A Q&A we have wanted to do for some time is with longtime friend of Oldways, Mollie Katzen. Mollie has been at the forefront of the plant-based revolution and is a force in the food world. For 40 years she has been an advocate for vegetables and, although she is not anti-meat, she is all about the celebration of plant food, which she advocates with zeal in her newest book, The Heart of the Plate. This 500-page book, complete with photos and illustrations by Mollie, oﬀers readers recipes, insights, and reﬂections from her heart to your plate.
To be fair, Mollie is no stranger to cookbook writing. You likely know her as the author of the Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. With over 6 million books in print, she has been listed by The New York Times as one of the best-selling cookbook authors of all time. We recently had the opportunity to hear her speak at an event at Harvard University where she described how, in the beginning, her plant-based cooking was a way to replace meat, but today she has learned that the experience is so much diﬀerent and it is now about featuring the vegetables. She talked about her dishes as collaborations, each highlighting simple vegetables that, when combined, can create a symphony of ﬂavors. We felt so lucky to be there and today feel even luckier to share this Q&A with all of you.
OLDWAYS: At the event at Harvard you spoke about what it means to eat well. Can you explain this idea to our readers?
MOLLIE: When we erase the mental/emotional divide between food that is “good for you” (but necessarily dull) and food that is enjoyable (but “sinful”
OLDWAYS: Can you talk to us how The Heart of the Plate diﬀers from your earlier cookbooks and the evolution of your cooking?
MOLLIE: As good ingredients have become more and more available (produce, olive oil, whole grains, nuts, etc.) cooking can become simpler. The elements will shine deliciously on their own with little fuss. Fresh, tasty ingredients were harder to come by in the earlier days, and it was necessary to do more to them (and to combine more of them together in a single dish) to build ﬂavor. Now, ﬂavor doesn’t need so much to be built as to be uncovered and allowed to develop.
I used to add a lot of rich dairy ingredients and eggs to many of my dishes in years past in order to make my dishes convincing alternatives to the hunk of meat in the center of the plate that people expected from dinner.
My recipes were largely a swap-in for that central dominating entrée. Over time, I’ve lightened up and kept things separate, so, for example, a simple grain preparation, a quiet little legume dish, and some vegetables (ideally two or even three) will be juxtaposed, rather than combined. It’s prettier that way, and more intriguing. I also now favor vegetable based fats:—olive oil, nuts, avocado— over dairy-based fats, and will often add a drizzle of high-end, healthy oils as a ﬁnishing touch. I’m happy with the culture’s increased comfort level with plant-based meals, relaxing the idea that a large, center-of-plate “main dish” is necessary.
OLDWAYS: Two highlights (for us) when reading the book are your mashes and sauces – can you talk about how home cooks can liven up their plates by mastering these two techniques?
MOLLIE: I enjoy traveling to the opposite end of the vegetable texture spectrum from raw or crunchy and into comfort food territory. If mashed potatoes, why not mashed other vegetables as well? It’s very easy to make mashed carrots, parsnips, celery root, peas, broccoli, cauliﬂower, especially if you use a food processor to whip it up. Mashed lentils and eggplant are also quite wonderful. Spoon any of these (or a combination) onto artisan toast, or spread them on a plate as a base layer upon which you can arrange pieces of your favorite crispy, grilled contrasting other vegetable. Mashes can also be wonderful pasta coatings or thick sauces spooned into soups or onto cooked grains. A wonderful thing to have in your repertoire!
When you master a few easy sauces, the rest of your cooking can relax, as a ﬂavorful sauce adds interest of all kinds to plain cooked food. I especially like making sauces from ground nuts or roasted vegetables. In this way, the sauce is a nutritional (as well as aesthetic) addition to your dinner plate without anyone even necessarily realizing it.
OLDWAYS: We have heard about your dislike of the word “foodie.” Why do you wish we could erase it from our vocabulary?
MOLLIE: “Foodie” implies that there is something novel and noteworthy about a person loving to cook and eat. I see the love of food as a basic human trait that shouldn’t be relegated to niche status. Big tent, not boutique.
OLDWAYS: What do you recommend for anyone who is intimidated by taking the veggie plunge but wants to follow a more plant-centric diet?
