Book Reviews
Mollie Katzen's Vegetable Heaven, Mollie Katzen, 1997, ISBN 0-7868-6268-8, Hyperion, New York.

Editor's note: Vegetable Heaven was just published on October 6th and we were fortunate enough to have Mollie visit us October 17 in the Triangle to sign and talk about her new book!

I would venture to guess that at least 3/4 of all vegetarians who have ever bought a cookbook have heard of Mollie Katzen. Her 1977 Moosewood Cookbook is on the New York Times' top ten best-selling cookbooks of all time. All of her charmingly illustrated books (the others are The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, Still Life with Menu, and Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipes: A Cookbook for Preschoolers and Up) have been quite popular and show off her creativity in cooking as well as lovely illustration (she's also a professional artist -- and a pianist). She had a 1995 public television series Mollie Katzen's Cooking Show and is launching a new 26-part series based on the new book (call UNC TV at 549-7140 to ask them to air it). She told me that she is starting to work on ideas for a book on breakfasts.

Vegetable Heaven is even more lavishly illustrated - in color - than her previous volumes. It's a fun book, reflecting Mollie's enjoyment of working with food. I have always looked at cookbooks as providing points of departure and ideas to inspire our own creativity. I like that this book is much more in this spirit of inspiration rather than invariant algorithm. The pages invitingly sparkle with their lovely illustrations, wide colored margins, and clear, straightforward recipes. The recipes are introduced with short and lively descriptions in a conversational mode, as if a friend were discussing the recipe with you over the phone. The margins give useful suggestions, such as substitutions, dishes to serve with the one on this page, faster preparation choices, reheating/leftover suggestions, and background on some of the ingredients.

There are over 200 recipes divided into 8 sections, including Side-by-Side Dishes (her answer to lighter cooking - pick and choose several side dishes instead of serving a main course), On Top of Spaghetti (including a page of suggestions called "Permission to be Creative with Spaghetti"), and Too Many Desserts (with a unique "Apple Pizza" recipe!). Mollie's emphasis is on fast and simple ("the ultimate challenge - and the true sign of sophistication - to use as few ingredients as possible", p.xi), while having fun and learning to trust yourself to improvise.

I've found her past books to rely too much on eggs and dairy. This book is consciously "lighter", but also purposely avoids discussing fat or nutrition - the focus is on "just plain loving food" (p.xiii) and its relaxed preparation. If I have to be critical, I also was surprised at how very brief her introductory notes are - a page describing four ingredients that many of her recipes rely on, and a page of conversions. Based on classes that I've taught, beginning cooks need a bit more hand-holding and introduction to unique ingredients and general cooking methods. I applaud the book's fun and innovative spirit, and would recommend the book more to those with some confidence in the kitchen. On the other hand, very experienced cooks may find this as somewhat derivable and predictable from her earlier publications.

That said, I still like this book best of all of Mollie's cookbooks. For an "invitation to tap into the beauty and pleasure of food" (p.xiii) and the sheer loveliness of the book's presentation, Mollie Katzen's Vegetable Heaven is a gem well worth being part of the library of any reasonably capable vegetarian-inclined cook.