Meatless Monday: No Labels, All Heart -- Mollie Katzen and 'The Heart of the Plate'

Mollie Katzen, author of the beloved "The Moosewood Cookbook," that 1970s volume that defined (and fed) a generation, didn't invent vegetarianism. She just made it taste good. She still does forty years later with her new cookbook, "The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation."

For someone closely linked with vegetarianism, Katzen's uneasy about the word. She doesn't consider herself a vegetarian icon or pioneer, she isn't strictly vegetarian, she just loves vegetables. "I like to take the word vegetarian away from being about the person and have it be about the food," she says. "This is a vegetarian plate of food. It is a plant-forward, vegetable-filled plate." She's coaxed us to fill our plates with vegetables in all eleven of her books, from "The Moosewood Cookbook," with Katzen's hand-lettering and whimsical illustrations to "The Heart of the Plate," featuring Katzen's own food photography.

Aw, mush, says Katzen. "People credit me for more than I think is justified." She cites others including Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Thomas. "These women who have since become my friends are such visionaries. They influenced me hugely. They showed me what was possible."

So did moving from her home in Ithaca to attend San Francisco Art Institute. It introduced Katzen to a whole world of flavors. "I had never seen the produce that was available here," says Katzen, who still calls the Bay Area home. Compared to the comforting but heavy kosher food she grew up with, local restaurants like Chez Panisse were serving up food that was "very international, sophisticated -- vegetable curries, pesto, tabbouli, spanikopita -- those things were unheard of in 1970." Katzen laughs. "It was a crazy, edgy thing to eat yogurt."

She took that crazy edginess into the kitchen, creating vegetarian dishes offering a happy alternative to traditional bland American meat-heavy dishes and the bland, heavy, beige hippie grub that typified most meatless food at the time. "It was -- forgive me -- horrible." Katzen never thought of herself as a professional cook. "I still don't," she says. "I just gravitated to the kitchen." Even at the Moosewood Collective, "I was never the chef, I was just the person in the kitchen." Then in her twenties, Katzen used "the kitchen sink" approach to developing recipes, "trying to get as much in there as possible. How many herbs can I possibly cram into a dish?"

With "The Heart of the Plate," she does more with less. "My cooking is so much better now," she says. What changed? "Two words -- olive oil." A simple gilding of it elevates produce and replaces much of the dairy that enriched recipes in her earlier books.

"The Heart of the Plate" features more roasting, too. It's the same principle her Grandma Minnie used, treating onions and carrots to the hot, dry heat of the oven. "Vegetables weren't a big part of her cooking, they were thrown in with the chicken." Katzen, holds the chicken. The vegetables alone come out caramelized, tender and "cravable," she says. "Food from the orchard, food from the garden -- it's so good, it tells you what to do with it."

And that, believes Katzen, is as it should be. "I'm not about a mission to eat less meat but to eat more vegetables."

Fruit-Studded Madeleine Cake

Reprinted with permission from "The Heart of the Plate" by Mollie Katzen © 2013. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

This highly buttery vanilla cake is the sunny circle on which you get to design a dreamy skyscape of berry stars and plum-slice half-moons. Fruit baked onto a cake: What could be better? Using a tart pan with a removable rim will add to its quiet splendor (and birthday celebration worthiness).

Unwrap the butter ahead of time and place it in the mixing bowl to soften. In the heart of the summer season, consider using a combination of variously colored plums: red, deep purple, yellow. Slice them lengthwise and place them all over the top in a random pattern of scattered half-moons.

You can use fresh berries or frozen unsweetened ones, which can go directly onto the cake still frozen.

If you have more fruit than will fit, make it into a fresh compote to serve on top or on the side.

Nonstick cooking spray
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 cup milk (low fat is OK)
4-5 firm, ripe plums, pitted and sliced
1 cup (or more) raspberries or blueberries, fresh or frozen

Preheat the oven to 350°F, with a rack in the center position. Lightly spray with nonstick spray the bottom of a 10- or 11-inch tart pan with a removable rim.

Beat the butter for about 3 minutes in a medium-large bowl with an electric mixer at high speed until fluffy. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat for 2 to 3 minutes longer, until completely incorporated and the mixture is very light. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.

In a second bowl, stir together the flour, salt, and baking powder.

Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture in 2 installments, alternating with the milk. After each addition, mix from the bottom of the bowl with a spoon or a rubber spatula. Don't overmix.

Transfer the batter to the pan, spreading it evenly. Arrange the fruit on top of the batter. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the cake is golden on the edges, pulling away from the sides of the pan, and springy to the touch. Cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

Optional Enhancements

Mango slices (fresh or frozen) or fresh peach or nectarine slices can substitute for some of the plums.