MOLLIE: Pick just one or two dishes and learn to make them very well (which translates as “to your satisfaction”). Start simple and buy good ingredients. Adopt a very ﬂavorful olive oil, some exquisite vinegars, and a few tasty ﬁnishing salts. Lightly lace plain cooked grains, beans, and vegetables with these things and play to your own palate, whatever it is.
- Master a few of the Cozy Mashes and serve them to yourself on toast.
- Try a simple soup.
- Perfect a vinaigrette.
- Adopt a knife that feels good in your hand, has a 6 to 8 inch blade, and stays sharp. Once you experience the thrill of guiding a perfectly conditioned knife through the end of an onion —once you behold that clean, crisp slice— you will be in a happy cutting zone, and vegetable cookery will fall into place.
OLDWAYS: It is never easy to choose but we are hoping that you might share one of your favorite recipes with our readers. Can you suggest one?
MOLLIE: I would love to share my recipe for beluga lentils and minced mushrooms.
Forbidden Rice with Beluga Lentils and Minced Mushrooms
Once upon a time in China, precious black rice was permitted only to emperors.
Flash forward a few hundred centuries, and that once-illicit delicacy is now available in natural groceries and gourmet shops in the United States—and online mostly everywhere—designated (and trademarked) as “Forbidden Rice” by a company based in El Cerrito, California. The evocative name (“Forbidden,” not El Cerrito) matches the subtle, grape-y grain in dark distinction, but now, lucky for us, that moniker is purely symbolic. The emperors are long-gone, and the rice is allowed. It is delicious, and it is a whole grains.
Black rice is available in bulk in many natural foods groceries—and also packaged (Lotus Foods “Forbidden” Rice) in gourmet shops and online.
Beluga lentils are found in similar shops (also, sometimes Trader Joe’s) or online. If you can’t ﬁnd them, French lentils (lentils du puys) could be swapped in.
You can prepare and cook the other ingredients while the rice mixture simmers.
This will keep for several days in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator. It reheats well—covered, in a 250°F oven or toaster oven, or in a microwave.
1 cup black (“Forbidden”) rice
1 cup beluga (small, black) lentils
Scant 3 cups water (just a hair under)
½ teaspoon salt (possibly a little more)
1 tablespoon grapeseed oil or canola oil
½ cup very ﬁnely minced shallot or red onion (4 ounces)
½ teaspoon minced or crushed garlic
½ pound domestic or cremini mushrooms—wiped clean, stemmed if necessary, and very ﬁnely minced (can use a food processor)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
White truﬄe oil (optional)
Lemon wedges — or extra lemon juice for sprinkling on top (optional)
Combine the rice, lentils, water, and ¼ teaspoon salt in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to a simmer, cover, and cook undisturbed (with a heat absorber, if you have one, underneath) for 40 minutes. If the rice is not tender enough at this point, splash in up to ¼ cup additional water, and cook it a little further. (The lentils will remain somewhat al dente.) When it’s done to your liking, turn oﬀ the heat, and ﬂuﬀ seriously with a fork to let steam escape.
Meanwhile, place a large (10- to 12-inch) skillet over medium heat and wait about a minute, then add the oil and swirl to coat the pan. Toss in the shallot or onion and sauté for 5 minutes, then stir in the garlic and mushrooms plus ¼ teaspoon salt, and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat, stirring often. Splash in the lemon juice, and continue to cook for just a few minutes longer, or until the liquid evaporates, and the mushrooms are nicely dried out and beginning to brown, sticking slightly to the pan. Mix from the bottom of the pan, scraping up and including whatever might have stuck (always the most ﬂavorful part) and turn oﬀ the heat.
Transfer the cooked rice and lentils to the mushroom mixture, stirring and ﬂuﬃng it in with a fork as you go. Correct the salt, if necessary, and add black pepper to taste.
Make this thing beautiful by arranging it around Curried Mashed Carrots and Cashews topped with cooked white beans and garnished with sautéed mushrooms. It’s a very unusual combination that is homey, yet surprising. The carrots, rice, and beans can all be made ahead and reheated. The mushrooms can be cooked quickly as the other items are heating. A green salad of your own design will make this into a complete meal.