The Share Guide: Your first book, The Moosewood Cookbook, came out in 1977. How has your style of cooking changed since then?
Mollie Katzen: My style of cooking in the 1970’s was to load up on eggs and dairy products. I made the recipes rich rather than cleverly seasoned because that was the best way I knew how to make something taste good. I wanted to win people over, because many people were skeptical of a meatless meal. If it had a lot of cheese in it, maybe they wouldn’t miss the meat! Also, there was a popular notion that if you didn’t eat meat, you would somehow be malnourished or go hungry. So I wanted to enrich the recipes with ingredients that would be filling enough.
As time passed nutritional information became more sophisticated, and cooking became more sophisticated as well. The availability of fresh vegetables increased, and the knowledge about cooking and seasoning techniques became more widespread. What I found was that as my cooking became more sophisticated, it also became simpler. For instance, a fresh bulb of garlic and some very fruity olive oil and maybe a little bit of crystal salt might be all you needed. That’s because if the vegetable itself is so fresh, you don’t need much to make it taste good--whereas my earlier cooking was very fussy. I think that reflected my own inexperience to some extent, but also the quality of produce where I lived wasn’t nearly as good back then.
The Share Guide: You rewrote The Moosewood Cookbook in 1992, after 15 years. Do you think that things have continued to change so drastically that you would change the book again?
Mollie Katzen: Yes, there have been some revolutionary ideas since that publication. First of all, we now know that some fats are essential for you. There are certain types of fat that are very, very helpful--and there are other fats that are definitely not good for you. For many years, the wisdom was that fats are to be avoided at all costs. They were all lumped together, and were looked at in relation to sheer quantity, rather than looking at the different qualities of different fats.
Right around the time when my revisement came out, in the early 1990’s, this low fat craze hit pretty hard. And I think it was embraced more by vegetarians, many of whom were on a very low protein, low fat, high carbohydrate diet. You would eat lots of bread, but you wouldn’t have any butter or oil on the bread. You would eat a handful of pretzels for a snack, but not a handful of nuts. You would eat bagels, but not peanut butter and not olives. But what’s been shown since then is that a low fat diet in and of itself is not valuable. Calories from oil and from fatty foods are not worse calories than calories from cookies or white rice or white bread. There are some kinds of fat that are very, very harmful, like trans fats. They are very damaging to the body. However, there are good fats like the fats from olives and fish oils and flaxseed oil. Those fats are incredibly good for you and very toning to your endocrine system and joints. In the last few years there’s been a very interesting new set of tools for us in which to organize and design a healthy diet. But I didn’t know that when I was younger. The knowledge is always evolving.
The Share Guide: How do you feel about the current low carb craze?
Mollie Katzen: I’m hearing rumors that it’s on the wane and I’m very happy to hear that. I see a difference between a person trying to eat healthy 20-25 years ago and a person trying to eat healthy now. Back then, it used to be that your diet was a negative checklist. “I don't eat this; I don’t eat that; I won’t go near that” and that was how you defined healthy eating. For instance, say no to meats, say no to fat, and blah, blah, blah. Those are the people who would sit down in a restaurant and pull out a calculator before they ordered. But what I think (and hope) is happening now is people are saying “I do want to eat this; I do want to eat that.” It’s much more of a positive statement about what you DO want to eat. One of the things that makes me uncomfortable about the low carb craze is where is the positive statement about food? Where is the love, the enthusiasm? Where is the “Oh boy, I can’t wait to eat this!” Actually, I feel like I helped inadvertently to fuel this mentality, but I didn’t mean to do that. I didn’t do it with any dogma. Some people think I did have dogma, but I didn’t.
Plus there’s another element to it, which is a certain kind of judgment about personal food choices. Hence all these delicious desserts that have words like sinful and decadent. I never use that in my cookbooks; it really bothers me. Also, a lot of vegetarians and vegans think they are better than other people. It’s the “holier than thou” attitude. To me, that’s very closely related to the whole negative thinking of “I don't eat this, I don't eat that.” I don’t want to insult anybody, but sometimes I feel like people who are on vegan diets have some kind of a crusade going to make other people feel bad for what they eat. I’m not sure where that all comes from and I’m not sure how many people are like that. I just think that what we eat is a personal choice. I wish people would just enjoy it and not be dogmatic about it. I don’t like it when I eat with people and they feel like they need to apologize to me for what they are ordering. It makes me uncomfortable. I’m not a pure vegetarian myself, and I don’t like to defend my food choices. I love to eat healthy foods that are well prepared and I absolutely thrive on eating well. If the most appealing and appropriate and available piece of protein for me is chicken or even red meat, as long as it’s lean and not full of pesticides, hormones or antibiotics, I’ll eat it and I’ll enjoy it. (I’m talking about a little bit here and there.) But if people stare at my plate and go “Oh my God!” it’s just not fun.
The Share Guide: Many nutrition experts endorse animal protein, especially with the new low-carb consciousness. How do you feel about this and are you still as committed to vegetarianism?
