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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. Eileen J says:

    Kale is now a frequent component of our tablescape. Any kind of bitter or sweet green – even wild dandelion or lambs quarter – is irresistible when slowly sauteed to tenderness in plenty of extra-virgin olive oil with minced garlic and dried red pepper flakes, then dusted with coarse salt and freshly-ground pepper. Remove the greens from the skillet, then saute slices of cornstarch-dusted tofu in the remaining oil and there’s a meal.

  2. Marion says:

    My shelves have more cookbooks than anything else. I love to read them, and am always looking for new inspiration. Over the past decade, my recipes have evolved to be less fussy, using less but better ingredients. I’m mostly vegetarian, and my plate focuses on vegetables, and sometimes with an accent of fruit. I’m using more seasonal local produce, and try to building my menu around the freshest foods I can find. I try to buy organic when possible, but never purchase conventional foods that might be GMO. I’ve definitely increased my use of greens, especially kale. I now buy my dried herbs and spices in bulk, and started to make my own tea blends this way. I want my meals to be flavorful and healthy.

  3. Marion says:

    I’d like to add, I make most my food from scratch. Back in 2009, I explored raw foods for over a year, and even though I no longer practicing a “high-raw” diet, I’ve learned a lot, and try to incorporate uncooked food into our meals. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten into fermenting, making my own sauerkraut and Kim-Chi. I stay away from dairy, and make my own nut cheeses and milks. Plus, when in season, I forage dandelion greens and edible flowers for salads.

  4. K Muccillo says:

    I am buying/growing more organic everything these days since I first bought Moosewood Cookbook many years ago. It is dog-earred and the binding is falling apart but I would never give it up. Love that book.

  5. Connie says:

    I started gardening and adding my own fruits and vegetables to our meals which made them more special, at first just to me and then to my husband as well. I’d catch him in the garden after work looking for ripe produce to carry inside for dinner and recognized that he appreciated our local bounty, especially since his sweat equity was frequently involved in digging beds. Then with children, we had to find ways to get more veggies into their diets, first by trickery, then by educating them and now by sharing in the planting, harvesting, preparation and eating! Some veggies we decided to skip in the garden and buy locally, stretching those conversations to new levels. I ate in the Moosewood Restaurant in NY many years ago and after such delicious and memorable dining, decided to eat more vegetables and less meat. I haven’t done as well as I’d like to given all the time constraints we have, but it’s still on my mind most weeks as I think about upcoming meals. In fact, I plan to make one of my favorite Mollie Katzen recipes this week with the cooler weather coming: Vegetarian Chili. Who would have ever thought bulgar wheat could replace ground beef in chili?! That was a big learning many years ago and here I am at least 15 years later still making it- and the whole family loves it!

  6. Kelly Daly says:

    I find that I measure less, or not at all. That may be due to having more experience…but I also think there is a sway toward adventurous cooking. Sadly some of my best meals are often difficult to recreate. :)

  7. bookboxer says:

    The biggest change of all is that I COOK! My biggest claim to fame in the past was that no one starved on my watch …. we all ate well enough to be fairly healthy and satisfied, but now we’re PLEASED to eat what I cook. Usually.

  8. elaine eppler says:

    The heart of my plate has been/will always be vegetables. A relatively new love: roasted root vegetables. Also, I use more olive oil in my cooking.

  9. Victoria Clemmons says:

    I’ve started growing a garden every year, I eat more kale (a vegetable I didn’t eat growing up), chard, and asparagus (another vegetable that was missing from my childhood); I bake more whole-wheat bread, I make my own granola (most commercially-available granola has tree nuts such as almonds and walnuts as ingredients; I am allergic to tree nuts), and I use more herbs and spices. I even have two pet chickens the eggs of which I eat and use for cooking. If I could keep a pet goat or a pet cow in my city garden, I would have fresh milk for drinking and for cheese; unfortunately, my city’s rules forbid that.

  10. margaret says:

    And the winners are:

    Kelly, and Indira.

    Thanks to all for commenting (and sorry to be tardy announcing the prizes). Both winners will be emailed with the news.

  11. Lyn says:

    After learning that my husband is gluten intolerant I have taken the opportunity to expand the ways that fruit and vegetables can be prepared. We grow all our vegetables and trade with neighbors for free range chicken eggs, figs and such. Now lunch is more likely to be soup and salad rather than a sandwich. We definitely enjoy a wide variety of vegetables and are constantly finding new ways to incorporate them into foods. Would love to see how Molly’s recipes are changing – we have enjoyed all her cookbooks since Moosewood was published years ago.

  12. doreen says:

    the illustrations shown are beautiful. as a semi-sort of vegetarian, i would be interested in reading molly’s recipes. in addition to seeing what events molly will be at, check out where margaret might be speaking. my husband and i had the pleasure of hearing margaret at a recent library talk in pine plains.

  13. Tricia Mann says:

    I cook with more Asian ingredients. I was introduced to Thai, Vietnamese etc. cooking and that has become my comfort food.

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