Meatless Monday Interview: Mollie Katzen

February 13th, 2014

745f080d4b3bada130ad7239aeab36cbMollie Katzen continues to inspire. Her new book, The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation, is a highly personal, beautifully illustrated continuation of a journey she has been sharing with her readers since the Moosewood Cookbook was released 35 years ago. It’s less a cookbook than a conversation; each chapter features a warm introduction that feels as if you are sitting with Katzen personally. Instead of merely listing her 250 new recipes, the book is organized into 35 simple yet imaginative ‘menus,’ allowing the reader to better understand how to combine contrasting flavors, colors and textures. Finally, The Heart of the Plate is a visual treat; Katzen does all her own photography and drawings for the 464-page book. You’d be tempted to leave the book on your coffee table, but this is a book that belongs in the kitchen, and if a few drops of olive oil should stain a page or two, so be it.


Meatless Monday: The Heart of the Plate is just gorgeous. The artwork, the language, the overall tone of the book is so relaxed. I’d love to talk a bit about process. How do you get that voice into your writing?

Mollie Katzen: My voice is just how I talk. I kind of imagine I’m just chatting with the reader, and what I’m so grateful for is that my publishers pretty much know that about me and they leave that alone, other than to tone it down if I’m a little too enthusiastic. But what I want to say about the food takes me a very long time to circle around and refine to its essence. It’s kind of a nonlinear swirl, a thought process. I storyboard the process. I sketch and take notes in my journal. And in fact the end papers of the book–where you see the different style of art, the collages, the notes to myself and so on–those are the actual notes from the very beginning of this project when I was trying to conceptualize it. My editor saw my notebook and said, ‘I want to include those in the beginning and end of the book so people can feel like they’re with you while you’re thinking.’


mollie_for_headlineMM: It’s all very inviting. It feels like I’m in your kitchen.

MK: I’m constantly trying to find the level of description and information, because I’m so intent about people really using my books. I really want to bring in people who aren’t necessarily familiar with cooking vegetarian food. And when I use the word ‘vegetarian,’ I’m describing the food, I’m not describing the person. A lot of people describe themselves as vegetarian but I want this to be about the food so that people who don’t describe themselves that way won’t feel left out. What I’m finding more and more is that people who don’t describe themselves as vegetarian at all are very interested in plant-based food.


MM: So what food should we have at the heart of our plate?

MK: The word ‘heart’ has a couple of meanings. My editor told me to write from my heart, so it’s personal. But also, the heart of the plate can be construed as the center of the plate. And for decades the idea of dinner in our country has been that there’s a hunk of meat at the center of the plate. It is what you say you had for dinner last night. Nobody says, ‘Oh, I had these wonderful green beans.’ They say, ‘I had the salmon’ or ‘I had the chicken.’ So the idea that the center of the plate has to have a main dish and everything around it is a side dish, I want to really deconstruct that. And this book is a deconstruction of that. It’s just having the plate be a collaboration of contrasting and complementary dishes that’s almost like a tapas approach, putting it on a small plate, making it beautiful. So the heart of the plate is an inclusive, democratic, collaboration among the ingredients instead of one hunk of something and everything else relegated to the side.


MM: The way the book is structured, it feels less like a book of recipes than a collection of suggestions. It’s incredibly flexible.

MK: It is. I put the menus right up front instead of in an appendix at the back. But I’m writing a vegetarian cookbook and a lot of people are confused about whether they’ve had enough. What’s the satiety point? They don’t really know what to pair or what’s allowed. The menus are absolutely important, so I decided to put them at the front of the book and then to tell people, “These are templates.” Once people try these menus they can kind of play with the groupings and that becomes a very creative thing for the cook, not just what you make but how you put them together.


MM: One line in particular struck me. You write about having eggs for dinner, because “there are some nights when this is all you have time for, and this is all you need.” I thought that was a powerful statement because I don’t know if people think in terms of eating only what they need.

MK: This is talked about so much that it’s unfortunately becoming a little bit of a cliché, but it’s the whole idea of “mindful eating.” Just like with “vegetarian,” we might need to find another word for it so people stop glazing over when you talk about mindful eating. But it’s so important. When you think about unhealthy eating, of gorging, of snack food or fast food, you never think about someone doing that slowly and tasting every bite. It’s always about inhaling it, getting it down really fast. And you can talk all you want about mindful eating, but if you actually inspire, if the plate of food itself calls out to the eater to slow down, in a wonderful way that’s really important. The shape of the plate, the size of the plate, the beauty of the plate—without being precious, just a nice arrangement with five different things on the plate—no one is going to rip through that plate and just snort it down. It almost by its very nature invites a slowing down. And I think slowing down is its own nutrient.


MM: Plant-based diets are gaining traction. But that distinction between food that is “good for you” and “enjoyable” is still with us. In a bookstore last week, I didn’t find your book on the shelf with the general interest cookbooks. It was in the Vegetarian section.

