"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents."
Louisa May Alcott, "Little Women"
It's not just presents. Many people feel Christmas won't be Christmas without ham or roast beef and Hanukkah won't be Hanukkah without brisket or chicken. The holidays are fraught with plenty of emotions and expectations as it is, then comes the meatless issue.
Fret not -- Kim O'Donnel's new book, "The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations," offers a year's worth of meatless feasts. O'Donnel, former food writer for the Washington Post, is an unabashed omnivore who believes "delicious first, meatless second." Her winter feast recipes, including stromboli and stuffed delicata squash, bring everyone to the table and offer a break from the holiday have-tos, such as the "misguided" ham with 7-Up that had been a fixture at O'Donnel's own holiday table when she was a kid.
"People tend to do the same thing over and over again," she says. "I don't think it so much what people really love, it's performance anxiety. If you don't cook regularly, you fall back on the things you know how to do kinda sorta."
Meatcentric holidays may be traditional, but they're no longer in keeping with "how we're eating," says O'Donnel. According to the Seattle-based author and cook, daily meat consumption is down among omnivores. Whether it's concern over health, the environment, the issue of compassion or the issue of cost, people are "waking up to this very difficult reality that they can't be doing this anymore. Unfortunately, too many people think you have to completely change your diet. It scares people."
A dietary overhaul isn't necessary. Just by eating meat less frequently, "you start to see impact," she says. "We need to rethink of having meat as a given."
And people are. While on the road doing a kale salad demo, O'Donnel was approached by a man in a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, who came not to argue the meat versus meatless thing but to sample the salad and get her to autograph her book. "That's what's happening," she says. "Mr. Ten-Gallon Cowboy Hat wants to have these conversations."
That's something to celebrate. "The table is where we can do it," O'Donnel says. Even at the holidays. "The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations" offers two dozen meatless menus replacing ham and other misguided holiday foods with dishes "to be enjoyed by all. There's a way to do it so everybody feels like they're important."
Christmas can be Christmas without ham and without hurt feelings. "We can put aside our political differences, our problems and our baggage and we can be in the moment with the food," says O'Donnel. "There's something pretty powerful about that."
Delicata Boats With Red Rice Stuffing
from Kim O'Donnel's "The Meat Lover's Meatless Celebrations"
Stuffed acorn squash: the intentions are always good, but unfortunately, the results rarely live up to the hype. Fortunately, there's another way to meatless main dish happiness, people! It comes in the form of the delicata squash, a thin-skinned, quick-cooking variety that tastes like a mash-up of corn and sweet potatoes. Stuffed with mahogany-hued red rice, these boats are hearty yet elegant and actually taste like the squash of our dreams.
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, also chopped)
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.
HERE'S WHAT YOU DO:
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. (Kept covered for 5 to 10 minutes, the rice will continue to cook.) 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.
Roast until easily pierced with a fork, about 30 minutes, and remove from the oven. Lower the oven heat to 350°F.
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.
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. Serve immediately, or lower the oven temperature to 225°F, cover with foil, and hold until ready to serve.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.