Moosewood means vegetarian with flair

Since the first Moosewood Restaurant cookbook was published as a spiral-bound stack of recipes in 1975, the books have formed the backbone of many self-respecting vegetarians' repertoire. Heavy on fresh ingredients, herbs, and earth-conscious cooking, light on culinary hauteur, they promise homey meals and hearty portions, with a conviction that food not only nourishes the body, but soothes the soul.

With its ninth cookbook, "Moosewood Restaurant New Classics" (Clarkson Potter, $25.95, paperback; $40, hardcover), the Moosewood Collective offers 350 new recipes - modern twists on old favorites and novel flavor combinations such as Wasabi-Mashed Sweet Potatoes, and Grits With Goat Cheese and Dill.

Over the three decades since Moosewood opened in Ithaca, N.Y., the upstate cafe's way of cooking has gained prominence, and 3.5 million cookbooks have been sold.

Joan Adler, who, with her husband, is a Moosewood chef, recalled the enterprise's early days during a recent visit to Cambridge, Mass.

The restaurant, tucked in a historic schoolhouse, was launched by seven friends who'd just graduated from college. Adler had graduated from Cornell University in Ithaca, and during lunch breaks from her work at the circulation desk of the local library, she'd head for the Moosewood, where nutritious food was served with flair.

"They had this idea to open a restaurant where the most wholesome foods were served," says Ms. Adler, who joined the collective in 1974. "But they also had a distinct hedonistic side, so pleasure was very important."

Heavily influenced by Frances Moore Lappe's "Diet for a Small Planet" and Anna Thomas's "The Vegetarian Epicure," the Moosewood pioneers dished up vegetarian fare full of spice and texture.

To Adler, Moosewood offered "more flavor than anything I'd ever eaten."

She became enamored with not only the cuisine, but the company: a restaurant run by people her own age, with everyone sharing all jobs. She befriended the owners and began checking out armloads of cookbooks from the library, learning about savory flavor combinations from cultures whose cuisines were still rare in American kitchens.

Since 1973, the restaurant has tripled in size, and the clientele has shifted.

"We used to get a counterculture crowd," Adler recalls. But the longer Moosewood stayed in its redbrick building, the more businesspeople and passersby stopped in for lunch. The menu has grown lighter on creamy cheeses, and customers increasingly want low-fat items.

Adler says the restaurant - and its cookbooks - are careful to steer clear of dogmatism. Not everyone is a tofu-gobbling vegetarian: Of the 19 collective members, only three eat no meat or poultry at all. Moosewood serves fish four times a week, on a menu that changes at every meal.

But when Adler cooks for herself, her tastes run more to baked potatoes and scrambled eggs. She and her husband like to eat simply. In both the restaurant and the cookbook, "sustainable cuisine" looms large. It's an approach emphasizing how farming and food distribution can tread lightly on the earth - and optimize nutrition and soil life in the process.

The latest Moosewood cookbook reflects both this longstanding earth-awareness and new concerns. For the first time, the cookbook includes notes on federal organic standards, heirloom vegetables, and irradiation, as well as a new analysis of the controversy over genetically modified organisms.

Though Moosewood steers clear of copious presentation and pretentious ingredients, some of the "staples" still border on the exotic. For home chefs who don't understand the difference between tamari, tahini, and tamarind, there's a 28-page guide to ingredients.

"So many of us have sentimental attachments to foods - corn on the cob, coleslaw, big cookies," says Adler. "New Classics" aims to nurture that love of comfort foods, while bringing them up-to-date.

The big cookies are there - oatmeal, molasses, and more. But mixed in with old favorites are new twists: Spinach soup gets a splash of coconut and lemon; fish is wrapped up in a cornmeal-chipotle crust; biscotti goes savory, with cheddar and thyme; even oatmeal seizes a new lease on life, with cardamom and dates.

It's a melding of menu and mantra that keeps selling cookbooks - and helps the collective break new culinary ground. With "New Classics," Moosewood lays out new roads to old favorites - on an invigorating stroll through the forest of food.

Pistachio Cardamom Cake

CAKE

1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar

3 eggs

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup semolina

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup unsalted pistachios, plus 12 whole pistachios

1/2 cup nonfat plain yogurt

SYRUP

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon peel

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter a 7-by-11-inch baking dish. With an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the vanilla.

In a separate bowl, combine the semolina, cardamom, cinnamon, and salt. Grind 1/2 cup of the pistachios in a spice grinder to the consistency of a coarse meal and stir into the dry ingredients.

In alternating batches, add the yogurt and the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture, beating well after each addition, to form a smooth batter.

Spread the batter into the prepared baking dish. Bake for about 30 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Meanwhile, about 5 minutes before the cake is done, combine the water, sugar, lemon peel, and lemon juice in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil rapidly for about 2 minutes and then remove from the heat and set aside.

When the cake is room temperature, cut it in half lengthwise and then cut it into thirds crosswise to form six square pieces. Cut each square on the diagonal to make 12 triangular pieces. Pour the syrup evenly over the cake and gently press one whole pistachio into the center of each triangle of cake.

Serves 12.

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