Author of the iconic Moosewood Cookbook, Mollie Katzen
has been publishing almost continuously since the debut of that
culture-changing first book. But her most recent title, The Heart of the Plate, stands
as a testimony to the way eating culture itself has changed both
for the author herself and for ourselves as a country over more
than 35 years. And we're delighted to be able to
give away three free copies to EYB members - just post a reply to
our cookbook giveaway blog.
We talked recently with Mollie about the new book, her
relationship with vegetables, and her evolution as a cook and an
On her childhood food influences:
I grew up in a kosher home, with that sense of separation
between meat and milk. Each week we had one night
without meat: "the dairy meal". On dairy night, instead
of the meat, the vegetable, we'd have 4000 things - this groaning,
laden table filled with everything. Instead of one hunk of
meat in the center of the plate, my mom would make one package of
frozen vegetables, like those French cut green beans. Even then, I
wanted more vegetables. One package, for 6 people!
Eventually I got my mom to make TWO.
I had restaurant jobs starting at age 15. When I left home
to go to college, I stopped eating meat. I went to Cornell,
where because of the ag school, there were these amazing
vegetables. At college I got food jobs as work, scraping plates at
this little macrobiotic cafe. All the food was beige - tamari
sauce, onion...but I'm omnivorous and I was very bushy-tailed - I
loved it all.
On writing Moosewood
Moosewood Restaurant started with my brother and a couple of
friends - I was only there the first 5 years, 1973-1978. We
had no menu, lunch was a dollar, we all cooked what we knew how to
make. There were no recipes and no standardization - a
customer would come in and say "I had this great soup last
Thursday" and we had no way of re-creating that. It finally
occurred to me we should have some consistency.
There were three reasons I did the cookbook: 1) I wanted
to standardize the cooking; 2) I wanted to be able to give recipes
to customers who asked for them; and 3) I wanted to give ideas and
support to the mothers of my friends who had gone off to college
and come home vegetarian. At first it was just a photocopied
version of my handwritten notes.
At the time, a big part of it was meat replacement. That
hunk of casserole needed to be filling enough, held together with
cheese or eggs, to get people fed.
On why she writes cookbooks:
As someone who's been writing cookbooks full time for 40 years,
I've always been juggling the idea of the cookbook - what's it
for? Are we trying to mold people's taste? Or telling them
how to cook? Are we influencers? Or providers?
I wrote Get Cooking for beginners -
my son, who was in his first apartment, wanted some basics: How do
you make a dressing? How do you make a burger? How to roast a
chicken? I enjoyed it so much though I got some criticism for
including meat. But my goal is to teach people how to
On how her cooking evolved over the years:
I was so young when I started the Moosewood
Cookbook. In the field of food writing and food
education, I was not at the peak of my knowledge, but right at the
beginning. I didn't know it would be a learning curve. If
you're curious, and you pay attention, you automatically keep
learning. I'm very passionate about plant-based food. There's
not a plate of vegetables that I'm not curious about.
But my goals have shifted. In 1973, it was a novel concept
to have any kind of meal, especially dinner, that didn't have at
its center a piece of meat. I had an infatuation with
plant-based food. But it wasn't in our vocabulary. The
title of my book, The Heart of the Plate, is meant to
gently rearrange that idea of the center of the plate - but we'll
talk more about that later.
My cuisine has been steadily marching in the direction of
featuring vegetables - not just on the side. It could be a
pilaf where the vegetables and nuts and accoutrements outnumber the
rice, or a lasagna that's layers of roasted vegetables.
When I first started writing, I would load as many ingredients
into the recipe as I could. I wanted to have long lists of
ingredients, I wanted them to be fun and clever and complex.
I think they tasted fine and ended up being popular. It was
American hippie cuisine, with the bread and the sunflower seeds and
the broccoli. I would keep going and going. But today my
cuisine is more and more simple. You want the person cooking
it to really make it. I'm there to be a coach to the person
cooking at home.
On what to do when your ingredients are less than
One trick is the ultimate culinary cheap shot. Go for the
best olive oil you can afford, or roasted nut oil. With
really good garlic and really good oil, you can rescue a dull
You can blanch it first, squeeze it out and finish it in the
garlic and oil. Or roast. Roasting will help almost anything, cut
lengthwise into elegant long wedges... You can rescue
disappointing fruit - you know, "melon-shaped objects" - with some
kind of acid and some kind of sweetener, vinegar and
And it's not a crime to use frozen vegetables! You make
do, you fry an onion. A lot of it is in the cut. If you
cut it smaller, there's more surface area, and you can let the
onions carry the day.
I've never been on a mission to get people to stop eating meat.
I'm not a vegetarian myself, I eat a little bit of meat.
Very few people are saying "vegetarian" these days. I have
two problems with the term "vegetarian". 1) Over the years,
it became a statement about meat - you know, "keep it away from my
plate!" Or, "as long as it's not meat"- and 2) self-described
vegetarians weren't eating any vegetables. The no-vegetables
part of that was making me crazy.
I would rather see the label applied to the food, not the
person. It's a "vegetarian" plate of food, but guess what!
everyone's allowed to eat it.
I'm finding that so many more people are really interested in
vegetarian foods now. I worked with Harvard Dining Services to
create modular vegetarian stations, like a panzanella station -
tomatoes, olives, onions, or a naan and curry station, or an Asian
noodle bowl station. And there's a food literacy lesson embedded
with each one.
But really I want to give credit to the vegetables. In general,
produce itself has gotten so much better. When I first started, I
was cooking for a high-end restaurant. It was hard to find a bottle
of real olive oil - and my mother had never seen an artichoke or an
People ask why Moosewood has a lot of brown rice, lentils,
noodles - we couldn't have a produce-based restaurant in New York
in winter. It's what we had. Halfway through, I moved
back to San Francisco, which was so different. I decided I
never wanted to write a cookbook that's just for people on one
coast or the other.
But things have really changed. The produce is just
On what's new about The Heart of the
This is my first really new collection of vegetarian recipes
since the late 90's, when Vegetable Heaven came
out. Since then, I've written 2 more children's books, a
weight loss book, a breakfast book - lighter-weight books.
I never wanted to do photographs, but I had created this
slideshow presentation to give a few times a year to these
culinary/medical conferences. My editor, Rux Martin, said,
"Do your photos, do your voice, put it all in there". It's funny, I
identify as an illustrator more than a cook. I was doodling - my
work was in journals, storyboards, pieces of paper I was making
into collages - and Rux said, "I want those to be your
I haven't had that much time to evolve as an artist. You know, a
cookbook at the end of the day is a technical manual - it's
controlled experiments, over and over. Inspiration?
It's not like being struck by lightning...you go in the kitchen and
do the math!
On the book's title:
I'm kind of anti-entree. I like to combine different
groupings, several things in the center of the plate. Very
plain food can be the bed, plus meaningful touches - combinations
of different colors and meaningful toppings add nutrition and
interest to the plate. It's a much more modular approach that
I hope will enable people to share the same basic meal
If you could give your younger self, first starting out
in the food world, some advice now, what would it be?
Have faith in your instincts, don't forget to enjoy everything
you do. Don't be fraught, don't worry, and when in doubt go
with delicious! Also: just skip the low-fat decade - fat is