Mollie Katzen is on a personal mission to get as many people cooking at home as possible. "Chefs and restaurateurs are going to be mad at me if I succeed, but I really feel anyone can become a home cook." As the author of 12 cookbooks and with over 6 million books in print, we can believe that Mollie has a thing or two to say on what it takes to be a great and happy home cook.
In 1977, Mollie Katzen broke new ground with Moosewood Cookbook, a charmingly hand-lettered vegetarian cookbook that, 30 years later in 2007, was inducted into the James Beard Hall of Fame. She's gone on to author several colorful, vegetarian-centric cookbooks including three cookbooks for children. 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.
Next week on September 17, Mollie will release her 12th book, The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation, so we thought this would be a perfect time to sit down with her and discover what she thinks is essential for home cooks to know, have or do.
Mollie Katzen's 5 Essentials for Becoming a Great Home Cook
1. Make a commitment to cooking.
"To cook or not to cook? First you have to make a clear decision about it. It used to be that there was the dedicated person who was stuck with the cooking no matter what, but now it's much less of an assignment or an assumption. So we need to make a clear, conscious declaration of our commitment to cooking.
"Our relationship to cooking is a lot like our relationship to happiness. Some of us cook naturally and we'll gravitate towards cooking whenever we have downtime, just like there's some of us who naturally gravitate towards happiness and wake up with a smile. And there are some people who have to strategize their happiness, and consciously work towards it, maximize it and it's the same for cooking. Some people have to make a firm decision that they're the kind of person who cooks and then work towards it."
2. Make the time for cooking.
"When we love something, whether a person or an activity, we express that love by making room for it in our lives. What we offer to what we love is our time. You make a decision that you want to be a home cook and then you absolutely commit to the time it takes. Even when I'm working on a cookbook and I'm in my kitchen all day in cooking lab-mode, I clear it all away at the end of the day and I cook for my family.
"I know of nobody who says 'Oh gee, I wish I had more time to be on Facebook or surf the net or stare at my phone.' You never hear anyone say they didn't get to their Twitter feed today. Right? If you have the commitment, you will find the time."
3. Bond with your own kitchen.
"It's really important to bond with your kitchen, to both accept it for what it is and try to see the potential in it. There's the structure of your space and there's the spirit of your space.
"Before you start cooking, you have to create a kitchen that you want to be in. This is a very individual thing; you can't be prescriptive about it. It's not about looking at magazines and websites and seeing which kitchens inspire the most envy; it's about working with what you have.
"I could talk about my favorite salts and my favorite olive oils, but before you even get those things, you have to have a place to put them. And before you do that, you have to have a sense of your place and be comfortable in it."
4. Create the right atmosphere in your kitchen.
"Lighting is really important, whether it's natural from a window or from a lamp above your counter, so you can see what you're doing. Be sure there's a good, open relationship between the counter and the stove so you can breathe and move around. Try to clean and organize your refrigerator (something I don't do often enough myself!) And really do clear your space. Clear your counter, clear your sink, before you start cooking.
"In general make sure your kitchen feels pleasant — you want to be in a tailwind, not in a head wind! I'm more of a meditative cook, so I don't like to have a lot of people around and talking to me when I'm in the kitchen. I listen to music or my French tapes. But if you're a social cook, make that work for you. Figure out how you want to cook and make that happen.
5. Start with a modest skill set.
"We all have it in us to cook! It's a very small jump across the tracks from loving food to being able to prepare it, yet we often don't have the confidence. (Especially if you've spent a lot of time watching Top Chef cooking shows on TV!)
"Start really simple and find two or three (or even one!) dish that you feel really comfortable making. It could be mac'n'cheese or a soup. Maybe you're one of those persons who likes to make vinaigrette and can whip up a delicious salad. Whatever it is, get so comfortable with it that it's in you, so that it becomes your specialty.
"When I was in my 20's, I shared a house with a friend. She wasn't a cook (she was a painter) but she had two things she could cook really well. She wasn't a non-cook, she was a cook of those two things and when she would go into the kitchen and make them, her whole body language would change. She had a air of confidence. She would own that kitchen! She was in charge and she was having a blast. It's the most wonderful feeling in the world. You can eventually expand, but don't worry if it's just one to two or three dishes to start. Get deep with them and you'll be a real cook."
Drop the labels!
"Ease up on labeling who or what you are as a cook and an eater. Get rid of chef, good cook, non-cook, bad cook. Nobody is a non-cook! You might not be a cook yet but nobody is a non-cook. Get rid of vegetarian, carnivore, foodie! Relax the labels: of who you are, of what you cook, of what you eat and simply be a human being who enjoys eating, who enjoys cooking."
A good knife is the doorway to good cooking.
"Just as there is no right label for people who love to cook at home, there no right knife for everyone — but everyone needs the right knife! Finding the right knife is like finding your mate, your soulmate. It's worth shopping around for, spending a little money on if the one that fits you is a little pricier (although it doesn't have to be). Your knife is an extension of your hand. It's the key to cooking and especially the key to cooking vegetables. (Most vegetables need to be chopped after all.) Don't let a bad knife be a barrier to enjoying your time in the kitchen."
Thank you, Mollie!
(Image: Lisa Keating)