Not that many years ago, a vegetarian at Thanksgiving was an object of pity. That special day without the burnished turkey was a holiday without a centerpiece. Times have changed. For many of us, meat-free options are essential at every gathering, including Thanksgiving. This doesn't mean some creepy meat substitute (tofurky, be gone!) or just having veggie guests go heavy on the green-bean casserole. There needs to be a dish of drama and substance that serves as a "centerpiece" for meat-free guests.

Here's the secret weapon: squash.

Thick-rinded winter squash varieties -- from acorn to butternut, pumpkin to delicata -- mostly mature during the fall, lending autumnal colors of orange and yellow to the Thanksgiving table. They are affordable and forgiving and make great do-ahead casseroles, purées, tarts, pies and even dramatic receptacles when roasted whole and filled with stuffing or rice pilaf.

Here are a few tips in making squash a showstopper:

• What carnivores miss in meat-free entrees is often textural. Tooth resistance and contrast are easy to achieve with a dish that includes pastry. Pie dough, puff pastry, phyllo and even pizza dough can turn a side dish into a main attraction.

• Combining roasted squashes with grains and legumes takes a hearty vegetarian dish and makes it a complete protein (something vegetarians have to work a little harder to find). Lentils, white beans and wild rice are elegant companions to sweet roasted butternut squash and the like.

• No, chicken broth is not vegetarian. Make your squash purées with it and you've closed the door to vegetarians. Vegetable broth works fine.

• Everyone loves gravy, including vegetarians. Consider making a mushroom gravy or other sauce as a special treat for meat-free guests. This gives a squash entrée a little more holiday polish.

• Think presentation. Dried fruit and roasted nuts go great with squashes and make for a pretty serving-platter garnish.