Mollie Katzen: Making vegetables the rock stars

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Mollie Katzen: “The semantic mission for me is to have ‘vegetarian’ become an adjective that describes food rather than a noun labeling a person.” Photo: Lisa Keating

Mollie Katzen changed the way a generation cooked with the publication of Moosewood Cookbook in the 1970s. Hailed by the New York Times as “one of the best-selling cookbook authors of all time,” Katzen is widely credited with having brought vegetarian cuisine into the mainstream. An award-winning illustrator and designer, she has been inducted into the James Beard Hall of Fame and named by Health magazine as “one of five women who changed the way we eat.”

Berkeleyside caught up with Katzen, who lives in Kensington, to talk, among other things, about her Twitter habit and her new cookbook, The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation, which exemplifies the way Katzen cooks today. (Don’t miss Katzen’s recipe for Vegetarian Tan Tan Noodles at the end of the interview.)

Katzen will be in conversation with author Elizabeth Fishel on Saturday Oct. 26 at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas. Visit BerkeleyIdeas.com for details and to buy your ticket.

[Win a copy of Katzen’s new book, The Heart of the Plate! Simply “Like” Uncharted Ideas on Facebook to be entered to win. Drawing happens Friday, Oct. 18.]

You’re a big tweeter. Why do you like Twitter?
Twitter is my unofficial focus group. It gives me a great sense of community with readers and other food writers. I don’t use it for small talk, but, rather, for outreach. When you’re writing all the time you can get very subjective and isolated. Sometimes I’ll tweet something to take the pulse of an idea. Something that may seem obvious to me turns out to be of great interest to followers. It lets me know when I need more objectivity. I also like use Twitter to promote the work of others who, I feel, deserve greater exposure.

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Illustration: Mollie Katzen

Can you give us an example?
Well, say I am working on a recipe that combines nectarines and blackberries and maybe some fruity olive oil and strips of fresh basil. I assume that everyone knows it’s a great combination. Then, I may tweet something about it and get an enthusiastic response. This lets me know the idea is not as obvious as I’d assumed, and the entire exchange helps me with my work. Twitter is an objectivity shakedown for me.

Are you a Facebook user too?
I have a long-standing friend page, and have recently started an author page.  I want to use it to get input from people on my work, in addition to Twitter. But I feel it may be like going down a rabbit hole — too easy to just spin wheels once you are on the various social networks. The upside is that there are some wonderful people out there and this is a great way to converse with them.

Your new book’s subtitle is ‘Vegetarian Recipes For a New Generation.’ Does that mean it’s targeted at a younger crowd?

It’s funny. Many of my older friends complained when they saw that and said it should be for us more seasoned individuals too. The phrase might imply that the book is for younger people, but I mean it more in the sense that it’s for everyone who wants to hit the refresh button. And that includes me. Writing the book helped me reflect on my own cooking. I cook quite differently now than I did 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

How has your cooking changed over the years?
My cooking has become increasingly centered on vegetables. It used to be all about casseroles and melanges. It was also about substituting — swapping in different foods so that meat could be swapped out. I used to put a lot of ingredients in a bowl — cooked grains or noodles and a few vegetables and sunflower seeds and grated cheese and beaten eggs — lots of structural elements and shaped savories standing in for meat at the center of the plate. The dishes were sturdy, reflecting my hope that they’d lead people of mainstream taste to become more comfortable with meatless dinners.

Now,  I no longer feel the need to convince. I  largely keep things simple and separate: showcasing individual ingredients side by side in artful arrangements. Everything is more modular. I might fry an egg in olive oil and crispy breadcrumbs and set it on top or the side of a plateful of grains, beans, and vegetables. I might also add a pinch of cheese and toasted nuts, or have these on the side as optional toppings. People tend to love arranging their own plates, so I like to put an assortment of items on the table for a kind of DIY fest. And there are many options for vegans.

Setting things up in this way keeps the dinner plate playful and much more visual — a bento box or mandala effect. And it allows people a chance to engage with their food in surprising and delightful ways.

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Illustration: Mollie Katzen

Are you anti-meat eating?
No. I’m not on a campaign to get people to stop eating meat. If that’s what they want to do it’s their choice. My goal is more of a positive embrace of vegetables, grains, legumes, fruit, nuts. I’m  all about piling plant food on a plate, so much that there’s little room for anything else. The semantic mission for me is to have “vegetarian” become an adjective that describes food rather than a noun labeling a person.

