With Mollie Katzen’s Latest, We’ve Wandered Far From the Enchanted Forest

Rarely does a cookbook elicit a passionate response, but Mollie Katzen is a revered American cookbook writer. Author of the seminal Moosewood Cookbook, Katzen brought vegetarian cuisine—in 1977 still considered weird hippie food—into the mainstream. It can be difficult to realize what a feat that was, before farmer’s markets and the internet. Now even those of us living in remote areas can order unusual foodstuffs online, while people living in metropolitan areas take the wealth of produce, grains, and artisanal tofus on offer for granted.

In 1977, Katzen had to explain tamari, mirin, and alfalfa sprouts to readers. Interested cooks had to search ethnic markets and health food stores, then few and far between, to find ingredients like wheat berries or quinoa. But Katzen’s welcoming voice and inviting food drew readers in. So did the books themselves. Unlike many of today’s glossy cookbooks, which seem destined for the coffee table instead of the kitchen, those Ten Speed Press books were well made, their bindings tight: cookbooks meant to sit open on the counter while the cook leaned over them, spoon in hand. And thousands of cooks did just that.

I was one of those cooks. When I was still learning my way around the kitchen, a friend lent me Katzen’sThe Enchanted Broccoli Forest, published in 1982. I am not a vegetarian. The book was a revelation, nonetheless. Here was practical information on stocking a kitchen, handling tofu and ginger, and countless useful recipes. I made Very-Much-Marinated-Potatoes, Swiss Green Beans, and Marinated Pasta Salad. I baked Katzen’s challah, using her excellent “Illustrated Guide to Baking Bread”. I was a novice bread baker, and that loaf turned out perfectly.

I even made an Enchanted Broccoli Forest, a folly involving stalks of broccoli planted in rice. My spouse and I were living in Arcata, California at the time, land of Redwood logging. Alas, my rice-making skills were insufficient: the broccoli stalks toppled. We giggled, called it the Enchanted Broccoli Clearcut, and gobbled it up.

I purchased Still Life With Menu and Vegetable Heaven, continuing my Mollie Katzen apprenticeship. I learned how to roast vegetables, prepare a delicately delicious yellow squash soup, why miso should always be in the fridge, and countless other tricks. I absorbed so much of Katzen’s wisdom into my cooking that it’s impossible to do her justice. I wouldn’t be the cook I am today without her teachings.

Now, almost two decades later, Katzen presents us with The Heart of the Plate, one of most confounding cookbooks I’ve ever encountered. In the introduction, Katzen takes a page from the Bittman/Pollan playbook, claiming vegetables are the mainstay of this latest book, but the recipes belie her. If any food is nudging its way to the center of the plate, it’s fruit. The results are often unappealing, if not bizarre.

Pomegranate is everywhere, as seeds, molasses, and concentrate. Mangoes pop up where you’d least expect them: in a gazpacho with nectarines (no, this is not dessert), in a soup with wild rice and chilis, in a salad with coconut rice noodles, and, most strangely of all, pulped and pooled beneath beet wedges and baby arugula leaves. Katzen calls this “The flag of the plant-food world”.

Meanwhile, strawberries find themselves hanging around with avocados and in a Ruby Gazpacho containing tomatoes and watermelon. Frozen unsweetened blueberries turn up in a pot with basmati rice, wondering where the muffin batter went. Then there’s Celery-Almond-Date Saladita, a condiment calling for lemon juice, honey, blue cheese, and black pepper in addition to the title ingredients. Katzen finds this flavor combination so felicitous she dubs it basheert—Yiddish for “meant to be”. Bagels and lox are basheert. Celery and honey? Not basheert.

In a book that purports to be about vegetables, there are strangely few. Cauliflower and kale, current culinary stars, make several appearances, as do beets, a universally unloved vegetable. The vegetable chapter is surprisingly short—only 12 vegetable recipes; 15 if you count the trio on eggplant, all of them paired with fruit. There are two Brussels sprouts recipes, one calling for sprouts with cranberries, a combination I find difficult to envision. Others are more appealing: twice cooked broccoli, cheese-crusted cauliflower—even if there is scarce little cheese.

The avoidance of fat and carbohydrates verges on paranoia. I realize many people are trying to cut their intake of these foods, but some are necessary for good health, not to mention satiety. When I was a child, eggs were vilified for their cholesterol content; then the tide turned and it was decided eggs were reasonable if consumed in moderation. A commercial from the era showed eggs being released from jail. If the eggs are free, bags of white flour, wearing orange jumpsuits and shackles, are shuffling into maximum security, followed by weeping tubs of sour cream, sticks of butter, white rice, pasta, and potatoes. Meanwhile, Greek yogurt snickers in the fresh air.

This means that although The Heart of the Plate professes to be “Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation”, I doubt younger people will cook from it. They’d starve. The portions are vegetable heavy, with very little fat or carbohydrate content. This is fine if you are middle-aged or older and lead a sedentary lifestyle. If you are a 20-something male, the half-pound of linguine in the Linguine and Green Beans in Tranpanese Pesto will not feed you and six to eight of your friends, as the recipes suggests. It might feed you. As a starter.

Also strange is Katzen’s aversion to salt and spicing of any kind. The food in this book is downright bland. She doesn’t salt pasta water, which is supposed to be salty as sea water, obviating the need for salting later. Few dishes in The Heart of the Plate are salted at all; if they are, only lightly. Chipotle Cream calls for a half teaspoon of chipotle in adobo sauce to one cup of sour cream. At that ratio, the chipotle will all but disappear. Raita, the traditional Indian yogurt dip, calls for only a quarter teaspoon of salt, an eighth of a teaspoon cayenne, and one teaspoon of cumin to two cups of yogurt—seasonings so sparse they’ll vanish.

