February Frugal Feast: A Franco-American Meatless Celebration!

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To date, the actual cooking portion of Frugal Feasts—monthly dinners organized around the premise that eating well on a budget doesn’t mean eating fast or processed food—has been a bit ad hoc.  Each host has, for the most part, been left to their own devices. Those with regular arsenals of favorite dishes have just done their thing. Others have pulled menu ideas from their respective national or cultural heritage. Most have likely turned to google for inspiration and recipes.

Well this month we decided to change things up a bit. I was lucky to be put in touch with Kim O’Donnel, veteran food writer and author of the new cookbook The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations. Kim was generous enough to offer me a copy of her book, which I promptly passed along to our latest Frugal Feast hostess, Ariel, who, together with her husband Nico, agreed to take it for a test run and cook from it for our February Feast.

What drew me to Kim’s book in the first place was the emphasis on meatless cooking—not as a complex chore or exercise in deprivation, but as a celebration. It's this idea that's at the heart of our Feasts and this experience that I hope has a durable impact on participants.

While the "rules of the road" for Frugal Feasts don't explictly call for meals to be meatless, they do call for them to be well-balanced, made from high-quality, responsibly-sourced ingredients, and to cost no more than $5 per person. At first blush, the budget seems constraining, especially to the hard core carnivores in the group. But 17 Frugal Feasts later, we know the concept works.

We've discovered that two key things make it possible:

First, as soon as we move away from placing meat at the center of our plates, we free up resources to buy better grains, fruits, and vegetables—many organically grown and therefore free of pesticides and other harmful chemicals in their production cycle. Livestock products are some of the most water, land, energy, and greenhouse gas-intensive foods we eat, so every time we enjoy a meatless meal, we're making a great choice for our health and the health of our environment. By buying meat less frequently, we can likewise free up our budgets to eat better meat, voting with our wallets to support those farmers who work hard to produce meat and dairy products with care for their workers, their animals, and their land.

And we don't have to sacrifice taste or enjoyment. When I asked Kim for the best reaction she’s ever gotten to a meatless meal that she’s prepared, here’s what she said:

“When I’m developing recipes, my mantra is “delicious first, meatless second.” The food needs both texture and umami, that mouth-coating lingering sensation that makes you want to smack your lips. It’s a huge thrill to sit with a diehard meat lover delight in a bowl of my roasted cauliflower with tahini sauce or a plate of Cajun blackened tofu filets because it’s so darn tasty and so satisfying, not because it’s ‘other’ than the norm.”

Second, when you share a meal with a group, bringing 10 or so people together, economies of scale kick in and $5 per person turns into a $50 budget--frugal yes, but more than enough to create a feast!

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For their Feast, Ariel and Nico chose to make a kale salad, Cajun tofu and a lentil pate from Kim’s book, in addition to a carrot cumin soup to start and mixed roasted potato circles.

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For dessert, our hosts prepared a mousse au chocolate (chocolate mousse), using a family recipe from “Les Recettes de Ma Maman” (“The Recipes of My Mom”), a homemade recipe book given to Nico by his mom when he left his hometown of Marseille, France.

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(I don’t know what I like better, the recipes themselves or the fact that French moms actually expect their young sons to cook from scratch!)


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Here’s Ariel in her own words describing her and Nico's experience choosing a menu and cooking from The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations: 

“The cookbook has a diverse range of vegetarian options which was fun to select from. We ended up testing three the night of the Frugal Feast, without testing the recipes in advance. We made the lentil pate the night before to allow it time to chill overnight, but prepared the Cajun tofu and almond kale salad the night of. All are easy and tasty recipes!

We were admittedly a little skeptical of the lentil pate -- especially the French carnivore of the house -- but thanks to garlic cooked with the lentils, nutmeg and other spices it was flavorful and could be eaten without toast or crackers. We plan to integrate all three into the rotation of recipes we cook regularly.

We of course integrated a few French favorites from "Les Recettes de Ma Maman": carrot and cumin soup and mousse au chocolate, with ingredients like carrots and eggs from the Union Square farmer's market.”

