Meatless for Meat Lovers, Holiday Version: Kim O'Donnel Talks Turkey without the Bird

Editor’s note: We are so pleased to witness the birth of Kim O'Donnel’s latest cookbook. We first met Kim back in the Green Fork days, and we loved her last book, and we're sure this one will be equally drool-worthy. She also contributes to our newest series, Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It. In a recent Real Food post, Kim shared her recipe for Delicata Boats with Red Rice Stuffing, which look amazing. Congratulations, KimO!

This post was originally published at MeatlessMonday.com and was written by Tami O'Neill, online editor at the Monday Campaigns.

You might call Kim O'Donnel a master of “mainly meatless” meals. Since her food and recipe column first appeared in the Washington Post in 2006, she has encouraged carnivores to take on Meatless Mondays and move produce to the center of the plate, at least once a week.

Having covered every season and culinary quandary, Kim has turned her attention to the meaty subject of holiday meals. Her latest cookbook, The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations: Year-Round Vegetarian Feasts (You Can Really Sink Your Teeth Into), offers recipes that will satisfy the vegetarians, flexitarians die-hard meat eaters… really, anyone who  graces your dining room this Thanksgiving.

We had the opportunity to discuss the book with Ms. O'Donnel, find out why she’s shifted to a more produce-focused diet and get her advice on everything from the secrets of umami to veggie dishes that pack enough punch to take center stage.

Why did you embark on your quest to create a holiday “feast without the beast”?

I am not a vegetarian, but I started out with Meatless Monday and have scaled back considerably over the years.  As a chef, it’s been an exciting, creative adventure, opening me to a world of cuisines I had only previously read about. As an eater, I've been delightfully surprised by how satisfying, varied and delicious meatless everyday cooking can be, so much that it’s become our new ‘normal' at home.

I couldn’t say the same when we wanted to entertain or host a holiday gathering. It got me thinking – meatless need not be just a workaday thing – it could be festive and fun and lavish, too. That doesn’t mean I've said goodbye to my pastured turkey, but I have come to understand just how much there is to celebrate when it comes to seasonal produce.

There’s a longstanding assumption that molded bean curd is an essential meatless entrée this time of year. What are some alternatives that can stand in as the Thanksgiving centerpiece?

I'm now at a place that when I eat meat it’s because I really want to. Similarly when I prepare a meatless meal, it’s all about the plants and reveling in Mother Nature’s seasonal bounty:  I don’t feel the need to pretend I'm eating meat.

Thanksgiving is one of the easiest feasts on our calendars to do meatless – it is a harvest meal after all – and there is more autumn produce than we know what to do with!  It’s not just about squash and sweet potatoes, but beets, parsnips and turnips, pearl onions, cruciferous heads of broccoli and cauliflower, as well as the amazing lineup of hearty greens – collards, kale, rapini and mustard, to name just a few.  Let’s not forget the fruit – apples, pears, persimmons, quince, cranberries… who needs a curd bird?

But I digress – my new favorite Thanksgiving main is the roasted delicata squash boats filled with a red rice stuffing from Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations. It’s simple enough for beginning cooks. For something more elaborate and time-intensive, my roasted red onions with a savory pumpkin bread stuffing (pictured on the cover of the book) make a lovely and elegant centerpiece.

In The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations you promise that your meals are always “delicious first, meatless second.” What are some secrets for flavorful vegetarian dishes?

Other than habit, meat lovers keep coming back to meat for a few reasons: texture, fat (which equals flavor) andumami.  Roughly translated from Japanese as “savoriness,” umami refers to the lingering finish and coating of the mouth that makes us want to smack our lips and say ‘that’s delicious.' What I discovered is that there are lots of ingredients from the plant world that have major umami potential – mushrooms, soy sauce, smoked paprika, roasted vegetables, tahini, to name just a few. So when I say “delicious first,” I'm referring largely to umami.  Developing recipes that are umami dense is one of my ways of showing the meat-eating majority that vegetarian isn’t rabbit food.

From your days writing a Meatless Monday column for the Washington Post to your first cookbook,The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour, much of your work focuses on creating vegetarian recipes that meat-eaters will also love. Why do you think it’s important for people to embrace more meatless meals?

As a member of the 96% meat-eating majority of America, I totally understand the challenges of dietary change and know firsthand the sensory and gastronomical pull that keeps us coming back for more. But lipid panels don’t lie, and neither does family history.  My dad and grandmother both died of heart disease way too soon, and if we knew in the 1980s what we know about eating in moderation and how to change diet incrementally, I wonder if things would have turned out differently.

I think we all owe it to ourselves to be honest about the state of our eating habits and periodically check in on our diets. Change only comes when we want it and stick to it, and I am a believer in the power of incremental change. Bite by bite, we can make more room for plants on the plate without sacrifice.  Our bodies will love it, and the planet gets a break, too.  Even a small amount of change does create that new normal I referred to earlier.  And from there, we can create even more change.

Do you have any advice for those who are enjoying a meatless celebration for the first time?

You're not alone: more and more meat eaters are exploring ways to scale back, which means gone are the days of the lone outcast who opts out of the turkey. We are truly dining in mixed-diet company these days, a trend that is not slowing anytime soon.

But from a planning and practical perspective, try not to work yourself into a lather.  As you plan your menus, keep seasonal produce front and center, and see if there’s anything you can prepare in advance and freeze.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help and share the work load, from kitchen prep to setting the table.

What is your favorite meatless dish on the Thanksgiving table?

I love having something raw on the table – a salad of mixed greens with fruit (pomegranate seeds, clementine or grapefruit segments, apple or pear slices) or my raw kale salad to cleanse the palate, lighten up the meal and make sure there’s a wee bit of roughage. After all, it’s traditionally such a starch-heavy meal – mashed potatoes, stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls (and that’s all before the pie)!  For years, I've been making my stuffing meatless, but really when you think about it, Thanksgiving is one heckuva feast, even without the turkey.

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