It’s not an exaggeration to say: Kim O’Donnel helped turn me onto vegetable-focused cooking. I was the just-hired food editor of The Post when she was a popular Post food blogger, and she was the first to tell me about Meatless Mondays, and the first to persuade me to make a black bean burger.
O’Donnel moved to Seattle just a couple years after I moved to the District, but we’ve kept up over the years at conferences and through mutual friends, and as my eating habits have changed, I’ve continued to be inspired by her work. These days, she’s a self-described “part-time vegetarian,” and she’s on her third cookbook devoted to recipes that celebrate plants. The latest, “PNW Veg” (Sasquatch Books, 2017), celebrates the produce of her Pacific Northwest home.
I spoke to O’Donnel by phone about the book, the region and vegetables. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow.
Q: How has your cooking changed since you moved to the Pacific Northwest?
A: We have three year-round farmers markets in Seattle itself, including one in my neighborhood. That has had a major impact on the way I shop and cook. In the growing season, there is a market six days a week for me to choose from. And then there are all the dried legumes that are here. You’re getting garbanzos, black turtles, the pintos and also the heirlooms, all at the farmers market. That accessibility has changed the way that I cook. So has the variety. I didn’t realize that artichokes could seriously grow well enough here that farmers could bring them to market. On the other hand, there are the early sirens of spring, like nettles and fiddlehead ferns. I miss those purple peas from Virginny, but I feel like I won out here.
Q: Speaking of accessibility, did you worry about how useful “PNW Veg” would be outside of the PNW?
A: I want this book to be exciting to people who live in other parts of the country. I had a lot of testers in different parts of the country, and that really informed me on the kind of stuff folks could get. I was really concerned about the sea beans, for instance, but I discovered that since they grow in tidal flats, you’ll find them in Cape Cod, and maybe down in Georgia, and definitely Baja California, and parts of Hawaii. Those may seem like far-flung places, but I learned that what I think is the most esoteric or hard-to-get ingredient in the book actually does appear in other parts of the country. Is everybody going to be able to get their hands on nettles or fiddlehead ferns? No, I’m aware of that. But eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, radishes — sure. I feel like the large majority of the recipes are going to appeal to folks in different parts of the country.
Q: What do you think the Pacific Northwest can teach the rest of the country about plant-based cooking?
A: This area is second only to California in terms of what produce you can get. And that is something that a lot of people don’t realize. I certainly didn’t realize it when I set out to write this book. Also, farmers are taking chances: This farmer in Olympia, she and her husband are now growing quinoa, because they thought, “Let’s just try that.” There’s great pride. And you see a lot of people with front-yard or even sidewalk vegetable beds. I think that’s something that more parts of the country could learn from. This is a land of abundance, and it’s largely unsung.
Q: I noticed that nowhere on the cover or front flaps do you use the word “vegetarian,” instead preferring “vegetable recipes” and “vegetable-forward.” Why?
A: That was an interesting showdown with my publisher. I said, “I really don’t think we should call it a vegetarian book.” If we are going to take this conversation into the future, we have to stop labeling things as vegetarian, because it carries baggage. Not only that, but my first two books needed to be called vegetarian, because there was this thesis that the books were wrapped around, so I had to prove the point that this is vegetarian food that meat eaters can eat. We don’t have that argument anymore. This is a celebration of the array of this region, so why do we have to get into this business of vegetarian? I just feel like the word “vegetarian” isn’t contemporary anymore. This is just food that happens to be vegetable-focused – there’s not a less-ness to it anymore. It just is what it is.
Warm Chickpea Smash With Skillet Greens
Adapted from “PNW Veg: 100 Vegetable Recipes Inspired by the Local Bounty of the Pacific Northwest,” by Kim O’Donnel (Sasquatch Books, 2017).
1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion or shallot
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 1 to 2 lemons)
2 bunches quick-cooking greens (such as beet, chard, kale, mustard or watercress), washed and dried
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground sumac
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
Two 15-ounce cans no-salt-added chickpeas, rinsed and drained (or 3 cups cooked chickpeas)
2 to 4 tablespoons warm water, plus more as needed
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or other medium-heat ground chile pepper
1/2 cup feta cheese, sliced, for serving
1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes, for serving
1/2 cup sliced cucumber, for serving
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro or mint leaves, for serving
Combine the red onion or shallot and 2 tablespoons of the lemon juice in a small bowl, making sure it is submerged; this will mellow the bite and make the allium easier to digest.
Remove the center ribs of the greens with a knife, or use your hands to strip off the leaves. Stack the leaves into short piles and roll up tightly; cut into 2-inch pieces.
To make the chickpea smash, heat a 10- or 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Add 4 tablespoons of the oil, tilting the pan to coat. Once the oil shimmers, add the cumin and sumac along with half of the garlic, stirring constantly to prevent burning.
Add the chickpeas, stirring to coat with the spices and garlic. Cook until the chickpeas are heated through, about 8 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of the warm water; use a fork or potato masher to coarsely mash the chickpeas. The mixture will be both pasty and textured. If it seems dry, add the remaining warm water. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons lemon juice, 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and the black pepper. Taste, and add more salt if needed. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and cover to keep warm.
Carefully wipe the skillet clean with a paper towel, then place the pan over medium heat. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, tilting the pan to coat. Once the oil shimmers, add the remaining garlic, and then add the greens in batches, turning with tongs until coated with the oil. Cook the greens until wilted and tender, 3 to 5 minutes, adding a few tablespoons of water if the mixture seems dry. Season with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt and the Aleppo pepper. Taste, and add more salt if needed.
To serve, spread the warm chickpea smash evenly in the center of a large plate or serving platter. Top with the marinated onion or shallot and lemon juice. Arrange the greens around the perimeter. Garnish with the feta, cherry tomatoes, cucumber and cilantro or mint.
Nutrition: Per serving: 490 calories, 18 g protein, 48 g carbohydrates, 28 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 590 mg sodium, 14 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar