For the love of avocados – and other veggies

The Brussel sprout gratin was anything but lackluster. Photo by Mollie Katzen
The Brussel sprout gratin was anything but lackluster. Photo by Mollie Katzen

Traveling from her home in Northern Calif., Mollie Katzen, 62, kicked off her 12th cookbook, The Heart of the Plate (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) in a whirlwind of a book tour at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in D.C. last month. The Heart of the Plate came out the same day. Katzen, with more than 6 million copies of her books in print, is best known for The Moosewood Cookbook (1977); with it, she introduced, some say single-handedly, America to vegetarian food. Katzen modestly waives her hand at these claims.

As a young woman in college, Mollie Katzen cooked vegetables when she left home because of her Orthodox upbringing. It was the simplest way to keep kosher. Later on at Moosewood in Ithaca, N.Y., a collective she and her brother helped found, cooking meat was just not in the cards. While vegetables shined at Moosewood’s kitchen, cooking meat was not as successful.

Recipes in The Moosewood Cookbook had the kitchen-sink approach — throw all the veggies into a casserole. Today, in The Heart of the Plate, Katzen shines the light on each vegetable individually. She draws out maximum flavor with quick and minimal preparation, using different techniques and cooking methods, such as high heat and salting at the right moment.

Shining the light on the vegetables became a cinch with the wider availability of local, fresh, quality produce, access to farmers markets and availability of good olive oil. Olive oil takes center stage in the book, replacing the abundance of sour cream, butter and eggs Katzen used to dabble with in her earlier cookbooks. In the Moosewood days, good olive oil was virtually unavailable. The U.S. was getting a third and fourth olive oil press, inferior quality imports, says Katzen. Today, fortunately, extra virgin olive oil is available on grocery shelves and is even produced in the U.S.

Katzen, a 2007 James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame inductee, isn’t a vegetarian, as she will once in a long while have a nonvegetarian nibble. Katzen has a deep respect for personal dietary choices but does not wish to compartmentalize vegetarian cooking. She would like to shed the labels. She wishes us to celebrate vegetables and make them a larger part of our daily meals and holiday tables, whether we are vegetarians or not. Katzen has evolved as a cook and a cookbook author with the availability of fresh produce and quality cooking ingredients. Hence, the title of the book, The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipe for a New Generation, which is for the evolved older generation and the new and upcoming younger generation of cooks.

Responding to a Sixth & I audience member’s question of which vegetable she loves most, Katzen said that she loves all vegetables but her recent infatuation is with avocados. The most underrated vegetable Katzen adds is the celery root. Katzen was engaging with incredible food stories peppered with a great sense of humor. In retrospect, Katzen’s response explained our order at my dinner with Katzen, just a couple of hours prior to her conversation with moderator Sally Swift, managing editor at The Splendid Table, and book signing at Sixth & I.

I arrived early at Busboys and Poets at Fifth and K, just a couple of blocks walking distance from Sixth & I. When I turned at a tap on my shoulder, I saw a petite glowing woman I recognized. Katzen and I warmly embraced and we talked about her kids, my boy and her extensive family in Israel, as if we were longtime friends.

We were short on time, but I wish I had shared with Katzen how instrumental she was in my own metamorphosis in the kitchen to minimally cooking vegetables without losing their nutrients by cooking them too long. The innovative way Katzen pairs ingredients pushed me to think outside the box. On my bookshelf, I’ve got not only The Moosewood Cookbook but also The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Katzen’s Mediterranean Lentil Salad from her Still Life with Menu cookbook is a staple in our house. When my son was younger I bought Pretend Soup, part of a cookbook trilogy Katzen wrote geared towards young kids.

At Busboys and Poets we shared a salad and a panini. Katzen was cooing over the avocado panini with havarti, arugula, roasted red pepper and roasted portabella mushrooms on multigrain bread. It came with a side of sweet potato fries. Both Katzen and I loved the sparingly dressed mango and avocado salad with jicama, radish and butter lettuce tossed with hemp vinaigrette. You would think the menu at Busboys and Poets was custom-written for the everything avocado and all vegetables queen, Katzen.

Brussels Sprout Gratin with Potatoes and Spinachkatzenmollie

Makes 6 to 8 servings

Vegan (when made with all olive oil, soy milk, and no cheese)

When I decided on a meal of Brussels sprouts, cooked with potatoes, onion, garlic, and spinach and baked under a lacy roof of grated cheese and coarse breadcrumbs, I expected the results to be cozy, but lackluster. Except for the cozy part, I was so wrong.

Gruyere cheese is ideal for this. You can also use Emmentaler.

For the bread crumbs, toast 2 slices of your favorite whole-wheat bread, then coarsely crumble in a food processor.

2½ tablespoons olive oil, or 1½ tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 pound smallish potatoes, cut into 1⁄8-inch-thick half circles (peeling is optional)

1 pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut into 1⁄8-inch-thick slices (include all the leaves that fall off while you’re cutting them)

2 cups chopped onion (1 large)

1 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons minced or crushed garlic

½ pound fresh spinach (baby leaves or coarsely chopped larger leaves)

Black pepper

¼ cup cream, milk, half-and-half, or soy milk

1 cup fresh whole-wheat bread crumbs (see note)

1 (packed) cup grated Gruyere (about ¼ pound; optional)

Paprika (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F, with a rack in the highest position that will fit your baking pan. Coat a 9-x-13-inch baking pan or equivalent gratin pan with about ½ tablespoon of the olive oil.

2. Fill a medium-large saucepan with water and put it on to boil. When the water boils, add the potatoes and Brussels sprouts and cook them for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they become fork-tender. Drain them in a colander and shake to thoroughly drain.

3. Meanwhile, place a large (10- to 12-inch) skillet over medium heat for about a minute, then add 1 tablespoon olive oil (2 tablespoons, if not adding butter) and swirl to coat the pan. Melt in the butter, if using, and swirl again. Add the onion and ¼ teaspoon of the salt and cook, stirring, for about 8 minutes, or until the onion becomes very soft, verging on golden.

4. Stir in the garlic and lay the spinach on top to wilt. (It will quickly oblige.) Stir it in, along with the drained potatoes and sprouts, the remaining ¾ teaspoon salt, a generous amount of black pepper, and the cream. Mix to get everything thoroughly distributed, then transfer to the prepared pan.

5. Sprinkle the top with the bread crumbs and cheese and dust it lightly with paprika, if desired. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cheese is perfectly melted and turning golden. Serve hot or warm.

Excerpted from The Heart of the Plate by Mollie Katzen. Reproduced by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. Shulie Madnick is a Fairfax-based food writer and food photographer. She writes out of her site

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