MK: I think that’s okay for now. People know that they’re supposed to go into the Vegetarian section. I would of course prefer to have it be with the general cookbooks, but I still think people will go there looking for it. One of my overarching goals is to get people in our culture to back off from drawing this line in the sand with “good for you” food on the one side and “delicious and enjoyable” food on the other. Thinking you have to give up one for the other, that either you’re going to have healthy food but it’s going to be depressing, or on the other side you’re having a ball, it’s delicious, it’s sensual, gorgeous, sexy, but you’ll pay later because it’ll make you sick in some way or make you fat in some way. There’s no need for that division. So one of my goals in my whole life’s work is to get rid of that distinction, that line in the sand. And I think with this kind of beautiful plant food you can do it.


MM:  A lot of people agree with you. I’ve never seen a cookbook that has blurbs from Jacques Pépin and Andrew Weil. What does that say about your approach to food?

MK: Isn’t that great? That’s some range. I was so thrilled with those quotes. It makes my case that it’s not about me, it’s about the food. It makes the case for the food.


MM: In the 35 years since Moosewood Cookbook, there has been such a change in the way Americans experience and think about food. From the Food Network to the emergence of farmers’ markets to movements like Meatless Monday, could you have imagined how far we have come or do you think we have a lot more to go?

MK: Both. My initial Moosewood Cookbook was a self-published edition that was similar, but smaller, and I thought that the appeal of that book was going to be extremely narrow. I thought my friends, my customers and my family would be the only ones to buy it. And it didn’t take off overnight, it was very gradual. I was fortunate that it was a different marketplace and that I had an editor who would stand by it and wait for it to sell. It took a few years. But when it did I was surprised and gratified, and I’m still very gratified. So that part, yes, I was surprised by that. But I also think we do have much further to go. Not so much in refining the cuisine but in spreading the word about the existing cuisines, about what people can in fact do with vegetables. Many people stand to be surprised at how good this food is. Brussels sprouts used to be a laugh line and now people worship at the altar of Brussels sprouts. Kale used to be unheard of and now it’s ridiculous. I credit CSA boxes with bringing kale to the forefront. I credit CSA boxes with a lot of stuff, I think it’s one of the best things to happen to this country and I wish it were more widespread. But that said I think there are still many people who have not yet discovered that the food is so good, it’s not just something you eat because you should but you’re actually going to crave it. And the “cravability” is getting more and more discovered, much to my great joy and happiness and gratification.


MM: So after all these years, what misconceptions remain surrounding plant-based diets? Does it still come back to protein?  

MK: I think we’re getting more relaxed about that because more and more people understand that they can get protein from legumes and whole grains and nuts. But I also like to talk about what I call “the great food flip,” where you take the traditional, expected ratios—say, noodles and a few vegetables in a lasagna—and you flip the lasagna so that it’s layers of roasted vegetables with a few noodles rather than the other way around. This is what I’ve done in this book. So with protein, the flip is that we need some but we need less than we think. So protein, yes, but in touches, like a garnish. Or cheese and nuts, which have been redeemed along with oil. Thankfully we’ve seen the end of the low-fat era. We’re now very liberal with olive oil, avocado and nuts because those are incredibly healthy foods. Fat isn’t bad. Only some fats are. Fat itself is essential. And now we know this and food starts tasting better and better when you can add some olive oil or some roasted nut oil as a finishing. I never dreamed of finishing a dish with a drizzle of olive oil in 1972. We didn’t even have olive oil!


MM: As the author of three cookbooks for kids, there are many food issues related to children. How can we get more children interested in eating healthier food and what advice would you have for parents to keep them interested?

MK: Let them in the kitchen, let them experience some kind of garden, take them with you to the farmers’ market. So I think including them, and not assuming that they don’t want something tasty. Give them the fully-seasoned pesto on the spaghetti instead of the plain spaghetti, let them see you enjoying your food. Children will mimic that. Let them witness and live in a culture of love of food in your household. It’s not that complicated. It can be as simple as dressing a grated carrot with some olive oil or maybe adding a few raisins to their carrot salad. It’s letting them have some autonomy over their eating, where you put food down on a little kid’s table for a snack and they can pick and choose.


MM: I’m not sure if you know, but this October Meatless Monday is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

MK: Happy Anniversary! It’s great seeing people of all tastes and inclinations have a day where they eat only plant-based food once a week. Hopefully, eventually, it’ll be more than Monday.


MM: And since this article will post on our website on a Monday, can you suggest a recipe for us to cook today, perhaps for our Meatless Monday dinner?

I would recommend the Brussels Sprouts Gratin because it’s a good crossover dish for people who are kind of expecting an entrée. I used to make casseroles and now I make gratins. A casserole would have a lot more ingredients and it would be thicker. I love the fact that a gratin is more shallow, you get more exposure to the heat for each little Brussels sprout. It also has potatoes and spinach in it. It’s an example of how I go very light but I still include a little bit of cream. Instead of dumping in the rich ingredients, I just have a touch of cream at the very end to lace everything and a crunchy topping, which is always a good idea. So this is a simplification of what would have been a very fussy casserole 35 years ago.