Mollie Katzen: “Sprouts and kale used to be laugh lines, now they’re vegetable rock stars”

by Tracey Taylor

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.”

Katzen will be in conversation with author Elizabeth Fishel on Saturday Oct. 26 at 3:00 pm at Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas.

Meantime, check out this interview with Katzen, published by Berkeleyside, the good people behind Uncharted:


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

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.


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.


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.

cover_heart_plateAre 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.