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Award-winning Author Releases New Vegetarian Cookbook

Mollie Katzen introduces updated and delicious recipes.

By Sue Tomchin
Fall 2013

Recipes

Spinach-Mushroom Mac and Cheese
Sweet Potato–Black Bean Stew with Sweet Peppers and Peanut Sauce

Moosewood. Say that word and virtually anyone who cooked during the 1970s and beyond knows that you are referring to the cookbook with the light gold cover, hand-lettered recipes and charming illustrations. That iconic cookbook brought vegetarian cooking into the mainstream and changed the way a generation cooked, in addition to providing go-to dishes for millions of family dinners and potlucks. Its author, Mollie Katzen, an award-winning illustrator and designer, has been inducted into the James Beard Hall of Fame and named by Health magazine as “one of the five women who changed the way we eat.”

This September, with the release of her latest book, The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $39.95), Katzen hopes to inspire new ways of cooking and eating for those who are vegetarian all—or part of—the time. The book features 250 flavorful, colorful and unfussy recipes that reflect how Katzen cooks today and is generously illustrated with her own color photos and drawings. She provides optional enhancements to each recipe so cooks can take dishes in different directions depending on their tastes and creative inclinations. Almost half of the recipes are vegan.

“One of the things I’m trying to accomplish with the new book is to make [cooking vegetarian] more widely doable and accessible, something people are comfortable with in their daily lives whether they eat meat or don’t eat meat,” said Katzen in a phone interview with Jewish Woman. “I just want people to enjoy plant food as much as they can, whether it’s what they eat for dinner several nights a week or all the time. I want them to develop fluency with vegetables and grains and legumes and fruit and good oils.”

Katzen’s cooking style has evolved and become lighter and simpler over the years since she worked at the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., and sold the first xeroxed and hand-assembled copies of her book out of the back of her station wagon. At the time, she often felt compelled to introduce cheese and eggs into her recipes, a tendency that she feels was a holdover from her kosher upbringing. “Every Thursday night growing up was dairy night when we didn’t have meat. And my mother, being a cook of that era, was worried that if we didn’t have meat we would all just die. The alternative to meat was not legumes and whole grains, vegetables, salads and yogurt, but noodles, butter, cottage cheese and sour cream. Now, I’ll make a beautiful stew with potatoes and beans and peppers and I’ll serve it with a salsa.”

While vegetarian cooking of a generation ago often included a lot of brown stews or casseroles atop a bed of plain brown rice, Katzen now delights in color and contrasts. For example, she is likely to stuff orange acorn squash with purple-hued rice decked out in a blueberry sauce and serve it alongside yellow wax beans and green salad. She places deep magenta roasted beets atop a bed of glowing mango puree, and sets off her recipe for quinoa-couscous with diced carrots and pickled red onions.

Katzen dismisses the almost puritanical notion that to be good for you, food has to be dull and almost punitive, without adequate seasonings or sensual pleasure. Healthy food can be delicious and a source of joy and comfort, not something we thoughtlessly slap down on the table. The Heart of the Plate offers ample evidence of her contention. The recipes are incredibly varied and beautifully seasoned. “Stir-Fried Noodles with Asparagus, Mushrooms, Tofu and Cashews” features the interplay of lemon, ginger, soy, garlic and sesame oil. “Hot and Sour Soup with Tofu and Pineapple” is refreshingly sweet and sour and can be made in less than an hour. “Sweet Potato-Black Bean Stew” is enlivened with sweet peppers, lime juice and peanut sauce and can be served with Banana-Cheese Empanadas.

She reinvents recipes for such comfort food classics as lasagna and macaroni and cheese. “I call it the great food flip,” she says. “It’s a reversal of proportions. I cram vegetables into everything.” By combining protein with good fats and fiber, she creates a dish that hits the bloodstream slowly, not in a rush, as the old-fashioned mac and cheese tended to. “My mac and cheese is largely a spinach and mushroom and onion sauté into which I add macaroni together with a very light sauce with cheese. It’s as much a vegetable dish as it is mac dish,” she says. She layers her lasagna with vegetables and has created different versions for each season.

“I think people really love the comfort foods of their childhood, but we are also told constantly that they are not good for us. So many of us have this conflict since these are the foods we yearn for emotionally, like our ‘blankie.’ I find a way to let people have them but in a different context.”

When writing a new cookbook, Katzen doesn’t turn to other recipe books for ideas (I’m not a cookbook person,” she says), but finds inspiration by strolling the aisles of Berkley’s produce markets. The process of creating a cookbook is “very much a job,” she explains. “I think of my ideas for what I want to do first on paper. Because I’m so experienced and don’t want to repeat any of the recipes, I map it out. I’ll do three or four recipes at a time, grouping them together to see how they fit like pieces of a puzzle. I story board it out before I start. Because I’m a graphic artist love to draw, the story board is usually a diagram. My friends love my diagrams so much that I have actually included some in the book.”

In creating recipes, Katzen explains, you need to be both “clinical and creative.” The creativity is what makes the recipes memorable and delicious. But when you have 300 recipes to test in a limited amount of time, you have to know where you intend to go. “By the time I get to the kitchen, pretty much I need to know what I’m about to do because I have to get the recipe tested and can’t afford to wait until the spirit moves me as to what I’m going to do with this eggplant,” she says.

Writing down every detail is essential in order to convey it clearly to her audience. “I’m writing a cookbook for what I hope will be a large number of complete strangers whose cooking skills, habits, kitchens and equipment I have no familiarity with. It’s very clinical and technical. That’s what a cookbook is: a technical manual written in a very friendly voice. My kitchen becomes a lab with a controlled experiment going on. It’s not nearly as romantic or impressive as people think.”

Though she’s been at this a long time—40 years by her own admission—Katzen says that she loves cooking more than ever and cooks dinner almost every night. “I love it simple; for me it could be just slicing a perfect tomato, drizzling olive oil on it and having it on a slice of toast. I love that more than anything I could get in a restaurant. Isn’t that funny? You’d think I’d be all burned out, but I’m not. “I want this book to show people why I love doing this and I want you all to do it too.”

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