Cookbook Review: Mollie Katzen's The Heart of the Plate

“This is now your book, and soon these will become your recipes.”

Readers, today I’m going to tell you about an exceptional, foundational cookbook--one of the best I’ve seen in years: Mollie Katzen’s The Heart of the Plate.

Long-time readers here at Casual Kitchen know that we’re big Mollie Katzen fans. Groupies even. Why? Because her first work, the original Moosewood Cookbook, sent us down an entire path of culinary discovery. It showed us that the Standard American Diet--where meat was an obligatory centerpiece of every meal--didn’t have to be the default setting for how we ate.

This in turn brought me to an enormous economic insight: adding vegetarian recipes to your meal rotation actually makes your diet healthier and less expensive at the same time. It entirely changed how I cook... and I’ve never looked back.

But The Heart of the Plate differs significantly--and in a useful way--from Mollie's prior works. Sure, it’s still vegetarian, and anyone who knows her distinct artwork and writing tone will instantly recognize her here. But Mollie's cooking style has evolved: She’s become more spare, more flexible, more modular in her cooking. You won't find recipes with endless ingredient lists here. Instead, you'll find simple, elegant recipes with--as Mollie herself puts it--"aesthetic economy."

In other words, these are exactly the kinds of recipes that will resonate with Casual Kitchen readers: recipes that are interesting, different and laughably easy. This is the kind of cookbook that makes a modern cook grateful.

I said above that The Heart of the Plate was a “foundational” cookbook. What do I mean by this? Simply that this book contains all the tools you’ll need to master the realm of simplified, convenient cooking. There’s a complete culinary education in these pages: everything from clear instructions on how to stock a simple kitchen, to recommendations on which oils to use when, to which sweeteners work best with what ingredients. Mollie teaches you how to make soup stock, or, depending on your convenience needs, how to avoid making it. She teaches readers to “flip” the ratios of starches to veggies in recipes, making them healthier by reducing pasta, noodles or white rice in favor of fiber-rich, lower-starch vegetables. And she even includes 35 complete menus, built entirely from the book’s collection of some 400 recipes. You'll be able to host a lifetime of dinner parties from this book alone.

That’s what I mean by foundational.

Dozens of recipes jumped out at me from The Heart of the Plate--and in the coming months I hope to feature some of them here at Casual Kitchen. See, for example, Lablabi--otherwise known as Tunisian Chickpea Soup (page 30), Sweet Potato Pear Soup (page 33), a hilariously easy Grated Carrot Salad (page 62), Green Rice with Grapes and Pecans (rice... with grapes? Seriously? page 114), and even a creative and fairly easy Kimchi Stew (page 158).

There’s a section called “cozy mashes” with easy recipes for mashed savory foods that can be either central to your dinner or a hearty side accompaniment. See for example Curried Mashed Carrots and Cashews (page 170-1) or Smoky Mashed Caramelized Eggplant and Onions (page 175). And the chapter on rice and grains features a fascinating recipe for Coconut Rice with Chilies, Ginger and Lime (page 196-7) and a wildly striking Blueberry Rice recipe (page 200).

And there’s much more, including a chapter on sauces/vinaigrettes and toppings and a chapter filled with a dozen delicious desserts. Might I suggest baking up a batch of delicious, buttery Pecan Shortbread Cookies (page 435)?

One final thought. Cookbooks (and for that matter, food blogs) these days increasingly seem filled with one-word sentences and hipsterish, photoshopped food photos. Form before function, I guess. Except that nobody wants to experience Snazzy Cookbook Syndrome(TM), which is the disappointment home cooks experience when they compare the phony, over-styled photo in the book with the actual appearance of their just-cooked meal.

The Heart of the Plate is, literally, the opposite of this. At more than 400 pages, it’s big and beautiful--but it’s also humble. The photos in Katzen’s book are refreshingly real, which means we cooks at home can produce meals that actually look like the pictures. And readers will find in this book the very same Mollie Katzen who earnestly penned the original Moosewood Cookbook. Her recipe style may have evolved and the diversity of her cuisine may have expanded, but it’s still her voice, her drawings, her artwork. It’s still her.

Once again, this isn’t just a cookbook. It’s a complete cook’s resource that will be a foundational cookbook in your kitchen. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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1 comment:

Tragic Sandwich said...

This sounds like it may be the vegetarian cookbook I've been looking for.I eat meat, and don't plan to stop entirely, but I do want to increase the percentage of my diet that is vegetarian.

I also have a 3-1/2 year old who has been diagnosed with autism, and we are about to begin intensive therapy with her--which means that I need to be able to cook healthily and simply. I just don't have the time or space for complex recipes with long ingredient lists, no matter how delicious the results are.

I'll be checking out Mollie Katzen's latest--thanks for the review~