Munching at the Moosewood

If you’re a foodie, possibly you know about the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, NY, having browsed cookbooks  at Barnes & Noble or other bookstores. If you’re a vegetarian and seek out flavorful foods, you probably even own one of those cookbooks. If you’re both foodie AND follow some form of vegetarian or semi-vegetarian diet, you likely realize that the Moosewood is world-famous for its vegetarian cuisine (with an occasional fish entrée thrown in). Maybe you’ve even traveled to Ithaca, Gateway to the Finger Lakes – home to Cornell University, Ithaca College (famed for its School of Music), and a thriving community of artists. If you’ve been there, I hope you dropped by Moosewood for lunch or dinner. It’s a delicious experience.

I’ve done dinner at Moosewood once, with my husband Bill. Twice, I’ve enjoyed lunches there. The first time one of my writer friends, Kathe Kokolias, and I traveled to Ithaca to visit with our friend Jan Tramontano, who was finishing her novel at Saltonstall Arts Colony. Most recently (last weekend), I shared lunch with both hubby Bill and our daughter Kristen, who first introduced me to Moosewood cookbooks when she was a teenage vegetarian. Each time, I enjoyed scrumptious food and lovely ambiance.

Let me preface my stories about Moosewood meals by telling you that I am not a vegetarian. Neither is Bill. I could be a vegetarian, except that I happen to enjoy (and make) several meat-endowed dishes; and I love chicken and turkey. And eggs. Hard-boiled, over-easy, deviled, baked, lots of which-ways (and they’re so necessary for lots of baking). I could be content eating meat maybe once or twice a week. As for Bill – no way. He can tolerate several meatless meals in a week, even enjoy a good cheese or veggie lasagna or other concoction I might serve, but he’d want his red meat, pork, ham, or even occasional lamb (no veal – I don’t buy or cook veal) at least a few times per week. Our son Adrian would eat meat every day, even twice a day, if he could. Kristen, on the other hand, had her totally vegetarian phase back in high school and for a while afterward. Now she sometimes indulges in chicken or turkey, provided someone else prepares it.

If you don’t know about the “labels” that now describe vegetarians, vegans and semi-vegetarians, you might check out the Wikipedia article on vegetarians. You’d be amazed at the varieties! And anyone who falls into any of these categories would likely find foods on the Moosewood menu that they could consume.

Non-vegetarians love Moosewood too, where they might discover an occasional fish entrée, just as creatively prepped as the strict veggie ones. I imagine that many of the family groups sighted at nearby tables include carnivore parents in town to visit their vegetarian college kids, who’ve dragged them to the restaurant. Whether or not they started out simply to indulge their Ivy League or artsy offspring, they all looked (to me) like they appreciated the yummy food before them.

Kathe, Jan and I sat on the terrace for our lunch years ago, enjoying warm Indian Summer weather as our meals were served. My entrée was an awesome stuffed zucchini dish, but I best recall dessert. Simple and amazingly satisfying. Fresh figs, perhaps warmed by a quick visit to the oven (?), and cheeses. Maybe there was a dribble of sweet sauce on the plate. All I know is that I’d never before tasted a fresh fig. My only exposure to figs: Fig Newtons, which I happen to like in very small quantities. I was impressed with the simplicity and enamored by the burst of flavors that offset each other yet worked together. Memory is a strange thing. Details often get erased but the overall experience usually stays with you if it’s particularly good (or, in contrast, especially bad). This memory made me determined that I’d bring Kristen to Moosewood someday.

When Bill and I managed a trip to Ithaca, it was too cold for the terrace but it was cozy and warm inside. My non-vegetarian husband was happy to note that the evening’s dinner menu included Oven Poached Salmon. Several portions of Moosewood’s menu change daily and we hadn’t checked online beforehand, so it was a pleasant surprise to see fish listed among the four entrée choices. I decided on the Calabacitas Burrito, described as a “Wheat tortilla filled with spiced sautéed summer squash, zucchini, carrots, corn and bell peppers with cheddar & neufchatel cheeses; served with tomato-chili sauce, sour cream. drunken beans & rice.” Before the waitress arrived, we looked more closely at Bill’s preferred main course: “Fresh fillet poached with lemon and served with shallot tarragon butter, wide rice pilaf and Brussels sprouts.” Since there are only three vegetables he cannot stand – Brussels sprouts, sweet potatoes, and lima beans – he was in a quandary, wondering if substitution was doable, given the limited number of entrée options to begin with. When our waitress returned to take our order, Bill cited the last line on the menu, which reads, in part, “If you have any dietary restrictions or food allergies, please consult your waiter…” She laughed as he inquired whether or not the fact that he hates Brussels sprouts qualifies as “a dietary restriction”; then she assured him that the kitchen might be able to substitute broccoli (which he loves).

