Mollie Katzen

Made in Heaven

Mollie Katzen’s very veggie cookbook

By Emily Bazelon

MOLLIE KATZEN has not always written cookbooks that match the way she eats. “You know, in the old vegetarian cookbooks, mine included, there was a real center-of-the-plate ethos,” the 46-year-old food writer muses as she sips fruit juice. “Dinner had to be a hunk of something red or white or brown. It had to be a heavy entrée that you take out of the oven surrounded by a variety of green dishes– or maybe, if you were lucky, a little yellow or orange. That’s what I had to let go of.”

Twenty years after publishing the Moosewood Cookbook, Katzen is letting the haphazard nature of her own cooking take over. Her lavishly illustrated new book, Vegetable Heaven (Hyperion; $27.50), augmented by its companion public television show, has no chapter for entrées and none for side dishes. Katzen decided to scuttle the hunk-of-something-in-the-center-of- the-plate tradition in favor of side-by-side dishes that readers can mix and match.

“I’d come up with a good broccoli stir-fry and a lentil purée and then get worried about what the main dish was,” she says. “But then I realized, hey, that’s what I like to eat for dinner.”

The result is 26 season-and geography-based menus, each with a whimsical title that will play well on TV. There’s the “Late Winter Bounty” menu with root vegetable soup, toasts, red onion and shallot marmalade, giant mushroom popovers, asparagus in warm tarragon-pecan vinaigrette, and yogurt berry swirl. The “Crazy Quilt” lineup features black-eyed pea and squash soup with shiitake mushrooms, miniature potato dumplings with sage and chives, kale crunch, cherry tomato chewies, green salad, and apple pizza.

Katzen’s readers and viewers will learn how to make plenty of food, which they can serve in a ring of multicolored, equally proportioned dollops. Even as the dishes multiply, the object is to keep them simple.

Katzen gets mail from all over the world, and her new generation of readers differs from its forebears. “In the 1970s no one cared about the time it took to cook some of these things,” Katzen says. “The first Moosewood even has a recipe for homemade egg rolls.” Now the challenge is to keep the ingredient list simple and preparation time per dish under half an hour. “It’s easy to come up with a fantastic recipe based on rosemary-infused olive oil and the perfect tomato,” Katzen sniffs. “But that’s not the point, because my readers often can’t shop in the fancy stores they might like to, and the bottom line is that they need dinner!”

Katzen’s readers also want their food light. Katzen revised the Moosewood five years ago to satisfy the fat-and oil-conscious (though many of us had already figured out that six servings of Swiss cheese and onion soup don’t really require five tablespoons of butter). Her new book follows the light-on-dairy trend that has come to be synonymous with vegetarian cooking. It was not always so.

When the Moosewood appeared in 1977, Katzen was cooking at the Ithaca, N.Y., cooperative restaurant that bears the same name. Most of the restaurant’s customers were young, and plenty were still chasing the fading hippie trail. But Katzen says she didn’t publish with that clientele in mind. Instead, she went for their mothers. “At the time, a lot of mothers were suspicious about vegetarian food because they thought it lacked protein and also richness,” says Katzen, who now lives in Kensington in Marin County. “I wanted to calm them down by proving that vegetarian cooking could be opulent and rich and very, very good.”

The Moosewood wasn’t the first major meatless cookbook, but it didn’t preach–the word vegetarian doesn’t even appear in the first edition–and it quickly became a generation-spanning classic. In the early 1990s, I left my college dorm to live in a five-bedroom house with four other women, backpackers and recyclers who vowed to turn down the heat, dig compost piles, and quit eating meat. We had big plans to live and eat cheaply, healthily, and well, but we’d all grown up eating roast chicken and brisket. My mother, for one, is a terrific cook, but she didn’t have much to say when it came to lentils. And it was lentils we were determined to serve on the backyard-salvaged picnic table that we’d lugged into our new dining room.

KATZEN GREW UP eating flank steaks, Minute Rice, and frozen peas. When she was 12, she encountered fresh green beans at a friend’s country home. “I was absolutely transfixed,” she says, her smile widening. “I developed a very serious interest in vegetables during middle school.”

Katzen says she learned to cook at a now-defunct San Francisco restaurant called Shandygaff. It was 1970, and aside from die-hard macrobiotics, not many people knew how to make good-tasting vegetarian food. Katzen was getting a degree in painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, and when she heard a Shandygaff radio ad trumpeting innovative cuisine, she took a bus straight from her studio and asked them to hire her.

From Shandygaff, Katzen went to Ithaca, where several cooks had taken over part of a former elementary school, founded the Moosewood restaurant collective, and were cooking free-form without a set menu. Katzen moved to the Bay Area in the early ’80s, after leaving the Moosewood collective. She hasn’t cooked professionally since. While her recipes include a wide range of ethnic influences, she credits her mother’s Jewish cooking as a kind of indirect inspiration. When I mention a mushroom casserole that’s a particular favorite, Katzen says the dish she grew up eating was made from Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and cornstarch.

“I use my mother’s cooking,” Katzen says. “I just try to figure out how to make it taste good with my kind of ingredients.” As to my generation’s quest for cheap, healthy, vegetable-rich food, Katzen predicts the newfound flexibility of Vegetable Heaven will be appealing. “I care very much about trying to influence people, especially young women, to have a constructive, powerful, self-nurturing, sensual relationship with food,” she says. “My books try to convey that cooking good food can be a source of incredible stability.

“That’s not a trivial thing to me.”

From the April 16-22, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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