At the Lehman Hall luncheon, a sold-out audience sat on folding chairs, ate a $5 vegetarian meal, and listened as Mollie Katzen unspooled lessons in menu strategies, kitchen lore, nutrition, home cooking, and the joy of fresh food. Lunch was vegetarian, including tofu cutlets, black bean burgers, bulgur pilaf, and steamed squash with a maple-mustard glaze.

Justin Ide/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Getting fresh with Mollie

7 min read

Harvard hosts famed cookbook author Katzen

People can argue endlessly about what the right food choices are — and will. But iconic cookbook author Mollie Katzen used a visit to Harvard to serve up a better idea: Don’t argue about categories.

Joining the food fight “separates us from the food and one another,” she said during a lecture-lunch Tuesday (Oct. 19). “I’m trying to encourage a big-tent attitude toward food.”

Katzen’s four-day visit (Oct. 18-21) included one class and at least three formal meals with undergraduates, at Quincy and Adams Houses and at Annenberg Hall. There was a Katzen-cooked meal at a new community dining table at Harvard Divinity School. And there were two lecture-lunches, one in Lehman Hall, upstairs from the Dudley Café, and the other at the Harvard School of Public Health, where Katzen is a charter member of the Nutrition Roundtable.

Medical audiences are a favorite with Katzen, who lives on the West Coast and is the author of 11 books, with 5 million in print. “People eating healthily,” she said, “is good business.” And it’s good business to talk to physicians, too, said Katzen, given that so few medical schools require training in nutrition.

Most of the wisdom of medicine is “in modernity,” she said, but “in food we’re really moving backwards” toward an “old-fashioned and simple” time of fresh food and home preparation.

At the Lehman Hall luncheon, a sold-out audience sat on folding chairs, ate a $5 vegetarian meal, and listened as Katzen unspooled lessons in menu strategies, kitchen lore, nutrition, home cooking, and the joy of fresh food. Lunch was vegetarian, including tofu cutlets, black bean burgers, bulgur pilaf, and steamed squash with a maple-mustard glaze.

But Katzen, author of the seminal “The Moosewood Cookbook” (1978), said her menu is still meant for a big tent: “I’m not here to tell people to never eat meat.” Food-choice categories tend to be pretty flexible these days anyway, she said. “My favorite is Häagen-Dazsian vegan” — a vegan who avoids all dairy except ice cream.

Still, Katzen’s basic message is to encourage her listeners and readers to favor plant foods, “to eat lower on the food chain,” she said, where healthy diets mostly reside. She lives by a mantra-like summary found in Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” (2008): “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

This “haiku,” as Katzen called it, contains a puzzle for many people, who wonder what food from plants really is. She quoted a frustrated listener: “Am I supposed to eat my lawn?”

And within any question about vegetarian food, there is always one other: Where do you get your protein?

Katzen does luncheon-lectures at Harvard twice a year, each with a theme. Last time it was herbs; this time it was vegetarian sources of protein, what Katzen called “gatherer proteins,” as opposed to the kind hunters bring to the table.

The secret is to eat a variety of plant foods, “an incremental protein plan” that over days or weeks assures that vegetarians are getting the medley of amino acids they need. To illustrate, Katzen pointed to the long table of buffet choices in the lunch prepared by Dudley Café chef Jeff Cota. “The modular protein collaboration of all these items really adds up beautifully,” she said.

First there was the hummus, a store-bought brand that Cota dressed up with roasted garlic and blender-chopped chickpeas to give it more texture. Slather hummus on a sandwich instead of mayonnaise, said Katzen, and “it gives you a protein boost right then and there.”

The protein-rich spread is easy to make, said Katzen, but “don’t feel like a bad person if you’re buying your hummus.”

The marinated broccoli with mushrooms and walnuts offered its own lessons. The walnuts bring protein to the table, but they are also rich in essential fatty acids, said Katzen — “essential” because they are not made by the body.

Don’t count total grams of fat in your meals, she said. Count the quality of the fats you use, and the best of these include the oils in walnuts and olives.

At that point, Katzen made a confession: that her original “Moosewood” cookbook included a lot of butter and cheese, ingredients that were part of her “insecurity cuisine” at the time — a fear that taste was only guaranteed by rich ingredients.

While Katzen talked, white-coated chef Martin Breslin was next to her, busily demonstrating how to assemble and cook the black bean burgers that were the menu’s most explicit source of protein. Breslin is director for culinary operations at Harvard University Hospitality and Dining Services, where Katzen is on the advisory board.

The lessons that these “sliders” offered were less about nutrition and more about cooking technique. The longer onions cook, the sweeter they get, said Katzen. Don’t add salt to simmering beans, because it toughens their skins. Avoid nonstick pans, but make your own (in effect) by adding “cold, cold oil” to a very hot pan, she said. “The oil will slick easily.” Add a potato masher to your kitchen arsenal. They are low-tech and efficient, said Katzen, and “the sound effects are terrific.”

The menu’s spice-crusted tofu cutlets added other lessons in kitchen lore. To make the tofu even firmer, simmer it in boiling water. To flavor it, press it into a spice blend and heat it in a dry pan without oil. Use a good spatula, thin and made of metal.

The roasted squash offered up other lessons. When cutting it, said Katzen, “a sharp knife is a safe knife.” When roasting it, lay it in the pan in a single layer; piling the squash up will only steam it. Bake it very hot to bring out the natural sweetness of inner juices. “Your seasoning,” she said, “is the heat itself.”

Cota served the menu’s bulgur pilaf on halves of poblano chili pepper. Use these or just bell peppers, she said, and “you feel like you’ve had an entrée.”

As for menus in everyday life, Katzen said people are less in need of new recipes and more in need of strategies for coping with food.

Some of those strategies are simply practical. She explained how to manage the daunting volume of fresh vegetables — those broom-size bunches of kale and other challenges. Her answer is blanching, a quick immersion in boiling water that reduces the volume of hearty greens, and doubles their shelf life.

Other food strategies offer perspective. Don’t try to learn cooking by mastering a book full of dishes. Mastering one will do to start, said Katzen, whose mission is to make everyone a home cook.  “Cut through the noise,” she said. “Cook at home. That’s my diatribe.”

Part of the “noise” is the argument about what to buy, said Katzen: organic produce from far away, or conventional produce from a local farm? It’s a conundrum she called “the conflicting halos,” and the answer is simply to buy good food, mostly plants, and cook it at home.

Home cooking  can build a sense of community. “Take time on a Sunday,” said Katzen, “and make it something you do with people.” Food preparation can be like doing “small crafts projects,” she said.

Slowing down and being creative are all part of the picture too, said Katzen. When she had her own cooking show on television, “my model was Mr. Rogers.” But TV cooking shows now are “more like a gladiator sport, with a lot of sadism and tension,” she said. “I see this as adding to the worry.”

Later that afternoon, Katzen was still worry-free, serving up samples of a kale and garlic sauté she tossed with olive oil and salt on an outdoor burner at the farmers’ market outside the Science Center, one of two sponsored weekly by Harvard’s Food Literacy Project.

No dish is ever perfect, she said, wielding a big spoon from behind sunglasses. “But if you run across perfect, I’m not against it.”