One of the best-selling cookbook authors of all time, Mollie Katzen is largely credited with moving plant-based cuisine from the fringe to the center of the American dinner plate. Her groundbreaking Moosewood Cookbook taught a generation that vegetarian food could be delicious, gourmet and satisfying. In her latest cookbook, The Heart of the Plate, Katzen shares some new twists on cooking plant-based food.
Here, in this special two-part interview, Natural Vitality Living’s editor, Anna Soref, talks with the celebrated chef about the latest diet trends, what to put in your grocery cart—and yes, there are some recipes to share.
Natural Vitality Living: What do you think of the diets out there today, such as raw, paleo, vegan and so on? Do they bring positive awareness to nutrition?
Mollie Katzen: Personally, I am kind of anti-strictness. One of the things that I would really love to see is people just relaxing more around food. If you get overly strict and your whole identity becomes your food choices, then I feel that you can set yourself up for a stressful relationship with food. I also think that it can be off-putting to others when food preferences become your identity—it’s not always fun to be around that. I am all about enjoyment and relaxation, and I don’t want to add to the divisions in the world that are already out of control by encouraging people to divide further, based on their food choices.
NVL: How do you feel about the term vegetarian?
MK: I’ve always struggled with the right way to frame vegetarians. I have known meat eaters who love a plate with lots of vegetables on it; I’ve known vegetarians who don’t eat vegetables. So instead of meaning a celebration of vegetables, the term can become about meat, as in, ‘Keep the meat away from me and off my plate.’ The term vegetarian can be a negative statement about meat rather than a positive one about vegetables.
My current solution is to encourage people to use the word vegetarian as a description of the food rather than of the person; so, ‘I am eating vegetarian food,’ rather than ‘I am vegetarian.’ Because when you keep yourself kind of freed up (and you may never want to eat meat again, and that’s fine), it is just so much more inclusive. Then people who love meat but want to eat less of it can sit down at the same table with somebody who will never eat meat again for as long as they live. And they can have a meal that is shared and it is not one of these instances where people are divided and are arguing or judging each other.
NVL: Do you have any advice for today’s savvy shopper who battles those nagging thoughts while shopping: “That has too much packaging”; “That isn’t local”; “I don’t see a GMO-free verified label” . . . ?
MK: Yes, I call it the conflicting halos. It’s very difficult to prioritize what to buy these days. Take local, for example; what even is local? Is it 100 miles, 200 miles, from the same state? When shopping, I love the 80/20 rule: you strive for 80 percent of what goes in your cart to be politically correct; the other 20 percent can be treat items or things you can’t find organic. I also suggest referring to the Dirty Dozen. If not all your produce can be organic, try and buy those items organic that are on the list.
NVL: What about farmers’ markets? Is this the ideal place for people to shop?
MK: This is a difficult topic because it’s easy for me to say that farmers’ markets are the ideal way to shop, but for a lot of people it’s not realistic. For parents with kids in school or who have to work on the weekends, it’s not the most convenient way to shop. You can’t just put all of your items into one cart and check out. You need cash; you need to stop and pay repeatedly; the hours they’re open are limited.
Farmers’ markets can be expensive too. A money-saving tip I always suggest is getting to know your produce providers—whether they are farmers at the farmers’ market or at your local grocery store. Let them know what you like and ask them about seconds; that can be a great way to save money. Bruised apples, for instance; if I want to make applesauce, I don’t care what the apples look like. If you don’t want to can or don’t have the time, you can freeze so much stuff. Or blanch things like kale, for example. Simply immerse it in boiling water for 10 seconds, squeeze all of the water out, and then it will take up a lot less room in the refrigerator, last longer and cook very quickly.
So I say support farmers’ markets whenever you can, but it’s OK if you just can’t always get there.
NVL: Are GMOs something you’re concerned about?
MK: I believe they should be labeled. I am not an expert on this though. I grow my own vegetables so that I don’t have to deal with it; I’m spoiled. I think people need more information about whether or not there are GMOs in the food and then also what it means to have GMOs in the food system. I don’t want to be a guinea pig without my even knowing it, because it is a big experiment at this stage of the game. The jury is out on GMOs and we are the unwitting test subjects; we are being experimented on, and are unpaid and uninformed. I choose not to do that and I’d like to have that choice, but in order to have a choice I would love to have the label there.
NVL: Your new book, The Heart of the Plate (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), is just coming out now. Tell us about it.
MK: Well, it’s a big book, close to 500 pages, and it’s written in a very personal way. There are 11 chapters but no big section on entrées. Instead I emphasize what I refer to as modular dishes. I love a plate that is kind of compartmentalized. I am really into vegetable mashes—mashed carrots, an eggplant mash, a parsnip mash, a cauliflower mash, a broccoli mash—and then you can top these with nuts or what I refer to in the book as Meaningful Touches. Because of this approach, I felt it was very important to show readers how to group these dishes together; so I have 35 menus, and they are not in the back of the book—they are right up in the front. Of those 35 menus, I think they are about half vegan. I designate the vegan recipes throughout the book but I don’t go any further. I don’t tell people they should or they shouldn’t; I just make it available and let people make their own choices.
Click here for two recipes from The Heart of the Plate. Find out more about Katzen’s new book, what she thinks of television cooking shows and more in part two of this conversation in next week’s Natural Vitality Living newsletter.
You can order a copy of Mollie Katzen’s book through the Organic Connections bookstore.