satisfy family and friends who are vegan, gluten-free or both. I also wanted the flavor to harmonize with the traditional tastes of this food-centric holiday, a goal I achieved by using a sautéed mixture of onions, celery and carrots plus traditional harvest herbs.

My stuffing bites taste similar to traditional stuffing. Fresh sage is the dominant flavor. The other herbs, onions, garlic and vegetables play strong supporting roles.

If you don’t have fresh thyme or oregano on hand, dried works fine, but the same can’t be said for the sage. Fresh sage really makes this dish pop.

When dropping each bite onto the baking sheet, make sure you keep them small – no more than two or three actual bites. This ensures each bite can be eaten without much fuss, and it helps each develop a slightly crunchy exterior.

My mother-in-law will serve the stuffing bites with vegan gravy as part of the main meal, but they also work well as an appetizer paired with a bowl of plant-based gravy for dipping. This year, I’m making my vegan, gluten-free Basil-Thyme Bean Gravy.

In cooking these for Thanksgiving this year, I’m doing my part to help give pecans – and vegetarians – more of the respect they deserve.

Pecan-oatmeal stuffing bites

Be sure to buy oats that have been milled apart from gluten-containing grains. And be sure to use fresh sage.

Makes 36 to 48 bites, depending on their size

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 large onion, diced (roughly 2 cups)

1 teaspoon sea salt

1 cup diced carrots (about 2 to 3 carrots)

1 cup diced celery (about 3 stalks)

2 cups water or vegetable broth

12/3 cups old-fashioned rolled oats

2 cups pecans

¼ teaspoon toasted sesame oil

3 cloves garlic

3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh sage

1 tablespoon fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)

1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano (or ¼ teaspoon dried)

1 tablespoon tamari

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly oil 2 baking sheets.

Heat a heavy-bottomed skillet over medium high heat and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Once the oil has warmed, add the onions and salt to the skillet. Sauté the onions until they start to become translucent, about 5 minutes, then add the carrots and celery. Lower the heat and then cook, stirring frequently, for another 15 minutes until all the vegetables have softened.

While the vegetables are cooking, add the water or broth and oatmeal to a pot, place it over medium heat and allow it to simmer. Keep a close eye on it, stirring occasionally, as the oatmeal will thicken rapidly. Once the standing water has been absorbed, remove the sticky mash from the heat.

In a food processor, combine pecans, the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil, sesame oil and garlic. Process until the mixture has a grainy texture. Add half of the cooked vegetables. Process again until it becomes more of a paste but with some bits of vegetable still visible.

In a mixing bowl, combine the remaining vegetables, the oatmeal, the pecan mixture, the herbs, tamari and black pepper.

Using a teaspoon or your fingers, shape the dough into bite-sized balls or discs and drop them onto the prepared baking sheets. Bake for 30 minutes, until the outsides are crispy, rotating the sheets back to front and switching their positions halfway through for even baking.

Basil-thyme bean gravy

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

11/2 cups cooked pinto beans, red beans or any leftover cooked beans

1 clove garlic, diced

2 tablespoons fresh basil (or 1 teaspoon dried)

1 tablespoon fresh oregano (or 1 teaspoon dried)

1 tablespoon fresh thyme (or 1 teaspoon dried)

1 tablespoon fresh sage

1/2 teaspoon celery seed

1/2 cup tamari

1 teaspoon toasted sesame oil

Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to a medium-sized heavy-bottomed saucepan. Once it’s warm, add the onions and cook over medium to low heat, stirring often, until the onions have caramelized, 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a food processor blend the remaining 4 tablespoons olive oil with the beans, garlic, 1/2 cup water and herbs and spices. Add the puree, along with the tamari and sesame oil, to the saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently for 15 to 20 minutes. The mixture will thicken but still will be easily poured when finished. Serve warm.

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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