Q&A: Vegetarian Cookbook Author Mollie Katzen

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In talking with Mollie Katzen, you can never be sure where the conversation will go, but you can bet it will be satisfying. The James Beard award-winner has been credited with bringing vegetarianism to the mainstream, and yet, ironically, she never attended culinary school, she eschews culinary terms she deems too precious, like “chef” and “foodie,” and she began working in food with no goal other than to support her career as an artist.

While her celebrated career may have begun incidentally, it has long since become intentional. Heralded by the New York Times as “one of the best-selling cookbook authors of all time,” Katzen has 12 books under her belt, with more than six million copies in print.

We spoke with Katzen about her latest cookbook, “The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation,” a generous collection of more than 300 healthful, simply prepared vegetarian and vegan recipes, and she shared her thoughts on the relationship between food and art, why emotional eating is a good thing, and a few of her favorite food bloggers.

How is “The Heart of the Plate” different from your earlier cookbooks?

It’s an evolution that reflects my own learning and awareness. My cooking has become lighter and simpler. I pay so much more attention to the quality of the ingredients now. To be clear, the evolution is not about the dishes being prissy, they’re just better quality, starting with the ingredients.

The quality of the ingredients–let’s talk about that more.

Take a simple grated carrot salad. Now consider a carrot that’s been freshly pulled out of the ground, one so fragrant with its own carrot essence, that with your eyes closed, you could take a sniff and know that it’s a carrot. Once upon a time, I would not have paid so much attention to the carrot. And because of that, I probably would have added a little honey to sweeten it, and laced it with a creamy dressing and added something like raisins. But now, paying attention to the carrot, I would thread it with little bit of olive oil–one that’s super fruity and very high end–a twist of lemon and that’s it.

How else do you feel your cooking has evolved?

My earlier vegetarian cooking was not so much vegetable-based as it was focused on eggs, cheese, and grains. To make “convincing” plant food swaps for meat, I kept that American center-of-the plate tradition alive, with a big entrée at the center of the plate. Vegetables would show up here and there, but it was more about convincing people that they could swap a plant food entrée for the meat on the plate.

Now, I no longer feel the need to convince people that they’re OK without the meat. Instead, I focus on making a beautiful arrangement of a few simple dishes that I can plate side-by-side. I also focus much more on the actual vegetable. I pay attention to texture and juxtaposition, and keep everything simply prepared. The meat is neither here nor there; it’s just not as relevant to the plate.

In “The Heart of the Plate,” you allude to an evolution in eaters. What’s different now?

There’s a lot more acceptance of plant-based meals than there used to be. People might love their beef burger on a Monday night, but they might want plant food on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday nights.

People can decide for themselves what the definition of vegetarianism means, whether that’s rejecting meat officially or whether it just means eating more plant-based foods. In that way, the word “vegetarian” in my lexicon and my use of it in the book is different from the way it is used elsewhere. I want everyone to feel welcome to plant-based food without the “ism,” to feel equally entitled to cooking this way, regardless of their eating habits. That’s also what the “new generation” is about, partly: a call to flexibility in people’s eating choices.

What do you hope readers take away from this book?

Ease and comfort and joy in the kitchen. I don’t want to convert anybody to any point of view. I just want people to feel enthusiastic about cooking at home.

As an artist, how do you view the relationship between food and art?

They’ve always been two sides to the same coin for me. Art is a personal aesthetic statement and food is just a medium for art, another way to express and share beauty with other people. That’s really what art is about: beauty, and creating something that’s evocative, that adds layers, and makes you feel more human. That is true for food, too.

I don’t define art too easily–I feel one of its biggest purposes is to connect us with our own humanity. Art is associated with our unconsciousness, and food is parallel to that; our humanity is bound up with our need for food. I love to encourage people to allow themselves to feel emotional about eating. So often, it’s like emotional eating is something to be ashamed of–as if that can only be a negative thing, as if we don’t eat with joy and with pleasure. I think that’s a good thing!

You find so much beauty in food. What draws you in?

It’s wonderful when the very traits that are beautiful in the food are the elements that make it good for you. This happens so often in the plant world. The colors in fruits and vegetables–those pigments are the beneficial antioxidants. It’s a beautiful symmetry. The orange in squashes that you see is the beta-carotene; in kale, the green you see is the chlorophyll. In eggplants and blueberries, it’s blue and purple anthocyanins, and in watermelon and tomatoes, the red you see is lycopene. It’s boggling when you think about it!

