Well Nourished with Mollie Katzen

A Generous Gift from the Heart of the Plate

Just in time for cooler weather you’ll find recipes for true comfort food, healthful and delicious in “Spinach-Mushroom Mac and Cheese” from Mollie Katzen’s latest cookbook, The Heart of the Plate, released September 2013. Photo by Annette Nielsen.

Most of us who cook and are of a certain age are familiar with the Moosewood cookbook – we might have used it for our first foray into vegetarian cooking. Selling between 20 and 30 thousand copies annually, the book will begin its 40th birthday celebration next September, when Ten Speed Press will issue an anniversary edition, including some of the original material from Katzen’s first self-published tome.

"I wrote that cookbook for the parents of friends, the ones who had adopted a vegetarian lifestyle," says Katzen humbly, "I never knew it would be so popular." 

Now, with the publication of her twelfth cookbook, The Heart of the Plate, Katzen says, "I'm writing cookbooks for others – and as I don't use recipes when I cook, I truly want to be of service – I am the coach in the kitchen." Not concerned about being clever, she obsesses about getting it right and says, "It's truly important to me that I've included enough information for a range of skill levels – as people are investing in the book, ingredients, and ultimately their time preparing the food."

In this book you’ll find some of the most well-tested, great-tasting and clearly written recipes that will have you looking for the next opportunity to get into the kitchen. She’s generous with her instructions, warm in tone, and offers many ideas for substitutions or visual cues, whether a recipe for Autumn Vegetable Lasagna or Spinach-Mushroom Mac and Cheese (see recipe below).

While her pitch is for plant-forward cooking and eating, Katzen isn't about shunning meat, "If a piece of steak or poultry lands on the plate, that's fine. I'm not anti-meat, I just really love vegetables.  The term 'vegetarian' should really describe the food and not the individual."

Katzen also notes that it's great to have passion for ideas and ideals, but we don't need more labels that divide us. "My focus is not to have a main course with sides, it's all about side-by-side dishes, and to celebrate a collaboration of ingredients." 

Katzen notes that we'd have a healthier world if more people cooked at home instead of eating out, as then you can control what ingredients make their way into a dish.

"It would be great if we could cultivate a culture of home cooks – where everyone could become literate in cooking, even if just a couple of dishes that they can execute.  It's also leads you to good home economics – it’s less expensive to cook and eat at home."

Katzen remembers that when she was only 7, she learned to prepare coffee in the percolator before her parents woke on weekend mornings, and by the time she was 10, she was responsible for making dinner on Tuesday nights. "It was a classic flank steak made from the London broil cut with mustard, frozen French cut green beans, minute rice and a salad made with Russian dressing my mom had taught me how to make with mayonnaise and ketchup – I was the boss of that meal," citing she's never called herself a chef, but in this instance, where the translation of the word, 'chef' is boss. 

"It's human instinct to want to give back, and kids are honored to be invited into an adult realm. Their cooking is only marginally about eating the food themselves—what they really want is to feed you."

Katzen is a talented artist and musician, accomplished in painting and playing the piano – she even shot all of the photos and created the lovely illustrations for The Heart of the Plate (the title coming from a cafeteria station she designed with Walter Willett at the Harvard School of Public Health). From her years of cooking and the experience with Harvard, she states, "There is no firewall necessary between healthy and delicious."

Asked what she would most like to be remembered for, Katzen replied, "Nothing would make me happier than to know that I might have made people more comfortable in their kitchens and fluent in delicious plant-based cooking.”

Invite Katzen into your kitchen with The Heart of the Plate – you’ll feel as if you’ve just made a new best friend.


Spinach-Mushroom Mac and Cheese
(adapted from The Heart of the Plate, by Mollie Katzen, 2013)
Makes 5 or 6 servings

A golden path to popularity, this is a great use for leftover flat beer. It can also be made with present-tense, still-perky beer – in the unlikely event that “leftover” means the other half of the one you’re drinking while you read this.

Different beers can yield vastly different flavors, and it’s fun to experiment with various light and dark varieties when making beer-cheese sauces, such as this one (which is a riff on Welsh rarebit). Continuing the theme, plan to drink something that matches (chilled bottles from the same six-pack, perhaps?) with your dinner.

In a pinch, you can use a 10-ounce package of frozen chopped spinach instead of the fresh. Defrost thoroughly and squeeze as dry as possible ahead of time.

  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • ½ pound orecchiette, elbow macaroni, or equivalent-sized shells
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus a little more for the pasta
  • 1 cup milk (low-fat is OK)
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • ½ pound mushrooms, wiped clean, stemmed as necessary, and cut into ½-inch dice
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon minced or crushed garlic
  • 1 teaspoon prepared Dijon or plain yellow mustard
  • 2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup room-temperature beer (your choice)
  • 1 pound fresh spinach, stemmed as necessary and chopped (4 packed cups)
  • 1½ (packed) cups grated sharp white cheddar (6 ounces)
  • ¾ cup fresh whole-wheat bread crumbs (see note)*
  • ½ cup minced walnuts (optional)
  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F, with a rack in the highest position that will fit your baking pan. Lightly spray a 2-quart baking dish or an 8-inch square pan with nonstick spray.
  2. Put on a medium-large pot of water to boil. When the water boils, add the pasta and cook until just tender enough to bite into comfortably, then drain and transfer to a bowl. Toss with a little olive oil and set aside.
  3. Heat the milk – ideally in a spouted measuring cup in a microwave – until it is steaming and too hot to touch, but not boiling Set the hot milk near the stove.
  4. Place a medium-large saucepan over medium heat for about a minute, then add the oil and swirl to coat the pan. Toss in the butter, letting it melt into the oil. Add the mushrooms and ½ teaspoon of the salt and cook, stirring, over medium-low heat for 5 minutes.
  5. Whisk in the garlic and mustard, then turn the heat to low and sprinkle in the flour, whisking constantly; it will quickly become a paste. Continue to whisk for another 15 seconds or so.
  6. Keep the pan over low heat as you drizzle in the hot milk, whisking constantly. When the milk is incorporated, whisk in the beer. Turn up the heat to medium and stir constantly with a wooden spoon as you add the chopped spinach and the remaining ½ teaspoon salt. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the spinach wilts its way into the sauce. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in both the cooked pasta and the cheese.
  7. Taste for salt, add a touch more if you wish, then transfer the mixture to the baking pan. Top with the bread crumbs and walnuts, if desired, and bake uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes, or until bubbly around the edges and crisp and golden on top. (It might look loose on its way into the oven, but it will pull itself together by the time it comes out.) Serve hot.

*To make delicious, fresh whole-wheat bread crumbs, simply toast slices of your favorite whole-wheat bread until they are crisp, then break them into pieces and grind to the desired consistency in a food processor or blender. If you want to keep a nice stash in your freezer, spread the crumbs in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze for about 20 minutes, then transfer to a heavy zip-style plastic bag. (This method helps prevent them from freezing into a solid clump.) Keep them frozen for optimal freshness, taking out just what you need. Two average slices of whole-wheat bread will usually yield a generous cup of crumbs.

Optional Enhancements:  At the end of many of her recipes, Katzen gives ideas for pairings using other recipes in the cookbook – here, she recommends side-by-side dishes like Apple-Parsley Saladita or Nectarine-Thyme Saladita, with a good first (or second) course in Citrusy Beets or Roasted Beets Surrounded by Mango. She also suggests serving the Spinach-Mushroom Mac and Cheese in a “vessel” such as a portobello.