redefining ‘vegetarian,’ ‘painting’ rice, and making tomato sauce with mollie katzen

Illustration coptright Mollie Katzen, from the endpaper of her book "The Heart of the Plate"

THE ADVENTURE IN Mollie Katzen’s “The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation,” begins even before the first recipe page. It starts in the delicious, intimate endpapers—which came from illustrated journals that the author has been keeping since she was a teenager, which were also the origin of her beloved, bestselling “Moosewood Cookbook.” The musings (that’s one in the photo above), in drawings and hand-lettered words, speak to how Mollie—a keen gardener, and the guest on my latest radio show—approaches food today. Learn how she suggests we re-define “vegetarian;” how she “paints [her] rice,” and makes her simplest, most delicious tomato sauce. And maybe win her newest book, too. 

How has the cooking changed since the 1970s and the origins of “Moosewood” back in Ithaca, New York, which Mollie left 30ish years ago for Berkeley, California? She recently said in an interview that the answer to that question is just two little words:

Olive oil.

“You could not buy a bottle of good olive oil in this country then,” Mollie says.  Her current cuisine is lighter, and “more modular,” she explains, with “layered plates” and more small dishes (including little charmers she calls “saladitas” that bump up the flavor of a meal and may incorporate a bit of fruit or nut or herb—lots of surprises, as in: good things come in small packages.)

prefer the podcast?

MOLLIE KATZEN, with more than 6 million books in print and for decades a leading advocate of smarter eating, was the guest on this week’s public-radio show. It’s a must-listen, and you can do so anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The October 7, 2013 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fourth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

highlights of my radio q&a with mollie katzen

Mollie Katzen (Lisa Keating photo).Q. What’s the view out your window, Mollie, looking into your garden?

A. I’m somewhat limited—which is a good thing, I think. I live in a fog belt, near the San Francisco Bay. The limitation is a good one, because it keeps me in greens, but I don’t have long enough sun days to get tomatoes ripened on the vine. I can get them all the way into existence, but not ripened.

Kale loves it here—all sorts of kale. It’s the rock star of vegetables now, but I have been growing it forever. And I grow several different strains of arugula, including one that’s genuinely perennial here—so I have arugula showing up in the cracks in my patio, and the cracks in my driveway.  I joke about it, but secretly I’m very envious of myself.

I have a beautiful purple collard—the official vegetable of Richmond, California, the next town over from me, with beautiful deeply purple stems.

Mustard greens insist on procreating here, too, so I have mustard—a red mustard. So the greens show up everywhere—there’s no shortage of greens here—and they sort of take care of themselves if I pull everything up and keep everything watered.

Spinach will come back, year after year, too.

And I have two artichoke plants that are “un-dead”—I cut them back and they spring back to life.

One of my other favorite plants is the radicchio ‘Treviso.’ When you let it bolt, the flowers are cornflower blue, and it will climb, so I plant it near a trellis. I’m crazy about this radicchio in every stage of the game. And I can grow beans, too—favas and others.

Q. What would you not be without in the garden—noting those limitations of your site, of course?

A. For me the fun things to grow are the fresh herbs—the flat-leaf parsley and cilantro. I like snipping just what I need for that one occasion with my scissors, letting them grow in the garden where they will be preserved for weeks. I can buy great herbs at the farmer’s market here, but then you use a small amount and the rest of that bunch doesn’t keep well.

I don’t have enough sun to grow enough basil to make pesto from my garden, but I grow small amounts to snip into salads.

I like to feather some flat-leaf parsley and cilantro with some scallions in the food processor, and get them really powdery, and then you put that into some cooked rice.  It turns the rice bright green—and you have added a serving of vegetables.

Q. There are many bright-colored rice dishes in the new book—blueberry rice, cranberry rice, green and orange rices…tell me more.

A. I’m into painting my rice! There are a lot more grains and rices available now. So for example: One of my favorite is black or forbidden rice, and I embed with beluga lentils and minced mushrooms.  It becomes “Black Rice Plus.” I love playing with the classic rice-and-beans combinations, and using fruits and vegetables and herbs to do that.

My orange rice doesn’t start out orange—it starts out as brown basmati, my baseline rice. I orange it up with orange bell peppers and roasted ‘Butternut’ squash, and the garnish it with chopped papaya and I serve it with a Cuban-style black beans. Great for October, for Halloween!

