It's been 40 years since Moosewood restaurant, a natural foods restaurant in downtown Ithaca's Dewitt Mall, was founded by a collective of cooks unconcerned with culinary school and determined to promote an herbivorous lifestyle.
Moosewood was not the first vegetarian restaurant in New York in the early '70s, nor was it the only. But it was an unpretentious and quickly beloved model, one that continues to pride itself on imaginative, albeit simple, vegetarian cuisine. The restaurant's original cookbook, written by and decorated with the whimsical illustrations and playful handwriting of Moosewood Collective member Mollie Katzen in 1977, is one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time.
Many Moosewood fans (which includes this writer) have never set foot in the restaurant, but have relied on any number of its twelve cookbooks as a domestic-kitchen GPS to point us towards inspiration when the home-cooking landscape looks bleak. It's a book we return to -- a weeknight dinner bible that prioritizes salads and doesn't apologize for casseroles, a potluck companion, and a reason to believe that very good meals can be made with a few fresh vegetables and the confidence that substitutions are a sign of ingenuity, not failure.
These days, the meatless doctrine has become more or less mainstreamed, and younger cooks who happen upon Moosewood Restaurant Favorites, the latest cookbook from the Collective, will not likely immediately associate the thick, brightly colored hardcover book with the '70s counterculture movement from which it sprung.
To "keep Moosewood weird" would be near impossible in the current era, in which kale is as popular in some places as pork belly, quiche has resurfaced as an acceptable brunch-menu item, and vegetarian-friendly has become synonymous with "food served here." This new collection of the restaurant's best hits argues that practical, honest food doesn't go out of style, and that recipes, to paraphrase what Paul Valery wrote about poems, are "never finished, only abandoned"; they're creative, malleable projects that can always be tweaked to reflect current concerns.
Moosewood's brand is not based on the talents and personality of a single chef, but on the aims of a group with a common goal to better nutrition and protect the environment one slaw at a time. The new 250-recipe puffy-cover volume looks nothing like the early paperback Moosewood cookbooks and there's no sign of the now well-known Mollie Katzen, who is no longer a member of the collective she helped to found.
Compiled and written by the 19 current members of the Moosewood Collective, many of whom have worked together for 15 years, and some since the restaurant's inception, the book begins with a brief history of its restaurant, food, people and accomplishments, a welcome reminder that the cookbooks are as much a reflection of an ethos as they are a guide to cooking. "A Taste of Moosewood," a nostalgic hour-by-hour account of daily life at the restaurant composed of memories and experiences from the past 40 years, might be of more value to the Collective than its readers, but it helps paint a picture of the warm, bustling, communal environment that nurtured so many great recipes and cooks.
While 250 recipes still feels rather expansive, considering the Collective managed to narrow it down from more than 3,000 recipes in a democratic forum, it's quite a feat. All of the recipes will seem familiar -- red lentil soup with ginger and cilantro, The Classic Moosewood Tofu Burger, caramelized onion pie, confetti kale slaw, cherry-blueberry pie with sour-cream latticed crust -- but many ingredients and instructions have been tweaked to accommodate 2013 home cooks and consumers, particularly gluten-free and vegan eaters, a reminder of Moosewood's unfaltering practicality.
Sometimes the invitations to adapt and experiment are liberating. Other times, you just wish they'd make up their minds. A recipe for Thai vegetable curry seems noncommittal: "sometimes we substitute pineapple juice for the coconut milk, but most of us prefer it with coconut milk." On the other hand, a note in the margin for Cowboy Cookies suggests using pastry flour if you prefer crispy over chewy.
The truth is, Moosewood knows that every cook, kitchen and tomato is different, and while cooking is a science, it's also a gamble. Some stoves are more powerful than others, sometimes the weather is humid, and sometimes you have what you need and sometimes you don't. Cup measurements are accompanied by weight measurements to avoid confusion about quantities, and some recipes offer alternative cooking methods for cold and hot days.
A helpful guide to organic produce outlines which vegetables and fruits you should try to buy organic, based on how much pesticide residue they retain after washing. A chapter on baking pan sizes and equivalents explains how to pick a substitute pan if you don't have the one called for in the recipe, and a guide to ingredients and basic cooking outlines rudimentary ingredients and cooking processes to ensure that no reader feels intimidated or ignorant.
In many ways, Moosewood Restaurant Favorites merits the title of Deborah Madison's latest cookbook, Vegetable Literacy, not because it explains highly advanced vegetarian concepts or will challenge your comprehension of that green section of the Food Pyramid, but because it's a testament to just how much the average home cook's health-food vocabulary has evolved.
The book's introduction claims that many Moosewood customers tasted yogurt for the first time at the restaurant when it first opened, and recalls the resourcefulness required of vegetarian cooks in the early days when ingredients like coconut milk were not readily available at supermarkets. Moosewood cookbooks back then offered step-by-step instructions to make your own coconut milk; this one doesn't have to.
Indeed, unlike with many cookbooks, when starting a recipe sometimes unexpectedly leads to uncovering additional labor-intensive recipes nestled within -- DIY chicken stock, mayonnaise, ketchup, pickled onions -- the Moosewood Collective assumes you don't have the time to throw together Chinese chili paste with garlic for your Sichuan noodle salad. Instead, it tells you what kind to get and where to find it.
While Moosewood aims for nutritious, meatless food, it also values good taste. And while it privileges vegetables, it doesn't have a meat complex. A recipe for Basque beans includes fennel seeds to evoke the sausage that admittedly makes a great addition. And all of the healthful eating seems like a means to a universal end: dessert. The Collective knows that eating well is more fun when followed by a treat: "In Moosewood's early years, there were customers who needed to reward themselves with a brownies after eating all those vegetables or maybe for trying tofu for the first time."
The chapter dedicated to sweets is the largest section by far and includes vegan and gluten-free ideas, but they're clearly distinguished from the real thing. Like the restaurant's famous fudge brownie recipe, which hasn't, and won't, change. "There's no question that Moosewood Fudge Brownies are not health food," the recipe begins. When it comes to the brownies, "there really is no equivalent for butter, eggs, and fine-quality chocolate." Why mess with a good thing?
Turn the page for a recipe for Moosewood's Classic Tofu Burgers...