Kim O’Donnel on Celebrating the Holidays Without Meat

by Sarah Henry on December 17, 2012 · 0 comments

in bay area bites,food books,meatless monday,recipes,vegetables,whole grains

Meatless Celebrations by Kim O'DonnelSeattle chef and cookbook author Kim O’Donnel is a long-time champion of meatless meals. She’s been talking up produce-centric grub since her A Mighty Appetite food column began in the Washington Post in 2006. An early advocate of the Meatless Monday campaign, O’Donnel’s first cookbook, The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook showcased plant-based recipes carnivores could sink their teeth into.

Now, in time for holiday feasting, comes The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations: Recipes and Menus for Everything from New Year’s Eve to Summer Picnics, Birthday Bashes to Christmas. Got a special occasion dinner coming up? O’Donnel has it covered — there’s even an election night menu. (Note: This Q&A was timed for a pre-Thanksgiving post, but applies to any fall or winter celebratory meal.)

The omniverous O’Donnel swung through the Bay Area recently and was feted at a potluck where no flesh, let alone bird, featured in a spread that was flavor filled and satisfyingly lip-smacking, as if to drive home her point: Produce can shine at any celebration. The meatless maven shared some of her favorite holiday recipes. And, relax, there’s not a curd bird in the mix.

Kim O'Donnel. Photo: Clare Barboza

Kim O'Donnel. Photo: Clare Barboza

In your new cookbook you describe your dishes as “delicious first, meatless second.” How do you enhance flavor in vegetarian recipes?

I discovered 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. This is why the squash is roasted and there are pistachios in the red rice stuffing [recipe below], and why I coat the sweet potatoes with kale pesto [recipe below]. These little touches add layers of flavor and texture, which is absolutely critical when making the case to meat lovers that vegetarian food is not rabbit food.

Why create what you call a “feast without the beast”?

I had an epiphany one Thanksgiving several years ago, when the turkey and its tofu facsimile were fighting for real estate on the table. It was a tense experience, an us-versus-them dynamic with very little tasty chow to show for all the effort. I wanted to put together a fun, festive meal that eaters of all dietary stripes could enjoy.

What’s on your meatless menu for winter holidays and where’s the protein?

We tend not to associate plants with protein — a medium potato has 2.7 grams, 1 cup of cooked broccoli nearly 7 grams, and 1 cup of cooked spinach 13 grams. And we haven’t even gotten to the legumes — 1 cup of cooked lentils has 18 grams of protein. A quarter cup of almonds nearly 4 grams.

Some of the meatless meals in the fall and winter chapters of my book include an eggplant timpano, roasted delicata squash with red rice stuffing [recipe below], black-eyed pea paella, potato-turnip gratin with a blue cheese sauce and Cajun blackened tofu – all of which contain protein. Remember, for all the protein in that Brontosaurus burger, it’s lacking in fiber (which in my opinion is the fountain of youth!)

What is your favorite meatless dish on a festive table at this time of year?

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.

Do you have advice for people hosting a meatless meal with skeptics at the table?

Try not to work yourself into a lather, for starters. Then honor their concerns and have something meaty on your veg-heavy table: Let the turkey eaters bring the turkey, for example. We’re dining in mixed-diet company these days, and it’s important that everyone feel respected and acknowledged. Enlist some helpers and don’t carry the load of dinner prep, serving, and cleaning. That’s no fun, and that’s besides the point. After all, we’re gathering at the table with the people we love — with food!

A version of this post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bites.


From “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations
Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2012.

A sweet potato dish that features thinly sliced tubers slathered up with my kale pesto, a green spread with both gusto and all-purpose prowess.