How would you describe this approach?
I would call it creating a craveable, arresting plate that draws people in without being precious. Just a lovely arrangement of delicious fresh ingredients, simply prepared and juxtaposed, that invites mindful eating by its very nature.

You include recipes for ‘burgers’ in your book. Isn’t that pandering to meat-eaters?
A vegetarian burger, for me, isn’t a meat imitation. It’s more like a  casserole on a smaller scale. A “burger” can also be a thickly sliced, corn meal-crusted fried green tomato or a generous  eggplant round, coated with parmesan and crumbs or a slab of creamy tofu, covered with crispy seeds and spices, served on a sliced of artisan toast or a plate. People love “made to order” type dishes like burgers. These items make nice little suppers that can be cooked in minutes on the stovetop when you come home from work. We all have a psychological yearning for certain types of food, like savory, round items fresh from the griddle. This chapter also includes savory pancakes, in the same spirit.

Do you like readers to follow your recipes closely?
They can to begin with, but I also encourage customization and improvisation. I like it when people become cooks of their own making. I provide  “optional enhancement” suggestions for most of the recipes in the book, hoping to encourage readers to make the food their own.

You said recently in an interview that zucchini was a ‘difficult’ vegetable. What did you mean by that?
With many vegetables I would say you don’t need to do much (if anything) to improve them – they are free-standingly delicious and you can just take a big juicy bite and be happy. A good case in point is a heartbreakingly delicious vine-ripened tomato. Zucchini are at the other end of the spectrum – they are mild and bland, with little personality. I call them a fixer-upper vegetable. They need to be marinated and/or grilled, often with olive oil and garlic and some herbs. Their gift is that they are so absorbent, they respond beautifully to seasoning, soaking it all up and adopting the deliciousness of their collaborating ingredients.

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Win a copy of ‘The Heart of the Plate’! “Like” Uncharted Ideas on Facebook to enter. Drawing happens Friday, Oct. 18.

Are you finding on your travels that more people are eating more vegetables?
Yes! And I hear a lot of enthusiasm from people who don’t necessarily (or at all) define themselves as vegetarian. Many people don’t want to give up meat, but would like to cut it back to maybe two nights a week and have smaller servings in general. And I find that so many more people are interested in beautiful plant food. This interest cuts across ages and geography, and is very encouraging and exciting. Brussels sprouts and kale used to be laugh lines, and now they’re vegetable rock stars.

What’s next for you?
I always need some regrouping and decompression after finishing a book. I will take a little downtime — a sabbatical — and rest my hands, and do a lot of reading. [Katzen did all the illustrations for her new book.] And I’ll spend time in my garden, which I love, summoning up some new ideas.

See Mollie Katzen’s calendar of upcoming appearances, including Oct. 26 at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas.

Mollie Katzen’s recipe for Vegetarian Tan Tan Noodles

Makes 4 or 5 servings
Vegan (when made with agave nectar or sugar)

Tan Tan (also called Dandan) refers to an across-the-shoulder pole carried by food peddlers in old Sichuan. Baskets—one with sauce and the other with noodles—dangled from each end of the pole, providing an inexpensive and nourishing meal to strolling locals. Eventually the noodles were named after the pole, coming to be known as “peddler’s noodles”—street food from way back. The traditional Chinese recipe is a chili-laced noodle soup strewn with ground pork, preserved vegetables, and scallions. My version combines minced vegetables and tofu with a black bean, garlic, and peanut butter sauce that coats the noodles with deep, dark essence and crunch.

Use the least-processed, freshest-tasting peanut butter you can find. The salt measurement in the recipe is based on a creamy, lightly salted variety. If you are making the recipe with unsalted peanut butter, adjust the seasoning accordingly.

Almond butter can be swapped in for the peanut butter.

I alternate between Lee Kum Kee Black Bean Garlic Sauce and Chili Black Bean Sauce for this recipe, as they both work very well. You can also use a plain chili paste or any chili-garlic sauce.

