A Q&A With Local Cookbook Author Joy Manning

Eating less meat isn’t only good for your body, it’s good for the planet. Philly Mag food critic Joy Manning chats about her new cookbook, Almost Meatless, and shares a yummy spaghetti recipe for spring

Your book is all about reducing the amount of meat we eat. What was your inspiration?
My own desire to find a kind of middle path with food. As a former vegetarian and a current restaurant critic who eats a ton of meat on the job, I wanted to find a way of cooking for myself at home that was healthy but still delicious. As the project went along, I found so many people who want the same thing from their meals. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing — it isn’t steak and mashed potatoes or steamed broccoli. That balance is what Almost Meatless is all about.

How many hours would you say you spent shopping for groceries and working in the kitchen?
My co-author, Tara Mataraza Dedesmond, and I spent probably 2,000 hours planning, shopping, cooking, tasting, starting over, driving back and forth between our houses with Tupperware, editing, etc.

[sidebar]How did you come up with the recipes?
Each week Tara and I would have a brainstorming session where we’d conceptualize the recipes we’d do that week. We relied mostly on our favorite ingredients and flavors as well as international influences. The rest of the world is generally way ahead of us in terms of eating less meat.

Why do you think it’s important for people to eat less meat?

Cattle farming generates more greenhouse gases than transportation. It has been reported that the swine flu may have originated just miles from one of Smithfield’s farms in Mexico. This isn’t sustainable for the planet or our health. It’s so easy to cut back, and it would make a gigantic difference if everyone did it.

You write about Umami, the fifth taste—can you explain how this works and why you wanted to make sure each of your recipes created this?

Umami-rich ingredients pack more flavor than other foods, and many of them are vegetarian. They are powerful enough that a little goes a long way, so even when the umami comes from meat, there’s less of it overall. We were conscious of umani-rich foods like tomatoes, soy sauce, and parmesan cheese, and used these to up the flavor impact. It’s a strategy that really works.

How much less meat do you use in the recipes? How are they different than the average American meal?

Most people serve themselves a big hunk of meat, a 10-ounce steak, an 8-ounce pork chop, and then call it a day. Our recipes use very little meat per serving, usually just an ounce or two, so it’s a dramatic difference. That’s where the umami-rich ingredients come in. But we also looked for ways to add bulk without meat. To that end we used ingredients like mushrooms, eggplant, whole grains like bulgur, tofu, etc., to add variety and meaty texture without meat.

Though the book is about using less meat, each recipe seems to have meat/animal products in it. Can the recipes work without meat entirely if people want to go completely meatless?

Yes! Because of my job as restaurant critic, I often want vegetarian meals at home. I always make our chili vegetarian, for example. Ninety percent of the recipes have instructions for making them vegetarian. It’s usually very easy and they were tested both ways. That was very important to me.

Did your work here at Philly Mag influence the book in any way?

Absolutely! My work as a recipe developer goes hand in hand with my work as a restaurant critic. There is no better way to keep up with food trends or learn how the perfect example of a thing should taste. My favorite part of the review-writing process is when I get to interview the chefs to find out exactly how they make things. And, of course, cooking so much has helped me more accurately judge the dishes in a restaurant. I know what right and wrong looks like because at this point I’ve done it both ways myself.