I feel like I may be the only person in the world who actually learned how to cook from the Moosewood cookbooks. Strange but true. When I was eighteen, I went to live in Jerusalem for a year, armed only with a previously unopened copy of Joy of Cooking. At that point, my entire culinary repertoire consisted of boiling water and using a microwave. One day, I came home to my overcrowded Jerusalem apartment to the most amazing smell. A roommate was making pesto with spaghetti from the Moosewood cookbook. I was utterly shocked, and totally enchanted, by the concept that fresh herbs could be used in food (who knew?). I ditched Rombauer and started borrowing my roommate's copies of the Moosewood Cookbook and the Enchanted Broccoli Forest, both by Mollie Katzen.
Mollie Katzen was the leader of an iconic vegetarian cooperative known as the Moosewood collective, known for the Moosewood restaurant in Ithaca and for the Moosewood series of cookbooks. Although she and the Moosewood collective have long since parted ways, each has continued to publish numerous vegetarian cookbooks. The early Moosewood series, charming though it may be, is known to many for unreliable recipes that often require doctoring. But, for me, they were also the place where I learned to cook from fresh ingredients and to appreciate the excitement that produce brings to food. I started shopping in the souk and learning about local produce, and became completely obsessed with cooking. Bizarrely enough, Mollie Katzen was kinda like my Alice Waters.
So I really wanted to like Vegetables Dishes I Can’t Live Without. Unlike her earlier cookbooks, however, this book seems primarily focused on streamlined, unfussy vegetable side dishes. Although Mollie has returned to the hand-written format that made early Moosewood so adorable, these recipes are neither as homey and filling, nor as charming, as her earlier books. Some – like the spaghetti squash pancakes and the ruby chard recipes – fell flat until I doctored them with cheese or condiments. The carrots in North African spices were a bit raw and unfinished-tasting. Unlike most recipes which I have tried, in which the carrots are boiled or steamed until soft and then covered with a cumin-spiked marinade greedily absorbed by the carrots, this one was steamed briefly and then roasted briefly with the spices.
A couple of the recipes were wonderful ideas that I would make again. The fennel with lemon – sauteed fennel matchsticks topped with paper thin slices of lemon that were dusted with flour and then fried until brown and crisp – was tart, caramelized and unreal. The spaghetti squash roasted in the oven for almost an hour with fried onions and topped with fried sage leaves was similarly caramelized and good. But while I thought these were great ideas, I will not need to confer with the cookbook to make them, simple as they are.
It is a little hard for me to understand the demographic at which this book is aimed. It seems to be designed for use by people with some, but not extensive, experience cooking vegetables, who are looking for a reference for quick vegetable side dishes with a little flair or a unique twist. While I will always be grateful to Mollie, I think there are other books that more expertly fit that niche – including books by Jack Bishop and Deborah Madison. Because those books are more reliable, sophisticated and informative, I would turn to them before this one. I will always love Mollie, but I think it’s time for my Moosewood cookbooks to go into storage.