Kim O’Donnel knows meat eaters. In fact, she is one. As a voice for the Meatless Monday campaign, she’s been cooking up delicious you-won’t-miss-the-meat fare for the vegetarian-curious-but-vegan’s-too-crazy crowd. With a focus on holidays (or any celebration), the versatile recipes found in The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations (Da Capo Books, 2012) ensure that eaters of all dietary stripes will leave the table satisfied. Cast aside those fears of cardboard tofurkey and gray starches. Instead, revel in dishes that inspire, surprise, and are so tasty, “meatless” is an afterthought (with allergy- and animal-free options, to boot). The excerpt below comes from the introduction.
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Thanksgiving, 2005. My pals Liz and Matt invited me to Matt’s parents’ house for the big meal. As my contribution, I made a tofu pumpkin pie, a decision that brought smiles to the newly vegetarian couple but elicited nervous laughter from the hosts. A pie filled with soybean curd was not on the table in Norman Rockwell’s famous Thanksgiving painting. But my pie was hardly a shock compared to what was to precede it on the table. Liz and Matt had requested real estate on Mom and Dad’s turkey-centric table for a boxed Tofurky roast with all the trimmings. The meatless fixin’s were innocuous enough: a drab monochromatic scheme of gray (or was it beige?) that reminded me of hospital bed fare, a striking example of “meatless at any cost,” especially taste. I had one bite of that faux turkey, which was more than enough.
The symbolism of the curd bird and pie ran deep. Our additions to the holiday table were perceived as odd, even otherworldly (and certainly not festive), setting the stage for an us-versus-them dynamic. Frankly, the real bird wasn’t doing much for me, either, but our menu additions were challenging the Rockwell status quo, the way things had always been done. It’s as if Liz and Matt ripped open the dining room ceiling and ushered in a lightning storm.
Um, please pass the rolls. . . .
If you’re too young to remember Rockwell, surely you understand the feeling from How the Grinch Stole Christmas! the infinitely charming Dr. Seuss tale of a villain and his efforts to squelch the holidays for the townsfolk of Who-ville, which includes absconding with the “roast beast.” Those two words are how the kids of my generation came to refer to the meaty centerpiece of any holiday feast: ham or lamb for Easter, spare ribs, franks and burgers on the Fourth of July, corned beef and cabbage for Saint Patrick’s Day, andouille gumbo for Mardi Gras, and of course, turkey on Thanksgiving. A feast without the beast was unheard of.
Living out one’s dietary dreams, à la Liz and Matt, was best done in the privacy of one’s own kitchen. Out of the home, and particularly at family gatherings, the meatless way of eating simply got in the way.
How quickly things have changed.
In 2008, as part of an effort to take charge of my health and lighten my carbon footprint, I lessened my lifelong grip on the bone and got my meat-loving husband to join me on a Meatless Monday–style adventure. Rather than completely break up with meat, we took one day off, incremental baby-step bites that helped us create a new normal—and led to the collection of recipes in The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook.
When we first got going, I promised him “delicious first, meatless second,” a standard that has stood the test of time. Fast-forward four years: What started out as an experiment has become our preferred way of eating. Our plant-based suppers now outweigh the meaty ones not only because they’re nutritionally virtuous but because they’re downright delicious. They’ve tapped us into a world of cuisines, flavors, and textures that previously we had only read about. Along the eat-less-meat way, we discovered both the necessity and joys of umami, a phenomenon commonly associated with bacon and other meaty morsels. Roughly translated as “savoriness,” this Japanese term is referred to as the fifth flavor, along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. The best way I can describe it is the mouth-coating phenomenon and lingering finish of certain ingredients that make us smack our lips and say, “Wow, that’s delicious.” Much to our delight, we discovered that the plant world is loaded with umami-rich ingredients, including molasses, mushrooms, mustard, roasted vegetables, smoked paprika, and soy sauce.
Still, when it was time to entertain and put on a spread of grander proportions for friends and family, I would fall back into my “roast beast” comfort zone, as if nothing had changed. If we were able to rock out the meatless umami for our everyday meals, I wondered why I was stumbling as a hostess with the meatless mostest.
It turns out that I’m not alone. About one-third of meat-loving Americans are embarking on similar eat-less-meat journeys, many referring to themselves as “flexitarian.” And as we redefine who we are by what we eat, the dietary divide is blurring. Gone are the days when vegetarians like Liz and Matt are the weird outcasts at family gatherings; now Thanksgiving and the calendar’s myriad celebratory feasts are truly mixed-diet affairs catering to eaters of all dietary stripes. And speaking of affairs, we’re falling into mixed-diet relationships at seemingly unprecedented rates, resulting in dynamics perhaps never seen before at the table. I’m sure you’ve met Valerie the vegan who’s fallen in love with your brother, Mister I-can’t-live-without-my-sausages. Your neighbors Mom and Pop Omnivore are reeling from the news that their teenaged son Burger Boy is now swearing off “anything with a face.” And remember your best friend’s lacto-ovo cousin who always brings the best-ever stuffing? She’s just been diagnosed with a gluten intolerance. Sound familiar?
The new challenge, then, is in figuring out how to meet at the table (without meat on the table) not only at the end of the day but on all of the special days, when we want to yip it up.
My quest for a “feast without the beast” put me back in the kitchen, where I’ve cooked up more than two dozen ways to eat and be merry for all kinds of occasions. You won’t find faux turkey or simulated hot dogs here but seasonal produce, legumes, whole grains—and plenty of “delicious first.”
We ring in the New Year with good-luck black-eyed peas in paella form. As your guide, I’ll lead the way through the calendar of holidays, making stops for lentil “meatball” subs for the football playoffs, Cajun blackened tofu for Mardi Gras, and grilled zucchini heroes on the Fourth of July. We’ll fete Mom and Dad, with chickpea crepes, double black bean burgers, and rhubarb-strawberry fool.
I’ve got Thanksgiving—the mac daddy of gastronomic holidays—covered, too: a sumptuous spread that includes delicata squash boats with red rice stuffing, sweet potato–kale pesto gratin, Brussels sprouts slaw, and, of course, good ole American apple pie, but with an enlightened butter–olive oil dough.
Scattered in between are the sundry milestones marked on our personal calendars—birthdays, anniversaries, engagements, graduations, promotions, league championships—the many other happy occasions that make us wanna hoot, holler, and cook up a storm.
Last but definitely not least, you’ll get a peek into a relatively new but rapidly expanding part of my kitchen life—food preservation. My only regret about canning is that I waited so long. Learning how to extend the season of my favorite fruits and vegetables in a jar is one of the most gratifying and useful skills I’ve acquired as an adult. In addition to the basics of water-bath canning (plus some tricks I’ve learned since founding Canning Across America in 2009), I share a few of my favorite preserved and pickled recipes to help get you started.
There is so much good food in this new collection, I can hardly sit still. Once again, I invite you to join me and the motley crew of dining companions that we’ve become as we celebrate, all together, the deliciousness of plants and the joys of gathering at the table.
Try these great holiday recipes for the flexitarian food lover from The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations:
Pumpkin Pudding Recipe With Molasses Cookies
Black-Eyed Pea Paella Recipe
Long Noodles Recipe With Salted Black Beans and Bok Choy
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations: Year-Round Vegetarian Feasts (You Can Really Sink Your Teeth Into) by Kim O’Donnel and published by Da Capo Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations: Year-Round Vegetarian Feasts (You Can Really Sink Your Teeth Into).