Mollie Katzen

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Also an award-winning illustrator and designer as well as best-selling cookbook author and popular public speaker, Ms. Katzen is best known as the creator of the groundbreaking classics Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Her other books include the award-winning children’s cookbook trilogy, Pretend Soup,Honest Pretzels and Salad People, and a collaboration with Walter Willett, MD of Harvard, Eat, Drink, & Weigh Less. Her most recent book is The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without published by Hyperion.

She is a charter member of the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Roundtable and an inaugural honoree of the Natural Health Hall of Fame. In addition, Ms. Katzen is a consultant to Harvard University Dining Services (since 2003), and co-creator of their new Food Literacy Project. She is also a culinary advisor to the University of California at Berkeley, a nationally syndicated columnist through the Chicago Tribune, and a contributing editor for SHAPE Magazine.

Diet Detective: Hey Mollie, thanks for the opportunity to interview you. My first question is really curiosity — I would love to know how you became interested in food?

Mollie: First bite, right out of the gate. Food has always significant and interesting to me.

Diet Detective: How did you learn to cook?

Mollie: I watched other people and refined my skills through a lot of tasting and experimentation.

Diet Detective: Tell us about your overall food philosophy? What have you learned in the last 20 years that you would like to impart on us?

Mollie: There are many things I have learned over the past 20 years. Here are my top three:

1. “Low-fat” is a misguided concept. Some fat is very good for you and you should go out of your way to eat it (nuts, especially walnuts; olive oil; avocadoes; seeds from pumpkins and sunflowers). Don’t count total fat or grams of fat. Lumping all fat together is meaningless, as fat calories do not make you fatter than carb calories. Calories are calories. Just be sure to include healthy fats and lose unhealthy ones (sat and trans). No more counting fat grams!

2. Instead of beating yourself with trying to be all healthy all the time, cut yourself some slack with “The 80-20 Rule:” Meaning, if you can eat healthy, good food 80 % of the time, let yourself have whatever you want the other 20 per cent of the time, and all will be well. Here’s the bigger message: We don’t have to draw a line in the sand with healthy eating that we assume is no fun on one side, and fun, delicious eating, which we assume is “bad for us” on the other. That line can go away altogether. Healthy eating can be delicious and vice versa. No “on” or “off” switch needed.

3. Drink plenty of water and cold (or hot) herbal tea. Don’t get your calories from your beverages. They can really add up, and all you’ll have gotten from the experience is a zero-nutrition weight gain. Often we think we’re hungry when what we really are is thirsty. So if you feel a drop in energy between meals, drink before you eat. Your energy will likely come back because you really just needed hydration. Drinking will make you healthier all around and help you to eat less.

Diet Detective: Why vegetarian cooking? I’ve read that you’re not a vegetarian — that you eat fish. Do you recommend being a vegetarian?

Mollie: Everyone should be eating a plant-based diet — food that is fresh, garden and orchard-based, and minimally fussed with. In my perfect world, the majority of my plate is filled with a variety of vegetables of various colors, shapes, and textures piled high. I also like to see beans or other legumes, whole grains, and nuts — particularly walnuts — on the plate as well. If a small portion of “clean,” sustainably raised meat or fish is included, that’s just fine with me. Just because one loves vegetables doesn’t mean one is against meat.

I don’t like the word vegetarian, and I don’t identify with it. It too often means “anything but meat,” rather than lots of fruits and vegetables. There are many self-defined vegetarians who eat few or no vegetables and pay little attention to nutrition. They emphasize avoiding meat, and will eat whatever is available. On the other hand, I know many meat-lovers who eat tons of fresh vegetables and are very nutrition-minded. So these definitions and labels really don’t translate into anything meaningful to me. I care about healthy eating in general, and about fruit and vegetable consumption in particular. Meat can be present or not — that’s a detail, and a highly personal choice.

All of that said, I stress the word “sustainable” regarding meat, because the mass production on factory feed lots is devastating to the environment. I would love to see us return to old-fashioned farms; raising livestock should be part of a good use of land and crop rotation.

I recommend that readers seek out the works of Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan on this subject.

Diet Detective: You’re creating a series of cookbooks and videos for beginning cooks — why do you think it’s so important for people to learn to cook?

Mollie: I’m very excited about my new “Get Cooking” project. If people learn to cook for themselves, they can eat better and more economically, develop great lifelong skills, and have a good time in the process. It’s a win-win proposition.

Diet Detective: How do you makeover a recipe? What do you look at first?

Mollie: I make sure I leave in the flavor and the texture while taking out the excess bulk and calories. It’s a question of knowing which ingredients are essential and which are expendable.

Diet Detective: Who and what influenced the way you think about food?

Mollie: The food itself influences me. I pay attention to my garden, to the farmers’ market stands, and the produce department. I taste with a great deal of focus, and I eat slowly.

Diet Detective: If you could have a healthy meal cooked for you, what would you order, and who would you like to have cook it for you?

Mollie: I’d request a big platter of all kinds of vegetables with a small pilaf of whole grains, and a modest (3-ounce) serving of wild Alaskan salmon cooked rare. A large salad would come first, and fresh fruit in season would follow. I’d like it to be cooked by someone who is a grower –an amateur gardener or a farmer who loves food.

Diet Detective: What’s your favorite healthy ingredient?

Mollie: A perfect apple, in season.

Diet Detective: What’s in your refrigerator and pantry right now?

Mollie: Apples, onions, shallots, garlic, sweet potatoes, parsnips, cheeses, nuts, pastas, anchovies, olive oil, dried fruit, carrots, celery, cauliflower, and mushrooms. I also have a huge inventory of various greens and herbs in my garden beds.

Diet Detective: What would be your last meal?

Mollie: A big salad from my garden, dressed with the world’s most brilliant olive oil, and a loaf of bread from the Cheese Board in Berkeley, CA — paired with a pinot noir from Oregon.

Diet Detective: What is your favorite “junk food?”

Mollie: Small, crunchy milk chocolate candies (M&Ms or Sno Caps)

Diet Detective: What was your worst summer job?

Mollie: Flipping cheap burgers at a department store snack counter.

Diet Detective: What’s your motto?

Mollie: I didn’t have one until you asked, so I’m making this one up right now. “Revert to love. Right now.”

Diet Detective: As a child, what did you want to be?

Mollie: A visual artist and a pianist.

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