Oldways Q&A: Kim O'Donnel

The Mediterranean Diet, which Oldways has been promoting for more than twenty years, recommends changing the way you think about meat so that you eat less of it, and spend one or two nights a week cooking a vegetarian meal, built around beans, whole grains, vegetables, herbs and spices.  Right in line with these ideas we've enjoyed reading Kim O'Donnel's new book, "The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook" (Da Capo Lifelong Books).  A trained chef, online food personality, and longtime journalist, formerly with the Washington Post, Kim draws on her lifelong relationship with meat (she was given a T-bone as a teething ring) to create menus and recipes to please carnivores, and show that going meatless doesn't mean sacrificing full flavor. We caught up with Kim this week to talk about her book:

Oldways:  Why do you think so many people's first response to dinner is meat?

Meat has been the center of America’s plate for the past two, nearly three generations.  It’s what most of us were raised on as well as our parents.  It is how we define dinner, lunch  -- and for some -- breakfast. It’s how we show our patriotism (Fourth of July burgers and franks on the grill) and how we express gratitude (Thanksgiving turkey).  And because pulling up to a drive-thru window is fast, brainless and often cheaper than walking through the produce section in the supermarket, meat is perceived as the answer to our time-deprived prayers and shrinking wallets. It’s long been considered a main, if not the only, source of protein.   These are just some of the factors that have pushed per capita meat consumption to more than 200 pounds a year. Collectively, we are packing away 70 billion pounds a year.

Oldways: In developing your vegetarian recipes, why was it important for you to keep carnivores in mind?

Like most of the country (about 3 percent of the population considers itself ‘vegetarian’),  I eat meat yet I knew, based on my family history of heart disease and roller coaster-ish cholesterol levels, that I  needed to cut back on saturated fats coming from meat and dairy protein.  But as much as I knew intellectually that I needed to make some dietary changes, I was dragging my heels. I wasn’t incorporating meatless dinners into our weekly repertoire with consistency which is what needed to happen if I was going to make any progress.  Things got going in earnest in September 2008 when my readers joined me on a Meatless Monday adventure through my column at the Washington Post.  Testing a meatless recipe every week made me accountable to my readers and it got me and my husband (also a meat eater) into a eat-less-meat routine.  Through this experience, I discovered how many other people were in the same boat -- they ate meat, wanted to make some dietary shifts and liked the incremental approach that was working so well in our kitchen. I also realized that as much as I appreciated and honored the long legacy of great vegetarian cookbooks of the past generation that they were often oversized tomes that felt overwhelming and didn’t speak to cooks who are increasingly curious about plant-based cookery but not quite ready to let go of the bone.  In just two years, Meatless Monday has gone from a little known nonprofit to a phenomenon spreading globally.  The time has come for a meatless cookbook for meat lovers!

Oldways:  Can you share a few examples of how you've found ways to get full flavors without using meat?

What is it about meat that we love? We omnivores love to give our teeth a workout and chew.  Texture is central to the pleasure of eating meat. But so is something called umami, a Japanese word that roughly translated means “savoriness.” It’s the mouth-coating experience that happens when we eat meat.  But we can also experience umami with several meatless ingredients, including: soy sauce, mushrooms,  roasted vegetables (particularly peppers and garlic, but there are many more!), aged and smoked cheeses (Parmigiano-Reggiano, Asiago, smoked mozzarella to name a few) and smoked paprika. While developing recipes,  I made it my mission to incorporate both umami and a variety of textures. The food had to be delicious first, meatless second.

Oldways:  What outcomes would follow if everyone in America ate one or two vegetarian meals each week?

I think a gradual and consistent eat-less-meat shift among American meat eaters would have an enormous impact on our collective health, both short and long term.  Imagine a nation of eaters that consistently took a day off from meat!  But let’s be clear: subbing out a chicken quesadilla for one oozing with cheese is not exactly what I have in mind.  Easing up on meat means learning how to make room for other stuff we’ve been long ignoring: beans, legumes, whole grains and eating fruits and vegetables by the season.  It’s what I call dietary diversity.

And here’s some environmental tidbits to chew on, from new yet-to-be-published research compiled by the Environmental Working Group: Half of all U.S. crop land  -- 149 million acres -- is used for growing animal feed for livestock.  For that acreage, roughly 17 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer are used. The resulting nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

I reckon that if 307 million of us incorporated 1 or 2 meatless days into our week, the environmental impact would be astoundingly positive.

Oldways:  You've been very busy, traveling on your book tour, writing a new column for USA Today and so much more.  Can you tell us more about that?

It’s been a wildly busy fall. I was on the road for two months, traveling to nine cities to buzz up the book. Grueling but great -- and great because I got to have conversations with home cooks from all backgrounds, young and old, veggie and bone-loving and plenty of folks in ‘mixed-diet relationships,’ which I see as the new phenomenon of our time. You know, she loves the spare ribs; he runs for the hills at the smell. How do they meet at the table at the end of the day?

The USA Today gig is really exciting. I’m part of their newly relaunched Health section called Your Life, writing “Family Kitchen,” which appears in the paper every other Wednesday.  Great for my platform no doubt, but what I’m most thrilled about is that a mainstream media giant such as Gannett is investing resources in wellness content and looking at health from a more holistic, accessible approach. Hooray all around.

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