Kale Pesto. Photo: Clare Barboza

Kale Pesto. Photo: Clare Barboza

4 cups water
1 to 1 1⁄2 teaspoons salt
4 to 5 cups lacinato (a.k.a. dinosaur or Tuscan) kale that has been stemmed and chopped coarsely (1 large bunch)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1⁄4 cup unsalted walnuts,
coarsely chopped
1⁄2 cup olive oil
1⁄2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional)
Freshly ground black pepper

TOOLS: Blender or food processor

Olive oil or oil spray, for greasing
2 pounds sweet potatoes, washed and peeled
1⁄2 cup kale pesto
1⁄8 to 1⁄4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese (optional)

TOOLS: 13 by 9-inch baking dish


Kale Pesto

    1. Bring the water to a boil in a medium-size saucepan. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt, then add the kale. Cook uncovered until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain the kale under cold running water. With your hands, squeeze as much water out of the kale as possible; you’ll end up with a green ball about the size of a tennis ball.
    2. In a blender or food processor, combine the garlic and walnuts, and whiz until pulverized and well mixed. Add the kale and process until well blended; the mixture may even look a little dry. Pour in the oil and blend. The mixture should be glistening and will have a consistency that is somewhat textured, somewhat loose. Taste and add the remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon of salt, if needed.
    3. Transfer the pesto to a small bowl and stir in the cheese (if using) and the black pepper to taste.
    4. The pesto keeps well in an airtight container in the refrigerator, for up to a week.


Sweet Potato Gratin

    1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
    2. Grease the bottom of a 13 by 9-inch baking dish with the olive oil (using a brush) or with oil spray.
    3. Cut the sweet potato into 1⁄4-inch-thick slices. Place in a medium-size bowl and add the pesto, stirring until the sweet potato slices are completely coated. If the coverage is light, add a wee bit more pesto, in 1-teaspoon increments.
    4. Arrange the sweet potato slices in the prepared dish in overlapping fashion. You will have two or three layers when you’re done. If using the cheese, sprinkle evenly on top.
    5. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until fork tender.
    6. Serve hot.


KITCHEN NOTES: Sweet potatoes can be large and unwieldy and sometimes difficult to cut. Sharpen your knife and cut the sweet potato in half, both in length and width, if necessary.

Make the pesto first. In fact, you can make it in advance, as it keeps for several days in the refrigerator. On prepping the kale: Grab the thick fibrous stem running through the middle and simply pull off the leafy part. You can also run a knife along the middle and trim the leaf away from the stem.


From “The Meat Lover’s Meatless Celebrations
Excerpted by arrangement with Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2012.

Delicata Boats with Red Rice Stuffing. Photo: Clare Barboza

Delicata Boats with Red Rice Stuffing. Photo: Clare Barboza


1 1/2 cups water
1 cup Bhutanese red rice (Plan B: long-grain Wehani; cooking times and liquid amounts may vary)
3 to 4 delicata squash (about 1 pound each)
1/8 cup olive oil, plus extra for brushing
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/4 cup unsalted shelled pistachios, chopped (Other options: walnuts, almonds, or pecans)
1/3 cup dried cranberries or cherries, chopped
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon peeled and minced fresh ginger
Zest of 1/2 lemon or orange, plus 1 or 2 squeezes of the juice
1/8 teaspoon ground chile pepper of choice

TOOLS: Parchment paper

KITCHEN NOTES: There’s enough filling for eight servings (one squash half per person). For a party of six, you’ll have more than a cup of remaining filling, which you can bring to the table.


  1. Bring the water and the rice to a boil in a medium-size saucepan. Lower the heat to low, cover, and cook at a simmer, 20 to 25 minutes. The rice will be done when water is absorbed and grains are tender to the bite.
  2. Preheat the oven to 400°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Trim both ends of each squash and slice in half lengthwise. Scoop out and discard the seeds and the attached pulp. Brush both sides of the squash with the olive oil, and season the inside to taste with salt and pepper.
  3. Roast until easily pierced with a fork, about 30 minutes, and remove from the oven. Lower the oven heat to 350°F.
  4. While the squash roasts, make the filling: Transfer the rice to a large mixing bowl and add the 1/8 cup of olive oil, and the parsley, nuts, dried fruit, fennel seeds, ginger, citrus zest, and chile pepper. Stir until the rice is coated with the oil and the mixture is well mixed. Add the 1/4 teaspoon of salt, stir, taste, and reseason if necessary.
  5. Fill each squash half with about 1/4 cup of the filling. Return to the oven and heat for about 15 minutes, until the rice is warmed through.
  6. Serve immediately, or lower the oven temperature to 225°F, cover with foil, and hold until ready to serve.
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