Thursday, September 5, 2013
Mollie Katzen Talks Creative Vegetarian Food and Growing as a Cook
Tell us about that intriguing subtitle — Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation.
Using "vegetarian" was a deliberate choice. For quite a while now, cookbooks have avoided the V-word. When I was starting out, vegetarian meant an exclusive club, a "we" versus "them" attitude. Surprisingly often, I would meet self-described vegetarians who didn’t particularly eat a lot of vegetables. Being vegetarian ended up being a statement about meat. As in: "Keep it off my plate. I'll eat anything but meat." So they would have a big plate of goopy alfredo pasta.
But I think that's all changing. Vegetarian food for a new generation is for people who want plant-based food a lot of time, and they may eat meat on another day of the week. I have no problem with that. I'm not out to convert people away from what they love. I don’t want them to feel excluded from some elite club.
So my picture of vegetarian food is a dinner plate with whole grains and maybe two or three different kinds of vegetables, with contrasting textures. Maybe some of them raw and grated into a slaw. Some of them cooked and mashed like cauliflower. Maybe one is grilled and you top a mashed vegetable with a crispy grilled vegetable.
It's not a whole lot of work because each component can be extremely simple. Greens drizzled with a nut oil and a little salt and pepper and chives can be exquisite. I don’t feel the need to get fussy. Sometimes I'll go into a recipe test with a list of foods to try, but if a dish is good three ingredients in, I'll stop. I’m not interested in looking clever; I want to get people to cook and to fall in love with it.
As a university, Bastyr tries to change health through education. But we know that there is no shortage of information about food out there from websites and books. What do people need to restore a healthful relationship to food?
I really like that question. And I'd say people need two things: confidence and faith. First, faith that eating healthier does not mean eating miserably. My mission is to get rid of the firewall in our culture between food that is good for you and food that we call decadent, crave-able, sensual, comforting. There's no need for that division — they don't have it in Italy — and there's no need for anything to be beige or boring. Ever. Ever, ever, ever. Healthy food can be every bit as sexy and vibrant and colorful and enticing.
The other part is confidence. Every self-described non-cook is about three skills and three pieces of equipment away from feeling very adept in the kitchen. It might be one knife that makes you want to start working in the kitchen because it feels right in your hand and it's super sharp and it grabs whatever you want it to.
There’s a moment of truth when somebody finds their perfect knife, which doesn't have to be expensive, and it just glides through an onion. When you start making incredibly clean slices of that peach or apple, and you're hearing the sound and not even exerting any pressure. There’s a moment where people get hooked and they’re going to want to cook.
You worked with Harvard University to help reform its dining services. What did you learn from that?
That’s where I learned how many people want vegetarian food without necessarily self-identifying as vegetarian. The dining services asked if I would come to work with them to give more options to vegetarians and vegans in the dining hall. Vegans are always a minority, but they’re a passionate minority and they were getting sick of the tofu version of everything.
So I helped redesign their vegetarian menus. We had an Italian panzanella bar with fresh bread, tomatoes, delicious assortments of olive oil and good, real imported balsamic vinegar. I also had a station in the dining hall and would have kale and garlic cooking in oil. Students would come in like cartoon characters walking in their sleep, drawn in to the smell of garlic. They might be having cereal for dinner, but they would come over to get some kale too. This was in the '90s, before kale was the hot thing. I learned a lot about how broad the appeal of plant foods can be. Even people having Froot Loops for dinner will add kale on the side if it's beautiful and delicious.