For a start (even though I didn’t buy it, I won it in a competition) it isn’t ridiculously expensive like so many cookbooks are. The last one I bought for The Spouse (who is the chef chez moi) could have bought dinner out for two at a cheap-and-cheerful restaurant here in Melbourne.
More importantly, it has a different approach both to vegetarian cooking and to the process of preparing meals in itself.
If like mine (pre Spouse when I was in the kitchen), your 1970s cooking was the hippie vegetarian type, you probably had Mollie Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook. It went viral back then (though in the 70s the word ‘viral’ meant something entirely different) because it relegated meat to redundant and it promoted cooking everything from scratch. I made some scrumptious meals from Moosewood but they were, as Katzen now acknowledges, bulky and rich. They were also often brown and somewhat drab in appearance.
But, okay, these days everyone in the cookbook trade is reducing fat; relying more on flavouring; and setting aesthetic standards usually impossible for a home cook to achieve. What makes Katzen’s book different to the vegetarian cookbooks that I have (about 30 at last count, we eat vegetarian 2-3 times a week) is the focus on vegetables as dominant on the plate, as Katzen explains in her down-to-earth, chatty style:
Now when I cook, I want as much space on the plate as possible for my beloved garden vegetables. For the most part, that is my definition of my cuisine: a beautiful plate of food, simply cooked, maximally flavoured, and embracing as many plant components as will harmoniously fit. My food is sharper, livelier, and more relaxed than it used to be. (p.2)
And she means it when she says ‘more relaxed’. For risotto, don’t get hung up on shelling your own peas, use frozen. There is a divine pomegranate version of baklava that uses store-bought filo pastry. (Well, I never did make my own, I admit it. Who can?) Most amazing of all to those of us who spent hours in the earth-mother kitchen preparing (almost) everything from scratch, is her recommendation to use a brand of vegetable stock from the supermarket, and her five mayo-based sauces that start with a jar of store-bought mayonnaise.
But what really makes this cookbook different to our others (200+, the Spouse takes his culinary duties seriously) is that reducing the ratio of vegetables to carbohydrates allows for a more mix-and-match approach to cooking:
The plant-food road to deliciousness allows you to be an artist as well as a cook, showcasing the beauty of the ingredients as you mix things up in creative yet taste-logical ways.
She has menus (for everyday meals, not dinner party menus) to start you off, but recommends doing your own thing. For example:
- caramelised onion frittata with artichoke hearts, zucchini and goat cheese
- grilled bread and kale salad with red onions, walnuts and figs
- (for dessert) brown sugar-roasted rhubarb with cinnamon toast crumbs
These recipes look so easy and delicious and the bit about being an artist translates into photos of simple ideas that any fool can do. Katzen’s cheerful chatter inspires confidence about needing only one pan to make the salad and the quantities it makes:
makes 1 main-dish serving if it’s me eating it; 2 main-dish servings, or up to 4 first-course or side servings for most people
The whole idea is that the recipes are ‘modular’, and it’s not just that they group together so well, the dishes are often do-ahead and store ahead, so that you can make the mashed parsnips for 4 and keep them in the fridge for 4-5 days or the freezer for longer and the mash will happily reheat in the microwave. BTW There is a whole chapter on making mashes and how to ‘build them out’ so that they act as a base for a layered plate of vegetables. Top of the must-try list is Curried Mashed Carrots and Cashews served on ciabatta bread, with half-a-dozen suggested ways of combining them with other delicious ideas such as Spiced Basmati Pilaf with Nuts and Raisons.
This is cooking for the busy home cook!
PS January 15th: It’s been another scorcher here in Melbourne so tonight we tried the Gazpacho Salad. Refreshing, light and delicious, and quick and easy to cook. I should have taken a photo!
Author: Mollie Matzen
Title: The Heart of the Plate, Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
Source: Won in a competition at Eat Your Books
Eat Your Books is a website that enables you to catalogue and index all your cookbooks so that all you need to do is search for a recipe and it tells you which of your cookbooks it’s in. You can also use it to search for ingredients and it will find the recipes you have that use those ingredients. And they have competitions for new cookbooks, and all sorts of other things besides.