Moosewood Cookbook legend dishes on her Jewish roots

Cookbook maven Mollie Katzen is in her Berkeley kitchen whipping up a little dinner for her daughter, who is home visiting from college.

“Steamed artichoke and mashed parsnips,” Katzen says, describing the contents of the two pots on the stove. “Last night was eggplant in sesame miso sauce. She’s a real vegetable hound.”

That’s not surprising.

Mollie Katzen photo/lisa keating

Before Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” before Alice Waters and “California cuisine,” there was Katzen, whose 1977 publication of “The Moosewood Cookbook” shifted vegetarian cooking to the forefront of America’s food consciousness.

Working from recipes developed at the Moosewood Restaurant, a largely vegetarian eatery started by a collective of friends in 1973 in Ithaca, N.Y., Katzen introduced a generation of home chefs to exotica such as tofu, tamari and brown rice.

That cookbook and its 1982 follow-up, “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest,” posited meatless meals as a viable choice at a time when dinner meant steak and potatoes.

Now 60 years old, Katzen is a big name in the foodie world. She has more than 6 million books in print and was named by the New York Times as one of the best-selling cookbook authors of all time.

She is a syndicated columnist, a contributing editor and a food consultant. It’s in the latter capacity that she works with the California Walnut Board to promote the eating of walnuts and other nuts.

Working with the Walnut Board is particularly satisfying, as Katzen thinks good fats, such as those in walnuts, are critical to healthy eating.

“Low fat is misguided,” she says. “It should be good fat as opposed to bad fat.”

Katzen also is co-creator of Harvard University’s Food Literacy Project and goes to Boston a few times a year to consult with the university’s School of Public Health. “I see my role as taking their recommendations and research findings and showing people what that looks like on their dinner plate,” Katzen says.

Her next book, which she hopes to publish in 2013, will be a “big new vegetarian cookbook, chronicling my cooking and how it’s changed and evolved,” she says.

Although Katzen is not known as a Jewish chef, she says her approach to food is deeply rooted in her upbringing in an observant Conservative home in Rochester, N.Y.

“Kashrut is the beginning,” she says. “Keeping food sacred is real important to me. Even a bowl of popcorn in front of the TV, I love to ‘behold’ the popcorn, and not just mindlessly reach in and eat it.”

On Friday nights when she was growing up, Katzen recall that she “felt the house transformed” for the Sabbath as the family said prayers over the wine and challah.

“Being grateful for food, slowing down around food — that’s what was sacred for me, and this was all in kashrut,” she says.

Despite Katzen’s vegetarian cookbooks, she is not a strict vegetarian. Katzen notes that she’d always choose plain chicken and fresh vegetables over a bowl of fettuccine Alfredo swimming in cream and butter.

“I’ve met many self-labeled vegetarians who eat terribly,” she says. “I’ll eat a little meat, if it’s sustainably raised and nicely prepared, but I want my plate to be mostly vegetables and whole grains.”

Katzen details a recent meat-free lunch: Mediterranean spiced chickpeas, brown rice pilaf with saffron and almonds, grilled zucchini and red onions with basil aioli, marinated carrots with yogurt and sesame sauce, and an eggplant tapenade.

When she left home for Cornell University in the late ’60s, Katzen says, she shied away from the “mystery meat” on her college meal plan. At the time, she had an ethos of avoiding meat as a statement against the Vietnam War and corporate America in general, she notes, as well as a desire to annoy her parents — but much of it came from her religious background.

“I didn’t trust meat out in the world. That was my Jewish upbringing,” she says. “Kashrut gave me a sense of: What’s the origin of my meat?”

Today Katzen travels widely to speak about her books, and she takes part in fundraisers for local Jewish causes in the Bay Area. Her brother and his family live near Tel Aviv, so she visits Israel often.

She’s pleased to be spreading the word about healthy eating. But she’s also trying to teach the world that, like the lamb and the lion, vegetarians and omnivores can coexist — if mealtime centers mostly on vegetables, with a little protein on the side.

“I want to get everyone sitting down at the same table,” she says.

J. staff writer Rachel Leibold contributed to this report.

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].