This may or may not have been my second helping of the gorgeous results:

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And like so many hosts before her, Ariel came in under her budget of $50 for 10 Feasters:

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With great thanks, here is the rest of my terrific interview with Kim O'Donnel, where she shares her personal reflections on changing diets, favorite recipes, and why everyone loves a good dinner party:

How did you come to embrace meatless cooking?  Did your personal diet choices drive your work or the other way around?

It was a long time coming, and it’s very much connected to a personal story that has unfolded over the past three decades.

Like so many other American families in the 70s and 80s, we ate meat two or three times a day.  It was a time when applesauce and French fries were considered vegetables on restaurant menus. Rice was instant, mashed potatoes came out of a box.  It’s no wonder my father died of a heart attack at the age of 37 (as did his mother, just a few months later, at 56). This was the early 1980s.  Sure enough, we three kids inherited the heart disease genes, and the doctors told us right off the bat to stop eating bacon and eggs. Switch out the butter for margarine. Skim milk instead of whole.  Roast turkey sandwiches instead of bologna. But no advice for meat in moderation, or ramping up our vegetable intake. I literally had no idea what legumes were.

In college, I did what any meat-loving student would do – inhale pepperoni pizza at all hours of the night and start my day with a bacon, egg and cheese bagel. My lipid levels took a beating all the way into my thirties, even after culinary school. As I approached 40, my doctor at the time told me that unless I made some significant dietary changes, I was headed for a life on statins. I knew that meant I had to get serious about making room for more plants on the plate, but I was, quite honestly, in a cooking rut and didn’t know how to get started. 

What got me on the stick was the idea behind the Meatless Monday campaign – one day off from meat to cut saturated fats by 15 percent. It sounded easy and manageable enough, and to keep the momentum, I got my readers at The Washington Post involved, which meant I was regularly testing meatless recipes for my column.  Around the same time, I heard UN climate expert Rajendra Pachauri discuss the environmental benefits of taking one day off from meat.  Within a few months, one meatless day became two, and so on. The incremental approach was really working for us, and five years later, I’m about 70 percent meatless.

You seem to specifically set your sights on die hard carnivores; what has been the reaction you’ve gotten from folks that aren’t already part of the “choir”?

I speak to meat lovers because I’m one of them and can relate firsthand to the challenges of dietary change. Actually, I think the ‘choir’ is the 95 percent meat-eating majority, which is in the middle of enormous transition. In just a few years, about one-third of meat eaters have reconfigured their diets for a slew of reasons, from health to rising meat prices, and I think we’ll see this new demographic continue to grow. As a country, we’ll never stop eating meat, but we’re on track to eat a whole lot less in the coming decade.

Food is emotional for people; what ideas or messages have you found resonate the most with people considering reducing their meat consumption?  

Incremental change is what’s worked for me and my husband. The idea of creating a “new normal” over time really resonates for me and what has helped make these changes stick. I’m not one for drastic change – like going vegan overnight – but I know it’s worked for some. What I’ve come to learn is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach; we all need to be honest about what’s realistic within the context of our daily lives, schedules, budget and personal goals.

What do you think is the biggest “hump” for most meat eaters to get over when considering integrating more meatless meals into their diet?

That meatless is “rabbit food” – tasteless and boring. That it’s weird, hippie food in shades of brown or gray. That it won’t satisfy.  That you won’t get enough protein.  Lots of these stereotypes proved true a few decades back, but plant-forward cookery is in the middle of a renaissance. It’s colorful, seasonal, dynamic and delicious first. 

Which Meatless Celebrations recipe is your favorite?  Which are part of your standard rotation at home?

The thing about my books is that it’s the food I cook at home. During the winter months, black bean-sweet potato chili and West Indian-style channa from my first book make regular appearances. The Lentil pate was a great surprise because it really mimics the mouthfeel of chopped liver. My husband does a little dance when I make the lentil “meatball subs.” And the raw kale salad is part of our weekly repertoire.

Any thoughts on the Frugal Feasts concept?

I love the challenge of eating well for less; it’s a skill we all could stand to improve upon.  But what really makes this idea so appealing is the call to action to collaborate, join forces and celebrate around the table. Rather than focus on the –lessness, it’s about abundance.  And who doesn’t love a dinner party? 

We couldn't agree more!

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