The “Heart of the Plate” is full of your handwritten notes, artwork, and photography. How’d that happen?

I’ve been keeping journals since I was a teenager. That’s how my earlier books Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest ended up looking like hand-lettered journals; so much of that material came from my real-life journals. While I was conceptualizing this book in my journal, my editor saw what I was doing and asked me if we could include some of my sketches. So when you open the book, you’ll see some collaged sketches and pictures, which come straight out of my notebook. Those are my unedited thoughts!

Is there a thematic style to the recipes in this book? 

I think in nonlinear ways–I think visually–and this book took a while because my cooking is so modular now. If you were to come over to my place, I put five things on the table, and each person could arrange a constellation of dishes. There are many metaphors you could apply–it’s a bento box, it’s a snail pattern or a mandala–but it’s really a collection of smaller, modular dishes rather than one big hunk of main dish.

Do you show your art anywhere? Is that something that you want to do?

I have in the past. I haven’t had time to be a full-time artist because I’ve been working so much on my cookbooks, but I am going on a hiatus and I want to create a whole new bunch of artwork. I haven’t shown anything in a really long time, but I’m thinking of it again.

What direction will you take with your new artwork?

I want to keep making collages. I also do a lot of figurative work. I’m in a drawing group with two friends of mine and we’ve been drawing together for 30 years. Every month or so, we’ll hire a figurative model and do figurative studies. So I have a lot of figure works and a lot of California landscapes and abstracts and collages. I’ve been training myself to do more watercolors, which are really difficult. In this new book, at the opening of each chapter, there is a watercolor of a single ingredient. I love doing that kind of stuff!

What culinary trends do you see sprouting now that you hope will take root?

I see this trend–it’s also my own personal trend–of deconstructing complicated cooking. For example, back when I was writing The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, I would get a big bowl, mix some cooked grains with sunflower seeds, beat some eggs to hold everything together, and it would be a very cheerful hodgepodge approach to cooking. Then I’d bake it and hope that it would come out in a nice shape like a square, and then I’d put it on the plate all blended together.

Now, the idea is to not have a hodgepodge but a collaboration, placing things next to each other on a plate. So instead of beating a bunch of eggs and throwing them in a casserole, I’ll place a fried egg on top of a much simpler dish. Every element is beautifully arranged and plated–it’s not about being precious, it’s about the exalted simplicity of each individual ingredient.

What I’d love to see in the future is eating becoming more of a ritual rather than just chowing down.

By a “ritual,” are you talking about taking a mindful approach to eating?

The word “mindfulness” is probably overused, so I’m looking for a new word for that, but it’s along those lines: Appreciation for a plate that has been simply and thoughtfully but not fussily prepared. Take a moment, look at the plate, don’t dig in right away; it’s a form of grace before meals.

When people feel an expressive appreciation for food, the whole eating process follows in a slower, more aware fashion. Everything changes when you eat more slowly. You’re in a very different chemical state when you eat food slowly. It’s the opposite of stressful, it’s soothing. Comfort food has a lot to do with how it’s eaten, not just what it is.

What professional legacy do you hope to leave?

If I engender even a five percent increase in people’s comfort in the kitchen, if I help people feel confident in their new skills and inspire them to use those skills to connect with others, if I’ve enabled anyone to reach their full potential as a cook even just for just one or two dishes, I would feel that I’ve done my job. In our culture, we have a need, a hunger, for connection. And cooking is one of the best ways to reach another human being.

Do you have any favorite food blogs?

I don’t read them often, but a few stand out that are incredibly beautiful, and have a good spirit, and good photography. I love Gabi Moskowitz, the BrokeAss Gourmet. It’s good food, and she’s a really wonderful person.

Alana Chernila is good, too. She wrote a book called The Homemade Pantry; her blog is called Eating from the Ground Up.

I also love San Francisco-based Heidi Swanson, who writes 101 Cookbooks. She is a visionary and an artist. She’s one of my favorites.

Editor’s Note: We’d love to know your healthy eating tips. Share them in the comments below and we’ll randomly select 10 people to win an autographed copy of Mollie Katzen’s latest cookbook, “The Heart of the Plate.” Open through November 8, 2013. We’ll contact winners via email. US addresses only.

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