Mollie Katzen: I’ve never been that committed to vegetarianism. There is a difference between eating vegetarian and vegetarianism. I love vegetarian food. One of my favorite things is a big plateful of vegetables and greens with tofu and nuts. That is how I eat about 95% of the time. However, if I’m feeling like I have low blood sugar and I’ve got a long day ahead of me and I am at a lunch meeting and the two different sandwich choices are grilled eggplant or roast beef, I am going to go for the roast beef. This is because if I eat the eggplant, I am going to get faint and dizzy and crash in an hour because I need the protein. So I need to go for the most nutritionally dense food available. I’m also slight and thin and I don’t have a lot of reserve, so I am very conscious of the nutritional density of food. Of course I want it to be pure and I want it to be wholesome and healthy as well.
The Share Guide: So you don’t care for the term vegetarianism?
Mollie Katzen: I think there is a difference between loving to eat a certain way and attaching an “ism” or a label to it, which closes the door on ever eating another way. I write vegetarian recipes because I love them, but I also like a good piece of roast chicken every once in a while. Some people try to define themselves as “lacto-ovo vegetarians” and these other long phrases. My favorite one is Hagen Daas Vegans! I’ve been trying to come up with some phrase that will describe my diet, and the term I have come up with is a “garden and orchard based” way of eating. It’s a model where the bulk of the food on your plate comes from a very long food chain, with whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables. The protein element can come from a few strips of tofu, a few cubes of tempeh, maybe some cheese, or perhaps a small amount of grilled chicken or shrimp or some eggs. But no matter where it comes from, the bulk of food on the plate is from a garden or orchard. If you have a lot of vegetables, whole grains, and then maybe a couple little twists of different kinds of protein, then it doesn’t become this huge deal about whether or not a person is eating meat, and how that defines them as a human being. Some nutritionists say it’s not good to eat too much soy.
The Share Guide: Are there other good veggie protein sources you recommend?
Mollie Katzen: Actually, there are not that many choices if you are vegan, which is one of the things that I came up against because I didn’t eat meat for many, many years. I was eating mainly vegan for about 15 years, but I wasn’t feeling very well. I had low energy, was less focused, and I felt tired. When I increased my animal protein and added a little bit of eggs and cheese, I felt a million times better. This is a touchy issue though; I got some testy feedback on my website. If you are vegan and you want to eat a decent amount of protein, you have to be very conscious. You could go for legumes, but legumes are also quite high in carbohydrates. For vegans, if you want to limit soy, you really have to work with whole grains and beans and also nuts, which are a wonderful source of protein. Some people have allergies to nuts though. However, vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs shouldn’t have a problem.
The Share Guide: What do you think about using soymilk instead of regular dairy milk in recipes?
Mollie Katzen: I find in cooking and baking that soymilk and cow’s milk are just about interchangeable. I think it’s just a personal preference. Everything I make with milk, I can make with soymilk. I make béchamel sauce and white sauce and cream soup with soymilk. It’s much better than cooking with low fat milk, which is way too thin. Unflavored rice milk can be good, but it’s also a little thin.
The Share Guide: Now that we know about the problems with hydrogenated oils and the high cholesterol of butter, are there any substitutes that you prefer?
Mollie Katzen: I still like to use some butter, but if you want to stay away from that you can use canola oil or olive oil. One trick is to add just a tiny bit of butter to the oil and you’ll get a butter flavor using very little butter. If you spike your oil with butter, then you can take butter flavor to a higher temperature and that’s very nice when you are cooking.
The Share Guide: Do you cook mainly with organic ingredients?
Mollie Katzen: Yes, my kitchen is as organic as I can manage. I’d like to have a completely organic kitchen if I could, and I’m very close to that. I’m not fanatical about it, but I do prefer it.
The Share Guide: Mollie, do you eat fish at all?
Mollie Katzen: Yes, I really like fish. I’m concerned about toxicity, but I do like it. I go out of my way to buy wild salmon when it’s available. But I keep my cookbooks vegetarian because that’s what people expect from me.
The Share Guide: For people who don’t spend much time in the kitchen but would like to get started, what do you suggest?
Mollie Katzen: I recommend that beginners start with soups. I just think that there’s very little that can go wrong in a soup.
The Share Guide: What about salad? Is that considered cooking?
Mollie Katzen: I consider salad to be cooking, but salad can be tricky; knowing how to dress a salad is a fine art. I don’t want to frighten anybody away from anything, but I do think that soups are a great way to start. Most of the Moosewood soup recipes are designed for beginners. Pasta is also easy to make.
The Share Guide: Tell us about the work you do with Harvard University.
Mollie Katzen: There are two main things that I do there. One is that I’m part of a nutrition round table at the Harvard School of Public Health. This is a group of people who come together to discuss findings of the nutrition department at Harvard. We find out the latest results of their studies and try to publicize that and also translate the knowledge into action. In addition, I’m a consultant to the Harvard University Dining Services.
The Share Guide: What are you currently writing?
Mollie Katzen: I just finished my third children’s cookbook, which is called Salad People. And I’m working on a book for adults called Arugala Dreams that is going to be finished in the Fall. It’s all about vegetables, because most people I know (whether they call themselves vegetarians or not), don’t eat enough vegetables. Are there any more projects that you’re involved in? My most exciting food related project is that I started a little company with a couple of partners and we are making soups. These are fresh soups that we’re selling to grocery stores in Northern California. It’s a small operation; I designed the packaging and the recipes. The soup comes in 12-ounce containers in the refrigerated section, and it’s called Mollie’s Natural Kitchen. Our website has a list of the stores where the soup is available at www.molliesnaturalkitchen.com
For more information about Mollie Katzen, visit www.molliekatzen.com
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