Use the firmest firm tofu you can find. If you have any doubts, you can firm it up further by boiling it, already diced, for about 10 minutes, well ahead of time. Drain and dry it thoroughly before adding to the stir-fry.

½ cup creamy, lightly salted peanut butter

½ cup black bean–garlic sauce (see note)

1 tablespoon agave nectar, light-colored honey, or brown sugar

1 cup very hot water

1 tablespoon grapeseed, canola, or peanut oil, plus more as needed

1 heaping cup minced onion

½ pound shiitake mushrooms, wiped clean, stemmed, and minced (about 4 cups)

Scant ¼ teaspoon salt

1 celery stalk, minced

1 8-ounce can water chestnuts, drained and minced (1 cup)

12 ounces very firm tofu, cut into small dice

½ pound bucatini, linguine, or spaghetti or fresh long Chinese noodles, if available

1. Combine the peanut butter, black bean–garlic sauce, sweetener, and hot water in a medium-large bowl and whisk until blended. Set aside.

2. Put on a large pot of water to boil.

3. Meanwhile, heat a large (10- to 12-inch) skillet or a large wok over medium heat for about a minute. Add the oil, swirl to coat the pan, then toss in the onion and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes, or until it just begins to soften. Add the shiitakes and salt, and cook, stirring, for another 2 or 3 minutes. Add the celery, water chestnuts, and tofu. Increase the heat to medium-high as you continue to stir-fry, allowing the mixture to stick to the pan a little and brown. Use a spatula with a thin metal blade to scrape the bottom of the pan, so the well-done bits can become incorporated. (You can add a touch more oil during this time, moving things over so it hits the pan directly.) Keep this process going for 5 minutes or so, until the vegetables and tofu are deeply browned, scraping as you go. Turn the heat down to low and stir in the peanut sauce.

4. When the water boils, add the noodles and cook until al dente, or done to your liking.

5. When the noodles are done, drain them thoroughly in a colander and transfer them to the sauce. Toss to coat and serve immediately.

Optional Enhancements

Chili oil, crushed red pepper, or a dab of chili paste

Steamed green peas and/or edamame (green soybeans) decorating the top

A crown of cucumber, in thin strips or minced

Thin ovals of scallion greens scattered around

Lightly toasted peanuts or cashews on top

Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas will be held in downtown Berkeley on Oct. 25-26. Two days of extraordinary conversations, engaging interactive sessions, and a great party. To attend the inaugural Uncharted, either apply for a scholarship or register for your tickets now.

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  • Laura Morland

    To Mollie Katzen: your recipe looks scrumptious, and I’ve just printed it to try out this week!

    I have one question in the meantime. By coincidence, your general concept describes how I’ve been cooking for my family (of three) the past few months: simple wok-fried vegetables. In my case I alternate the starch every other night between rice and orzo pasta. (Now that I’m boycotting Barilla, alternative sources of orzo pasta have become harder to locate, but I was happy to learn that the Berkeley/ El Cerrito Natural Grocery carries it in bins.)

    Anyway, I developed my own recipe a few months ago: I give my veggies in the wok a couple of sprays with Bragg’s aminos (delicious and healthy soy-sauce alternative!) every two to three minutes, and if it’s a “pasta night” I add the orzo at the end. However, I deliberately cook the pasta 2 minutes less than the stated “al dente” time, preferring to finish it off — letting it absorb all the delicous the flavors — in the wok.

    Would that method work for these noodles, do you think? In that case, one would add the sauce at the very end, I suppose.

    Thanks for this recipe, as well as all the wonderful recipes you’ve shared over the years. I can’t wait to purchase your new cookbook! (Just sad that I can no longer buy it at Black Oak Books….)

  • sue

    Thanks for the uplifting article. Mollie Katzen is a ROCK STAR!

  • amindess

    Beautiful interview, Tracey! And love the way Mollie speaks in edible poetry. I feel like I can taste her words.

  • Cammy

    Although I love this new cookbook, I still go back to Molliie’s classics – the Moosewood and Enchanted Broccoli Forest and Sunlight Cafe because to me they’re gorgeous recipes, handwritten works of art, and great for entertaining. I must admit, I do eat more like her more recent cookbooks – lighter, more veggies and less casseroles, and desserts but still, I have them right next to my classic Marlene Sorosky cookbooks!