The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook (A Book Review. Sort Of.)

This is not your average book review. For one, the word “review” suggests a modicum of impartiality; my experience with Kim O'Donnel’s new bookThe Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour is more personal and nostalgic.

Eight years ago, I was a 20-something living in the Washington DC area, hopelessly devoid of even the most basic of cooking skills. I was also newly vegetarian, which was less an ethical choice than it was a rejection of everything I had been taught, however implicitly, about food — namely, that it only comes from a box or wrapped in plastic. And as a vegetarian, I was becoming convinced there had to be more to cooking than mac ‘n' cheese and processed veggie burgers.

Fueled by curiosity, I began to open to a new world and a new relationship with food. I bought tofu for the first time. I pored over cookbooks the way some tear through novels. The more I read, the more I awakened to the idea of eating outside of the industrialized food chain. Organic food was a revelation, an epiphany that fueled a near obsession to cook from scratch. There was just one problem. I didn’t know how to cook.

Then came Kim O'Donnel.

For me, TMLMC covers familiar and nostalgic territory. Here, for all posterity, are her recipes for pizza, hummus and risotto — the very same ones I mastered years ago — recipes I've long since committed to memory, and that formed the core of my cooking arsenal. O'Donnel teaches the basics that any good cook, regardless of persuasion, needs.

Back then, O'Donnel was a writer for the Washington Post and notable for her long running weekly cooking chats on washingtonpost.com. In fact, she was notable for doing multimedia in an age long before You-Tube and social media. Every month, O'Donnel devoted one of these chats to meatless cooking, which was a boon for this untutored vegetarian (she later forged new ground again as one of the first bloggers to endorse the Meatless Monday program by posting a vegetarian recipe every week). O'Donnel patiently answered novice questions, proselytized on the merits of fresh ingredients and exposed me to a reality where garlic didn’t come pre-chopped in a jar. I don’t think I had ever knowingly tasted fresh basil — no joke — until she clued me into it.

Much of what I learned about cooking, apart from old-fashioned trial and error, came out of those days. Through her blog posts, chats and instructional online videos, I mastered pizza dough, risotto and even a blue cheese soufflé, which was quite the triumph for a beginner cook. Picture it, me huddled by my stove, praying to Julia Child and the rest of the culinary saints that my soufflé wouldn’t collapse. The lighter than air French delight is a temperamental child that must be soothed into submission and O'Donnel’s visual instruction buoyed me with confidence. I didn’t show the soufflé an ounce of fear; it came out of the oven perfectly.

My victory over the mighty soufflé — and my confidence in doing so — resulted in part from O'Donnel’s deft use of emerging technology, but also the fact that she’s a natural teacher. Much of her appeal stems from her ability to gently hold the virtual hands of newbie cooks, especially those who have yet to discover the joys of cooking with fresh ingredients. This approachability has made her a perfect person to advocate the health and environmental benefits of going meatless once a week in The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook: Vegetarian Recipes Carnivores Will Devour. As Dr. Robert S. Lawrence, founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future and one of the first programs to support Meatless Monday, reminds us in the foreword, on average “men in the United States consume 170 percent of the recommended daily allowance of meat, while women eat 135 percent.”

O'Donnel’s down to earth writing is decidedly non-preachy, making her the perfect candidate for this sort of advocacy. As she once navigated me into a new paradigm of cooking, she will navigate carnivores encouragingly towards meatless meals that satisfy.

The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook is geared primarily towards family cooks who want to get their loved ones to eat healthier. “Do you have a Mister Sausage in your life?” O'Donnel asks in her promotional video for TMLMC.

And surely, you do. You'll know Mister Sausage as “that person who cannot imagine not eating some kind of meat every single day.” These Mister (and Misses) Sausages of the world will find their imaginations — and their culinary horizons — expanding because TMLMC has 52 menus, organized seasonally. There is also a section titled “Kitchen Tricks for Your Sleeve” that will serve any cook well.

TMLMC is also a great primer for those transitioning to a meatless diet and looking to arm themselves with recipes for more substantial fare. Yes, there are your requisite tofu and tempeh dishes, but the book also gives you Spring Cassoulet and Chickpea “Crabcakes.” (As a native Marylander, it takes a brave woman to put crabcakes in ironic quotes. Just sayin'.)

For me, TMLMC covers familiar and nostalgic territory. Here, for all posterity, are her recipes for pizza, hummus and risotto — the very same ones I mastered years ago — recipes I've long since committed to memory, and that formed the core of my cooking arsenal. O'Donnel teaches the basics that any good cook, regardless of persuasion, needs.

O'Donnel has since moved on from the Washington Post and continues her weekly chats on culinate.com. And I … well … I also ambled off from Washington DC, but have since fallen so very hard off the meatless wagon (two words: wild boar) I almost forgot why I became a vegetarian in first place. While I'm not looking to give up my love of all things porcine just yet, TMLMC is a gentle reminder that small changes are great, too, and that we all need to make conscientious choices about our diet, for the planet and for our health.

Responses to "The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook (A Book Review. Sort Of.)"

  1. Summer Mom

    Kate! Well written article! I enjoyed reading it and assume you took some literary license being that I know how many fresh veggies and fruits we all ate during the summer each year and all the home cooked meals! Yes, we do probably watch more carefully now and have several meatless days in the week as opposed to 1 or 2 back in the 80s! Keep up all the good work and the cooking from scratch! Love you! Summer Mom

  2. Erin

    Right on, Katie! I, too, was an avid reader of What’s Cooking way back when chats were a new thing on the internet I used to tune in on my lunch hour; now, I tune in to culinate’s chat during my kids’ nap time. By far, Kim has been the greatest influence in my cooking, second only to my mom.

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