"The Heart of the Plate" cookbooks, by Mollie KatzenQ. Though you are a creator of some of the best-selling vegetarian cookbooks of all time, I have read that you are not a strict vegetarian. Can you speak about that a little?

A.  I feel that the definition of the word “vegetarian” is up for renewal. I am not a big fan of people labeling themselves food-wise. It limits the imagination and limits the conversation.

Eat what you want; don’t eat what you don’t want. The identity thing takes it a bit far for me.

I would prefer semantically that the food be what we are describing, and not the person. The person will change—we will have days when we have different energy levels and different needs, and eras in our lives, as we age, where our metabolism changes.

We don’t want to lock ourselves into an identity…I used the word “vegetarian” in the subtitle of the new book, but I am also questioning that word more than ever.

For me, I see it as an adjective, and not a noun.

I find that the definition of it has always been something about meat: as in, “Keep it off my plate, please.” I have not very often heard it as a positive statement about vegetables. And I have met many vegetarians who don’t eat a lot of vegetables. So that word is problematic.

Q. Your tomato sauce seems to have evolved, too—I see it now comes from roasted ‘Roma’ type tomatoes.

A. I love a very plain tomato sauce. Most commercial tomato sauces are positively saturated with salt—with some kind of sodium.  But when you make your own, in the case of these slow-roasted ‘Roma’ tomatoes, you don’t need any salt.

They’re the meatiest and least-juicy tomatoes. They can start out very unpromising—not very red, not very soft—but they really hold a lot back!

What they hold back comes forth when they are in a slow oven, 250 degrees F or so, and cut into quarters or sometimes sixths or eighths, depending on their size.

Laid out on a single layer on a slick of olive oil—it’s kind of like a cross between roasting them and drying them.  You keep them there for a good long time, and they become like candy.

They are so genuinely, deeply the essence of tomato. You can mash them or rough puree them, and it’s an incredible, rich tomato sauce.

  • Find Mollie Katzen anytime at her website, and check there to see if she’s doing a book event near you sometime soon.

how to enter to win ‘the heart of the plate’

I’VE BOUGHT TWO EXTRA COPIES of Mollie Katzen’s big new cookbook, “The Heart of the Plate,” to share with you. All you have to do to enter is answer the following question, typing your reply into the comments box way at the bottom of the page (past all the other comments).

What’s at the heart of your plate these days? What has changed most about the way you cook, or the ingredients you use, compared to Moosewood-era or even just five or 10 years ago?

(My answer: I added dairy and eggs back into a formerly all plant-based diet of many decades in duration. As Mollie says, our bodies change and we may need more or less of something!)

Feeling shy, or have no reply? Just say “count me in” or some such, and I will.

I’ll select two winners (U.S. and Canada only) at random, after entries close at midnight on Wednesday, October 16. Good luck to all!

(All photos courtesy of Mollie Katzen. Disclosure: Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission that I use to buy books for future giveaways.)

  1. Navarre Leroy says:

    Jalopenos, finely diced in most anything; grilled in halves and stuffed with blue cheese and toasted, chopped nuts. Fleur de sel. Creative anything. Slow roasted cherry tomatoes preserved in olive oil with some garlic. Thai basil pesto: a concoction that is in the freezer in very small Ball jars, awaiting veggies, noodles, and wrappers. Regular pesto, too. Desperate for a stand mixer because homemade bread in any form is to die for, including pizza, pasta, naan, pita, all of it. Ratatouille.

  2. Sue says:

    What a fabulous book! I would love to win this book! I still use my Moosewood cookbook and am one of those folks who waffle between strict “Vegetarian” and non. Wish I’d planted more Roma Tomatoes this year, as we will be eating alot from my garden and the goods I put up.
    Happy Almost Fall, can’t wait for stew and soup season!

  3. Corinne says:

    I live near Ithaca, New York and just love Moosewood restaurant. I bought Mollie’s books when they came out way back when. I still use the books and can not wait to buy this new one. Great interview.

  4. Rick Gebhard says:

    I eat a Paleo Diet now. But I still use a lot from the Stilllife cookbook, like the sesame asparagus, (but no tofu).

  5. Gillian Carter says:

    Hot banana peppers and/or just the juice find their way into alot of my dishes. That and fresh spinach underneath, on top, or quickly stirred in at the end.
    Living in Saskatchewan in Canada – an area with limited frost free days – I’m not going to be growing those peppers myself anytime soon, but I can keep myself in fresh greens alot of the year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.