Preparation time is another issue; interestingly, prep times are not given for any of these recipes. While few are truly difficult, they do read as time consuming. Stews and accompanying biscuits are not work night specials; nor are the “Lasagna Stacks” intended to save carbohydrates by creating individual layered portions of noodles instead of a whole panful. Lasagna is not fast food; breaking it down into individual “stacks” makes it more complex when the carb-conscisous could simply take a smaller portion.

Expense is another deterrent. Many recipes call for boutique ingredients like Jade Rice, Forbidden Rice, Beluga Lentils and wild mushrooms. My package of Jade Rice cost $6 for 15 ounces. The rice was nice enough, but at six bucks I want more than nice. An online search found Forbidden Rice costing $4.67 for 15 ounces. Cheaper than Jade Rice, but no bargain. Beluga Lentils cost $5.99 for 16 ounces at Amazon.com.

These recipes are even more challenging if you’re cooking for a family. Katzen has two children, now grown. The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, Still Life With Menu, and Vegetable Heaven, with their larger servings, more generous allotments of fat and carbohydrates and generally more kid-friendly foods (think pasta dishes and tofu) are more attuned to feeding a family. Many children will balk at Root Vegetable Stew with Ginger and Pears, Curried Cauliflower Stew, or Beet Crush. Kids generally don’t go for foods like Eggplant Slap-Down with Figs and Blue Cheese. Further, numerous recipes contain peanut butter or various nuts, perilous these days to many kids.

The fear of carbohydrates and fat is nowhere better exemplified than the recipe for Mushroom Stroganoff over Cabbage “Noodles”, a vegetarian take on the classic Beef Stroganoff, which calls for strips of steak and mushrooms in a sour cream sauce, served over egg noodles. Here Katzen has mushrooms stand in for the meat, reduces the usual cup of sour cream to a half-cup, and swaps out the egg noodles for a pound of steamed cabbage. The cabbage is treated to a teaspoon of butter—mind you, this is a pound of cabbage—and a half teaspoon of salt. At the end of the recipe, as an “Optional Enhancement”, Katzen writes:

“You can smuggle a modest amount of freshly cooked real noodles onto the cabbage ‘noodles’ for additional heft.”

Yes, this lightens a very rich dish, but we’re asking tofu to be turkey. Okay, you’re vegetarian. Make this with mushrooms, in its full sour cream-noodle glory, then eat moderately the next day. But don’t pretend cabbage is something it’s not, and for heaven’s sake, don’t “smuggle” anything onto your plate. Noodles and sour cream aren’t degenerate comestibles.

The “Sauces, Vinaigrettes, Toppings, and other Meaningful Touches” chapter epitomizes the problems with this book. Here are condiments in all their weirdness. Some are fine; in fact, many, like Cucumber Mayonnaise, have appeared in earlier books. Garlic Mayonnaise and Salsa Verde will be familiar to most readers. Katzen loses me at the “Saladitas”: crosses between salads and salsas. Readers will find these either strange or wonderful: Jicama-Pink Grapefruit Saladita, Strawberry Avocado Saladita, Sweet Corn and Blueberry Saladita. Then there are the impersonators: Tofu “Bacon”, Egg “Noodles”, Tempeh Croutons. For some reason Olive Oil-Bread-Crumb-Coated Fried Eggs are in this chapter, along with Browned Potatoes and Onion, evidently relegated to a parsimonious topping rather than former side dish status. Hell, main dish status.

It’s not all light and airy dishes sure to keep your BMI and glycemic indices low. The Cozy Mashes chapter takes readers beyond potatoes, there are some savory, simple soups that keep the fruit at bay, and a burger chapter with fresh takes on a tired standby. It’s hard to go wrong with macaroni and cheese, and although I would not deconstruct the lasagna into portioned stacks, as Katzen does, the recipes themselves are good.

At the very end of this tightfisted cookbook is a carefully curated dessert chapter. Most—of course—are fruit based. This from the woman who once gave us a dessert chapter entitled “Too Many Desserts” (Vegetable Heaven). Bittersweet Mocha Bundt Cake and Chocolate Cream Pie stand out amidst the healthy indulgences, but there’s “just one cookie, and for me, at least, it’s the one: Pecan Shortbread”.

So much for Mrs. Buerschaper’s Molasses Crinkles, or Chocolate Chip-Mint Cookies, both from 1988’s Still Life With Menu. Of the Molasses Crinkles her neighbor baked, Katzen wrote “I think these cookies were my earliest experience of loving a dessert that had no chocolate in it.” As for the Chocolate Chip-Mint Cookies:

“I tested this recipe midway through working on the book, and I can’t tell you how many of these I consumed while sitting here at my desk writing recipes. Tofu, grains, and vegetables have their place, but Chocolate Chip-Mint Cookies are creative soul food.”

Agreed. What happened to change her mind?

Alas, with The Heart of the Plate we’re a long way from the Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Instead, we’ve wandered into a postmodern pomegranate orchard, where food is to be feared rather than enjoyed. Here food is substituted, smuggled, or faked. Salt and spices are minimal, while fats and carbohydrates are culinary bugaboos. he arugula flag of the plant world flies, implanted in a pool of pureed mango. Despite my tremendous respect for Mollie Katzen, The Heart of the Plate is not a way of living or eating I can recommend. I wish I felt differently.

RATING 5 / 10