“For me, yogurt is the perfect food.”
So says legendary cookbook author Mollie Katzen, simply and declaratively. Katzen’s early hand-drawn volumes, The Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, were the first cookbooks I ever owned, and when this woman calls yogurt the perfect food, I know I’ve found a kindred spirit.
She goes on.
“It’s the food I turn to when I’m traveling or I don’t have time together a meal. It’s so ready, so dependable.”
Katzen especially likes yogurt when other satisfying options may be hard to find. But don’t get between this author-illustrator and her favorite food: “One of the banes of my existence,” she says with a sigh, “is when security at the airport takes away my yogurt.”
A CONVENIENT ENERGY-BOOSTER
Katzen isn’t officially hypoglycemic, but she does notice that when she feels “faded out” and low-energy, the orange juice or sugar hit others often turn to don’t reinvigorate her. “I don’t know what it is about yogurt,” she admits. “Maybe there’s enough natural sugar from the lactose, but it brings me back immediately and hits the bloodstream just right. It just works for me.”
Though she used to make homemade yogurt all the time, Katzen was never fussy in her technique. “I’d put some yogurt in some warm milk, and I’d have yogurt in the morning.”
Today, she buys rather than makes yogurt for ease and convenience.
Occasionally, she’ll strain yogurt to thicken it up (making it Greek-style), and then drink the accumulated whey. “It’s got all the probiotics in it and is just so delicious,” she says. “I want to try to convince people to Greek up their own yogurt at home.”
WHOLE MILK, OR NONFAT?
Recent studies and media reports have returned to touting whole fat dairy as the better alternative to nonfat, a change that isn’t news to Katzen, who has been promoting whole fat dairy for several years. That doesn’t mean full-fat yogurt is always easy to locate. When she travels the country, she says, whole milk yogurt is still frustratingly hard to find.
With a long-term interest in the intersection of food and health, Katzen has collaborated with top-notch health and medical professionals like Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Willett, she says, “is very determined to get people to look at the quality of fat versus the quantity.” While he easily promotes olive and other plant oils and nuts, she says, he and his colleagues are still cautious about the amount of saturated fat.
For Katzen, though, the fat issue is always one of balance. “If you have a really good diet that emphasizes plant sources of fat, the fat in a serving of yogurt isn’t going to tip the scale.”
YOGURT’S HIPPIE DAYS AS “REMORSE CUISINE”
While those accustomed to yogurt in desserty flavors may assume yogurt was always a mainstream (and sweet) snack food, Katzen remembers an earlier time. “I’m old enough to remember what yogurt really was,” she recalls. “It used to be relegated way off on the margins as ‘health food’ for ‘health nuts’ and pedants.” It wasn’t, in other words, available in every market or a staple in most families’ refrigerators.
Growing up in a Jewish family, she remembers the dairy restaurants catering to kosher clientele. For them, vegetarian didn’t mean eating vegetables; it just meant eating dairy without meat. “And the cliché was there were these eccentric people eating this very punitive, sour-tasting stuff. ‘Remorse-cuisine’ is what I called it. It was even a punchline in the old Archie comic books. There’d be a guy eating yogurt and the characters would say, ‘What a nut.’”
Then something changed. Drastically.
How, why, and exactly when remains a mystery to many, Katzen included. “How and when yogurt switched over to the far other end of the spectrum where it’s so sweet your teeth curl up I don’t know. But during my lifetime, it went from being unheard of to being marginal to being almost a dessert. I don’t know why this happened, but I know I witnessed it.”
Today, Katzen lunches regularly on a bowl of yogurt as the base, then tops it with cut vegetables and herbs. (Radishes, cucumbers, and chives or scallions is a favorite combo.) She’ll toss in a bit of diced red onion, season it with salt, pepper, and perhaps some cumin seed, and add roasted walnuts if the spirit moves her. When cherry tomatoes are in season, they’ll find their way into the mix as well.
For a warmer, more comfort-food preparation, Katzen enlists yogurt to thicken a basmati rice porridge strewn with spinach and onions, scented with cumin and garlic, colored with turmeric. The recipe appears in her newest book, The Heart of the Plate: Vegetarian Recipes for a New Generation.
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