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Damaris Phillips is a Southern girl and a Southern chef. She grew up eating meatloaf, burgers, and fried chicken at the dinner table with her family in South Louisville, Kentucky, and grew up to become a Southern chef who made her own sausages and cured her own bacon. So you can only imagine that when she had a household of her own, these meat-heavy dishes would be in heavy rotation in her own kitchen, right?
Wrong. Because that Southern girl fell in love with Darrick Wood, a man who had been a vegetarian since he was a pre-teen. When the couple met it was like “two magnets,” and Damaris never looked back. But sharing culinary experiences was integral to her relationships, and that meant cooking vegetarian-friendly foods. After tiring of making macaroni and cheese and vegetable soup, the Southern at Heart host had to learn to adapt her meat-heavy Southern cuisine for a plant-based diet.
The result is years of hard work and Damaris’ first cookbook, Southern Girl Meets Vegetarian Boy, which is out now via Abrams Books. In anticipation of her cookbook, which showcases both classic Southern cuisine and vegetarian-friendly adaptations, Damaris chatted with The Daily Meal about her new “75 percent” vegetarian kitchen, explained how in the world you make meatloaf plant-based, and even shared a few recipes with us.
When developing these vegetarian recipes and this cookbook, what were the biggest challenges beyond just adapting meat-heavy Southern cuisine? What were some of the biggest flavors you had trouble nailing down?
I learned that it’s difficult to make a whole piece of meat. If you think about a piece of fried chicken, that one’s very difficult. It’s difficult to create steak at home; meatloaf, meatballs are hard. The difficulty is that we’ve all been eating them for so long that we all have like the idea of what it should and does taste like. So when you’re trying to recreate that, the battle is that people are coming in to it and they’ve had meatballs a thousand times or they’ve had meatloaf a million times. Not only do you have to make something that will stand alone and be delicious if you served it to somebody if it wasn’t trying to be meatloaf or meatballs.
Then, you have to make delicious food that feels equal to the delicious food we’ve all had a billion times. So fried chicken was hard. Meatloaf was really hard. Meatballs were a tough little guy. The burger… man, the burger. Some companies out there make a great burger; Beyond Beef does a great job. But making a burger at home that feels soul-satisfying and fatty and protein-based while still being plant-based was a challenge. But I think it turned out really good! I also wanted to stay away from those things you always see in vegetarian cooking. We see black bean burgers a lot. We see mushroom Bolognese a lot. You see tofu everywhere. So I tried to stay away from those things that people had been exposed to. I don’t think it exists anymore where you have to be a vegetarian or meat-eater. There’s this beautiful gray area that we’re all living in now, it just takes some exposure to the different ways to do it.
In your book, you say you cook in a 75 percent vegetarian kitchen. How has cooking this vegetarian way affected how you view flavors and how you cook?
It’s made me way better. It’s made me more creative. It’s made me more tuned in to understanding a dish, what makes a dish successful and where the flavors are coming from. It makes me more creative in that, if we’re talking about bacon — if you described bacon, the ideal bacon — what you’re talking about is something that’s crunchy, something that has fat, something that’s salty, and something that’s smoky. Those are the components of bacon. Figuring out ways to mimic that. That’s just talking about bacon. But now my brain does that with pulled pork or a piece of fish. It has made me more thoughtful about the way that I eat and the way that I think about ingredients.
If you had to pick one dish in the cookbook, what is your absolute most favorite thing?
The one that I’m the most proud of… It kind of depends if we’re cooking for someone that eats meat or if we’re cooking for someone that’s a vegetarian. For somebody who is a meat-eater, the one that I love making for them and dazzles them is the apple butter barbecued pulled jackfruit. That one is totally shocking to everyone. It just baffles them in a way that excites them and gets them excited about vegetarian cooking. The one that I loved making the most for our family was the meatloaf. I loved Darrick eating meatloaf for the first time since he was a little kid. Meatloaf was a pretty big part of our family, and the meatloaf sandwiches were even more. Being able to create one that looks so similar to meatloaf and that is such a staple of Southern and Midwestern cooking and serve it with mashed potatoes and green beans and rolls and have that traditional meal but 100 percent plant-based made me proud.
Damaris Phillips’ new cookbook Southern Girl Meets Vegetarian Boy is out now via Abrams Books. You can buy it on Amazon.