Friday, September 1, 2006

Mollie Katzen comes to Madison

Renowned chef and cookbook author brings her vegetable love to Madison’s Food For Thought Festival
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach

In ANEW Magazine, September 2006
Column: Around the Table

Recipe: Apple-glazed Acorn Squash Rings
Recipe: A Sparkling Sweet Potato

Ah, food, glorious food. The flavor! The aroma! The justice!

Justice? What’s that got to do with food?

A lot, in a world teeming with side-by-side surplus and famine, where a few agribusinesses boom while thousands of family farms go under, where most of what we spend on food goes not to farmers but to middlemen and merchandisers, and the average morsel travels thousands of miles from farm to plate, even in this day of soaring petrol prices. How extreme can the situation be? Recently several Florida produce growers were convicted of forcing hundreds of workers into “involuntary servitude” – slavery.

So if you like to eat and care at least a whit about the thousands of humans (and other beings) who help you do it, the eighth annual Food For Thought Festival off the Capitol Square, held during the Farmers’ Market Saturday morning, Sept. 16 (plus panel discussion the night before – details at, is for you.

This year’s theme is “Just Cooking," with the double meaning intentional. “It’s a way of looking at food that considers the health and wholeness of all the people and systems who produce and consume it,” says Miriam Grunes, executive director of REAP, the group organizing the event. “It also means making healthy, local ingredients available so everyone has access to foods that are fresh, minimally processed, locally and/or sustainably produced, flavorful and nutritious.”

Of the two world-class keynoters slated to speak, give free cooking classes and sign books, one is Anna LappĂ©, whose most recent book, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, encourages readers to “joyfully and deliciously embrace our responsibilities as world citizens,” says Grunes.

The other is veggie cookery superstar Mollie Katzen, one of the best-selling cookbook authors of all time. Mollie’s first book was 1977’s instant classic Moosewood Cookbook, followed by The Enchanted Broccoli Forest and many more cookbooks. Her achievements include a long-running cooking show on public television, awards for illustration and design, a seat at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Roundtable and a place in the Natural Health Hall of Fame.

In advance of her upcoming first trip to Wisconsin, Mollie spoke with us from the Berkeley, Calif. home where she’s lived for 21 years.

VVK: You helped put vegetarian cookery on the map. But you’re not a vegetarian yourself?

MK: If you go through my books, I never made an argument for vegetarianism. I said, if you want to eat less meat, here’s what you can cook.

I love low-on-the-food-chain food – nut butters, grains, beans, fruits, lots of vegetables. But being a vegetarian? To me it’s completely a nonissue. I don’t agree or disagree; it’s a very personal choice. But it’s irrelevant to your health. It doesn’t answer the question, what are you nourishing yourself with?

I think the early health foods movement was a lot about not eating this or that. People would say, “I’ve stopped eating meat.” And their friends would say, “Oh, good, you’re healthy now!” And that would be the end of the sentence. You’d wake up healthy the next day. It was a culture of denial. I don’t want to eat remorse food. I want fresh, delicious food. Food that’s about, “How can I make this as delicious as possible?” It doesn’t have to be fancy.

I’ve witnessed many vegetarians who are simply non-meat-eaters, without a single vegetable or fruit in their day – who subsist on high processed-carb diets with very little or no protein and very little or no fiber or fruit. And some meat-eaters are incredibly fit and healthy. It depends on what is actually eaten – not on what is not eaten.

VVK: What about the ethics: can meat to fit in with a just way of life? Can there ever be a regular place for bacon and burgers on the ethically aware table?

MK: Absolutely. There is sustainably raised meat. Humans have been omnivores all the way back in time.

VVK: Natural foods has become a big-money industry, but much of is in processed foods supporting the American lifestyle of prepackaged meals and quick-access snacks, not fresh ingredients that people take home to prepare lovingly.

MK: It's the result of people's perceived time-crunch issues. Nobody says, I don’t have time to watch my favorite TV shows, or surf the Internet. They just do it. Some people spend more time watching the Food Network than actually preparing food. I don’t know what that blockage is about. But a lot of that goes away when you fall in love with cooking.

VVK: Fall in love?

MK: I don’t want to make it sound like I’m talking about some mystical thing. I mean making a commitment, devoting time to your relationship with food. Love is manifest by making time for someone or something, make space for that in your life. That’s almost a working definition of love. When you love someone, what do you do? It’s the same as with any hobby, or a love for literature.

That’s really the key to dealing with a lot of our issues around food. Get closer to it, learn the craft. People who come to my classes, it’s the main barrier that keeps them from cooking more vegetables. They don’t have a comfortable relationship with a knife. I tell people, make friends with the knife. Keep it sharp. Practice.

Look on this as a craft, a really fun craft. Walk away from your kitchen. Then make it into a place that’s pleasant for you to be in and reconstitute that relationship in your life. Get a couple of really good tools. Find a knife that you really bond with – that you can have fun with.

Unfortunately, time to cook and focus on healthy and organic cooking has become a luxury. If you’re a harried mother, broke, with three children under age 5, and you pass McDonald’s with a chicken sandwich under a dollar, I’m not going to lecture that person. Although the irony is that for many people there’s a huge savings cooking at home.

VVK: Your cookbooks for children are so helpfully written and laid out, and the food is real eating, not kiddie novelty stuff. I think they’re ideal for anyone, any age, who wants to learn to cook. But if you’re an adult trying to cook with kids – how do you stay patient?

MK: Cook with children for fun, not for a meal or for a goal. "Process over product," is my motto for cooking with young kids. Children become more interested in fruits and vegetables when they get a chance to encounter them pre-plate, as in the garden – ideal! – or the farmers' market. Children also are attracted to things they get to prepare themselves, so let them make a tasty sauce to dip vegetables in, and you'll be amazed how their relationship to the vegetable will improve.

VVK: Do you have any words of encouragement or support or inspiration for moving to a more fully engaged relationship with food?

MK: Go to the farmer’s market and get things that look beautiful to you, whatever it is, and just bring it all home. Then put it all out. Get your tomatoes and strawberries and arrange it all in little bowls. Just stare at it. And just eat it. Plain. Cut up some tomatoes and maybe tear up some basil leaves on them. Do as little as possible. And that’s cooking.

Thirty years ago, when Mollie Katzen published her first, groundbreaking, cookbook, meatless meals tended towards “big, heavy entrees” with “thick sauces that would bury or mask” the veggies, she recalls. Today there’s “more flavor, less fuss, more subtlety.”

“The produce is better,” says Mollie. “Cooking knowledge is more sophisticated. People are into drizzling a little of this or that rather than concocting something. You can get high-quality toasted nut oils, rice vinegar, balsamic vinegar, Meyer lemons, fresh herbs.” Simple preparations can be dazzling and delicious, especially when they’re made with top quality ingredients: just choose a veg and roast, grill or braise it. Then finish simply – drizzle, glaze, make a reduction from the cooking liquid or sprinkle on some coarse salt.

How easy can it be to create a fresh and fabulous dish this way? Check out these recipes (edited for space) from Mollie’s latest, Eat, Drink and Weigh Less (Hyperion, 2006), co-written with Walter Willett, M.D. of the Harvard School of Public Health. Then get down to the farmers’ market on the Square on Sept. 16, and pick up these autumn ingredients in peak season on your way to the Food For Thought Festival. [See top of this article for links to the recipes.]

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