A Talk with Kim O'Donnel,
Author of The Meat Lover's Meatless Cookbook
Q: What exactly is the Meatless Monday Campaign?
Meatless Monday is a New York-based nonprofit initiative in partnership with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. It started back in 2003 as a way to encourage Americans to reduce their saturated fat intake by 15 percent. The gist: Take one day off from meat for your health - and more recently, for the environment.
Seven years later, this fledgling nonprofit has become a movement of major proportions, with supporters that include Mario Batali, Baltimore City Public Schools, Gwyneth Paltrow and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Q: How did you become involved in Meatless Mondays?
It was September, 2008, and I had just learned about a speech delivered by Nobel Peace Prize winner and UN climate expert Rajendra Pachauri, who said that one of the most important things you can do to help the planet is not trade in your gas guzzler for a hybrid car, but to have a meatless day every week. That speech resonated with me, so much that I shared this idea with my blog readers at The Washington Post.
They were keen to join me on a weekly meatless adventure, but they stressed that tools, i.e. recipes were more important to them than philosophy or debate about eating meat (or not). By the next week, I launched a weekly meatless recipe feature in my blog, which fueled the fire to write a book proposal around this very idea. I was one of the first writers to cover Meatless Monday, and I'm honored that Dr. Robert Lawrence at Johns Hopkins agreed to write the foreword to the book.
Q: What are your favorite main ingredients to use in place of meat?
As much as I love meat (and I do - you should see me tear into a roast chicken), when I take a day off - which now happens about three times a week - I never really think about finding a meat stand-in, but rather a way to diversify my plate and still get a good mix of protein, complex carbs and fruits and/or veg. I love beans and could eat them every day, and in the course of writing this book, discovered how you can leam all about the world's cuisines through the lens of a lentil or a chick pea.
I'm also a big fan of eggs for supper, particularly when those eggs are farmstead (versus industrially laid) with yolks orange as the sun. Now just because you have an egg after 5 doesn't mean you've got to fry up some bacon - they're great tucked into tortillas, perched atop brown rice or a bed of greens, draped over roasted asparagus or sliced as a frittata. The possibilities are endless!
Similarly, when I do eat meat, I ask questions before buying, such as where and how the animal was raised and what it ate before it arrived on my plate.
Q: How is your cookbook set up differently from other cookbooks?
It's different in a few ways. First, there's the organization of the book: Rather than recipes that are grouped by course—soups, salads, mains and so on—the book is organized by menu. There's 52 in all— a different one to try for every week of the year—and they're organized by season so you can make the most of what's ripe and in season in your neck of the woods.
Second, the focus is different. It's true there's not a scrap of meat to be found lurking in the pages of MLMC, but I wouldn't call it a vegetarian cookbook, either. There are many great all-purpose cookbooks that speak directly to vegetarian and vegan home cooks, newbies and veterans alike. What I'm presenting is a meatless collection created by a meat lover expressly for meat lovers. It's meatless but not vegetarian; instead it's celebrating meat in moderation and dietary diversity.
Q: What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about going meatless?
That it's rabbit food and it won't be filling or satisfying. I hear this a lot. Or that it will be a throwback to 70s-style hippie fare that's heavy on the lentil-nut loaf and bean sprouts. Or that you have to turn your pantry upside down and that it will be hard to keep things interesting, week after week. I'm confident that the recipes in my book will help change that tune.
Q: What benefits can people expect to see from a meatless diet?
I know what it means to have meat every day, at least twice a day (and sometimes thrice). That's how I grew up and that's how I ate as a young adult. Sausage links for breakfast. Cold cuts for lunch. And dinner was always attached to a bone of some kind. Sound familiar?
Aside from my continuous battle with high cholesterol, I realized that eating meat every day was getting boring. Even with my culinary training and work as a food writer, I was in a kitchen rut. When I committed one day of the week to focus on veggies, fruits, grains and legumes, a world of flavors and experiences opened up to me. Instead of relegating the meatless items to side-dish status like they usually are, they took center stage, and guess what? I got creative. I paid more attention, and the food was delicious.
My husband and I were lapping up our meatless meals. We felt better -that's what all that plant-based fiber can do for you! But we also looked forward to the next meal - the meatless one, that is.
Over time, I noticed that we were spending less on food. It's hard to argue, for example, that a pot of black bean-sweet potato chili and a batch of skillet combread (page 144 and 148) are more expensive than my beloved roast chicken. I'm not saying you'll get rich taking a meatless break, but you may have a few more pennies in your pocket.