Mollie Katzen Talks Creative Vegetarian Food and Growing as a Cook

Mollie Katzen portrait

Mollie Katzen reshaped vegetarian eating in America with The Moosewood Cookbook (1977), a quirky, hand-lettered collection of recipes inspired by the Moosewood Restaurant collective she cofounded in New York state. Ten books and millions of sales later, she charts her growth as a chef, artist, nutritionist and food scholar in her new book, The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation.

Katzen will introduce the book at a free talk at Bastyr University on September 27 organized by the King County Library System. She spoke to Bastyr recently about her journey, her mission to help people fall in love with cooking, and the changing face of vegetarian food in America.

Let’s start with the new book. The Heart of the Plate includes reflections on the evolution of your cooking, a manifesto on a particular approach to food, 250 recipes and a lot of art. How do all these elements come together?

Well, I had a lot of art in my earliest cookbooks. The Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest were an extension of my personal journals. There is an intimate and almost informal sense in the books, which is, I think, a reason they were popular. This was an era before color photographs in cookbooks. At some point in the last 10 years it became standard to have food photography in cookbooks. Now the visuals are a big part of what people are buying when they buy a cookbook. I love that fact, because to me preparing food from beginning to end is so much about aesthetics. We eat with our eyes, with all of our senses.

The Heart of the Plate coverI was a bit skeptical about making this book, because I'm not a food photographer. But I've made some slideshows for the talks I give. My editors really wanted some photos — she said, "I want all of you." That's why The Heart of the Plate has reflections, recipes, some photos and some watercolors. Creating it took a while, but it was really fun. Nobody wants the hand-lettering any more, which is good, because it's a lot of work.

Tell us about that intriguing subtitle — Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation.

Using "vegetarian" was a deliberate choice. For quite a while now, cookbooks have avoided the V-word. When I was starting out, vegetarian meant an exclusive club, a "we" versus "them" attitude. Surprisingly often, I would meet self-described vegetarians who didn’t particularly eat a lot of vegetables. Being vegetarian ended up being a statement about meat. As in: "Keep it off my plate. I'll eat anything but meat." So they would have a big plate of goopy alfredo pasta.

But I think that's all changing. Vegetarian food for a new generation is for people who want plant-based food a lot of time, and they may eat meat on another day of the week. I have no problem with that. I'm not out to convert people away from what they love. I don’t want them to feel excluded from some elite club.

So my picture of vegetarian food is a dinner plate with whole grains and maybe two or three different kinds of vegetables, with contrasting textures. Maybe some of them raw and grated into a slaw. Some of them cooked and mashed like cauliflower. Maybe one is grilled and you top a mashed vegetable with a crispy grilled vegetable.

It's not a whole lot of work because each component can be extremely simple. Greens drizzled with a nut oil and a little salt and pepper and chives can be exquisite. I don’t feel the need to get fussy. Sometimes I'll go into a recipe test with a list of foods to try, but if a dish is good three ingredients in, I'll stop. I’m not interested in looking clever; I want to get people to cook and to fall in love with it.

As a university, Bastyr tries to change health through education. But we know that there is no shortage of information about food out there from websites and books. What do people need to restore a healthful relationship to food?

I really like that question. And I'd say people need two things: confidence and faith. First, faith that eating healthier does not mean eating miserably. My mission is to get rid of the firewall in our culture between food that is good for you and food that we call decadent, crave-able, sensual, comforting. There's no need for that division — they don't have it in Italy — and there's no need for anything to be beige or boring. Ever. Ever, ever, ever. Healthy food can be every bit as sexy and vibrant and colorful and enticing.

Stew in bowlThe other part is confidence. Every self-described non-cook is about three skills and three pieces of equipment away from feeling very adept in the kitchen. It might be one knife that makes you want to start working in the kitchen because it feels right in your hand and it's super sharp and it grabs whatever you want it to.

There’s a moment of truth when somebody finds their perfect knife, which doesn't have to be expensive, and it just glides through an onion. When you start making incredibly clean slices of that peach or apple, and you're hearing the sound and not even exerting any pressure. There’s a moment where people get hooked and they’re going to want to cook.

You worked with Harvard University to help reform its dining services. What did you learn from that?

That’s where I learned how many people want vegetarian food without necessarily self-identifying as vegetarian. The dining services asked if I would come to work with them to give more options to vegetarians and vegans in the dining hall. Vegans are always a minority, but they’re a passionate minority and they were getting sick of the tofu version of everything.

So I helped redesign their vegetarian menus. We had an Italian panzanella bar with fresh bread, tomatoes, delicious assortments of olive oil and good, real imported balsamic vinegar. I also had a station in the dining hall and would have kale and garlic cooking in oil. Students would come in like cartoon characters walking in their sleep, drawn in to the smell of garlic. They might be having cereal for dinner, but they would come over to get some kale too. This was in the '90s, before kale was the hot thing. I learned a lot about how broad the appeal of plant foods can be. Even people having Froot Loops for dinner will add kale on the side if it's beautiful and delicious.

Tell us about your growth as a cook over the years. You've spoken about relying on cream and cheese in some of your earliest recipes as a way to prove that vegetarian food was tasty.

At the Moosewood Restaurant, if someone was going to come in and pay their hard-earned $2 for dinner, we wanted to make sure it was delicious. But the cuisine has matured over time.

I’m much more inclined now to season something with the actual heat itself. The shape, size and material of the pan, how close it is to the heat, the degree of heat — that all completely determines the flavor. When something goes into the pan, is it already really hot or is it already flecked with oil? I pay so much more attention to that now.

Also, the availability of good, fresh ingredients has expanded so much, which changed my cooking. There wasn’t very good olive oil available in this country when I first started out. Details like that have enabled my cooking to be simpler and yet still good. Right now, for example, there’s a flurry on my Facebook page over a summer fruit caprese salad. Instead of tomato, basil and olive oil, I've been layering nectarines with mozzarella and blackberries. There have been lots of comments and everyone’s been really excited, but it’s got four ingredients! Maybe only three. You have fresh mozzarella, which was unheard of 35 years ago. Nowadays you can get better nectarines than ever, super good blackberries and a good olive oil. You end up with these incredible juices at the bottom of the plate, which you can sop up with crusty bread, and you have an incredible meal. You hardly need to know how to do anything besides layering, because the ingredients are so good on their own.


Mollie Katzen speaks at Bastyr University at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 27.

Learn more about Bastyr's programs in nutrition and culinary arts.