We enjoyed both of our meals and, unable to “fit in” dessert, ordered it “to go.” Bill went for the Red Devil Cake, a recipe that can be found in the Moosewood Restaurant Book of Desserts. I own this cookbook and hope to eventually get around to baking what I guess you might say is a healthier version of a Red Velvet Cake – its color doesn’t come from bottled artificial food dyes; it’s from canned beets! I had to find out what Vegan Pumpkin Pie tasted like. Pumpkin pie without eggs? And how did they pull together that pastry? It turned out to be passable but definitely not The Real Thing that I love.

Incidentally, the Creamy Butternut Squash soup was perhaps the best rendition of that kind of soup I’ve ever slurped down (while wishing I’d ordered a bowl instead of a cup). Bill said his Turkish Red Lentil soup was excellent as well.

Last weekend, we arrived at Moosewood about an hour before they stop serving lunch. Entrée choices on the menu this time were Spanish Frittata, Vegan Lasagna, Kevin’s Torta, Red Bean Burrito (another vegan possibility), Salmon Cake or a Salad Plate (also vegan-friendly). Kevin’s Torta sounded like heaven to me: “Flaky filo pastry strudel made with leeks, spinach, portabello mushrooms, dill and an array of sharp and mellow cheeses; served with marinated vegetables.” Kristen liked the sound of the Spanish Frittata (“Layers of roasted potatoes and onions, Spanish olives, sharp and mellow cheeses baked in an egg custard and served with zesty chipotle aioli.”). Bill immediately gravitated toward the Salmon Cake but then there was the description, which closed with “served with marinated vegetables, creamy tartar sauce and mashed sweet potatoes.” Sweet potatoes, another one of The Dreaded Three. I assured him it would be fine to once again ask if a different side could be substituted, but he replied, “Well, no, I won’t bother. Besides, I can tolerate sweet potatoes much better than the horrible taste of Brussels sprouts!” I found myself pondering whether or not I’d somehow muted this particular culinary aversion in him when I managed to sneak sweet potatoes into my pumpkin soup (for texture, since I use canned pumpkin), not revealing the underhanded trick until he exclaimed to dinnertime company that “Marilyn’s pumpkin soup is excellent; you have to try it.”

As soon as our waitress came over to the table she informed us, “I have to tell you there’s only one order of Kevin’s Torta left; it’s really popular today.” Unfortunately, by the time she returned to the kitchen with our orders, the last Torta was already spoken for; and I became the one “substituting” this time, deciding on the same entrée Kristen had requested. Everything was scrumptious, including our soups (Curried Lentil and Creamy Tomato) and fresh salads (great dressings). Bill even ate most of his sweet potatoes. We didn’t do dessert this time since we planned to head to the nearby artsy shopping area, after which we wanted to search for a Thai restaurant Bill & I had glimpsed on our last trip to Ithaca (Kris loves Thai).

It’s been a joy to sample foodfare at the Moosewood Restaurant, not just because I’ve loved their cookbooks over the years but also because it’s both tasty and healthy. Reasonably priced too. I own three of the Moosewood books, as well as four more by the author of the original Moosewood Cookbook (Ten Speed Press, 1977 with subsequent editions), Mollie Katzen. I especially love her Enchanted Broccoli Forest (Ten Speed Press, 1982, also with subsequent editions). And the original recipe for my chocolate-banana mousse, posted on this blog on 11/18/11 with my enhancements, evolved from Katzen’s Bittersweet Chocolate-Banana Mousse recipe in her Vegetable Heaven (Hyperion, 1997). Somehow, however, doesn’t everything taste better when someone else prepared it? Especially, I have to say, at the Moosewood.

There remains yet one unanswered question for me and my family as I close this blogpost about my three, Bill’s two and Kristen’s one visit to the Moosewood. What are the chances that, at a future culinary outing there, Bill’s preferred menu option would include a sidedish of lima beans? (Succotash anyone?)


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