Mollie Katzen's Vegetable Heaven

by Mollie Katzen,1997

224 pages, 200 + recipes

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"Usually, we eat to satisfy plain old hunger, but almost as often we eat in response to some vague sense of yearning as well. One kind of yearning that isn't vague at all is the very clear need from time to time for a fabulous ending, a grand finale granting us a moment of luxury. Then we get up from the table, and return to our routines, but we do so in a lingering heightened state, having danced with the divine. Ah, the hidden, elusive benefits of Eating Desserts!"

Miniature Potato Dumplings with Sage and Chives

Dreamy White Beans

Kale Crunch

Cherry Tomato Chewies

Lentil Stew

Tart Tart

Penne with Mushrooms, Leeks, and Dried Tomatoes

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I always buy the latest Mollie Katzen cookbook the moment it hits the bookstores. Like getting an unexpected letter from a friend I haven't seen in years, I can't wait to open it and find out what she's been up to. Katzen has had that kind of effect on her admirers ever since we first met her twenty-five years ago when she burst on the cookbook scene with her wildly popular Moosewood Cookbook. We may not know her personally but we feel a personal connection with her. She has a friendly, humorous, likable personality that beams up from every page and recipe.

Mollie Katzen's Vegetable Heaven is her fifth cookbook. As Katzen writes in the introduction, it reflects "the evolution of my own cooking over the past twenty-five years." It's been an interesting evolution; it reflects our country's changing eating habits as well as her own creative development as a cook. The book itself, more polished and richly produced than any of her previous ones, is a far cry from the winsome, hand-lettered Moosewood. Nonetheless, it still retains the appealing, unpretentious character that's become a Katzen hallmark.

The butter/oil intense dishes from Moosewood days are long gone. Nonetheless she is not, I'm glad to say, a hard-liner on this issue, and she makes well-chosen exceptions especially in her "Too Many Desserts" section. Those Moosewood dishes padded by thick blankets of cheese and those laden with eggs are long gone too. These days her cooking is lighter and often looks to East and Far East for inspiration such as her refreshing Vietnamese Salad Rolls.

Since her Moosewood days, Katzen has evolved from the footloose twenty-something art student to a best-selling cookbook author and mother of two of two. Oh yes, she also has her own nationally syndicated cooking show. (Do I feel like a slug compared to her?) No doubt her own time-crunched life lead her to create a good bunch of the streamlined recipes in Vegetable Heaven like her "Pastas for Real Life", her fresh take on sandwiches (and no we're not talking grilled cheese for dinner), and "pizzettas" with a rich wardrobe of quick toppings.

With Moosewood Katzen was one of the first writers to make vegetarian cooking fun! Happily, Katzen has not grown serious or self-important with age and success. Her warm, humorous tone remains. Her writing is still sparkly.  Katzen is determined to make her cooking to be eminently accessible: no vague or confusing directions, no time-consuming tour-de-force techniques, no hard-to-find ingredients.

Katzen has always had an appealing cooking style which she characterizes as "logical yet whimsical". In Vegetable Heaven she continues to apply her whimsy to new inventive recipes without, in her words, "getting carried away with exoticness for its own sake". Who would guess that kale baked until it's crisp would really be tasty? And why hasn't anyone thought of a grapefruit tart before? Her Tart Tart, a grapefruit curd on a walnut shortbread crust, is a brilliant twist on the classic lemon tart.  Not that all of her inventions fly. Her Olive Waffles sounded more intriguing in theory than in practice; the sharp tang of the olives annihilated the mildness of the waffle. And her Pumpkin Mousse, made with soft tofu instead of eggs and milk, was something I'd expect to find in a vegan cookbook written by someone whose righteous health concerns have overridden their taste buds. Yecch!

Even with her innovative streak she makes room for classics that you might have forgotten and are glad to be reminded of: tapioca pudding, spoon bread, whipped sweet potatoes (with a surprise tweak of lime juice.) She does subtle, fresh takes on vegetarian standards like lentil stew; her tasty version gets its liveliness from a good dose  of dried apricots.

The most exciting concept in Vegetable Heaven is Katzen's fresh way of thinking about meals. She's broken out of the mindset that says the main dish takes center stage and the side dishes have little walk-on parts. Katzen says she serves her family dinners consisting of two or three "side-by-side dishes", where no one dish hogs the spotlight, and all work well together. This challenge of the old order has already begun to seep into our eating habits. (Waiters no longer look flustered when we order a few side dishes instead of an entree, right?) Katzen is the first cookbook writer I've seen to really apply this concept to the home cook.

Katzen lays out exciting new "side-by-side" dish possibilities that include, and go beyond, soup-and-salad scenarios.  I especially like her Tasty Bites section and Never a Bland Moment (sauces and condiments) section. Many of these dishes keep well in the fridge, so it's easy to have a few on hand, ready to "make a bonafide event out of that baked potato...,broiled fish, plain cooked rice..." When I added the Cherry Tomato Chewies (delicious small-scale roasted tomatoes which I had made and frozen the week before) to a harried, thrown-together quesadilla meal, it no longer seemed like a desperation dinner, but a meal worth slowing down to enjoy. This is my kind of cooking- creative simplicity!

I wish Vegetable Heaven offered more "weeknight" menu ideas using the side-by-side, mix-and-match concept. True, there is a page of menus in the back of the book. But these menus, each with four or five dishes, are all from her TV show, a far cry from Real Life.

While most of what I've tried is in the good-to-very good range, I wish more were out of this world. (That's what I've come to expect of her.) Still, what shines thorough is her ever evolving creative relationship with food which never fails to inspire me to be more creative in my own thinking about food. To judge the book on number of four-star recipes would be too narrow. Vegetable Heaven is a book whose whole is greater than the sum its recipes.