Even before going vegan, I missed diner food. When I think of diner food, I recall sliding into squeaky Naugahyde booths, with Formica tables and table juke-boxes of chrome and glass. I remember tasting mom’s omelet and eating perfectly grilled grilled-cheese sandwiches at the lunch counter at Van Slyke’s Pharmacy, spinning around on the rotating stools while waitresses who knew our names would pat our heads and call us “sweetheart”. It makes me think of hanging out late at night with my college friends at the Campus Restaurant in Oberlin after a movie or a concert. Or more late nights at the Doghouse in Seattle, eating fries while Dick Dickerson’s cheesy organ music drifted in from the adjacent lounge. Or eating burgers and rice pudding at any number of nameless (to me) Greek diners in NYC while visiting my sister. Diner food may incorporate flavors from all over the world, but it is nonetheless quintessentially American. It’s the food of fun, and comfort, and to an expat, tastes more like home than eating at home.
So I was really looking forward to this week’s cookbook challenge: Vegan Diner by Julie Hasson. It was one of the first vegan cookbooks I bought, and yet I had never made any of the recipes. It’s a beautiful book! Glossy and well-laid out, filled with fantastic photos, and a wonderful design evocative of a diner menu. When I started looking through the recipes I wanted to try, I found I couldn’t narrow it down to three. Instead, I planned a whole week’s worth of menus – too many to write about in one blog post – so I’ll have three posts about the cookbook: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.
Breakfast for dinner is one of my favorite things in the world (and harks back to eating greasy diner breakfasts in the middle of the night), so I was really excited to try some of the breakfast foods in the book. It’s been ages since I had sausage patties, so I decided to venture into the world of seitan-making (a first for me, since I’ve been too intimidated to try using vital wheat gluten) and make the Herbed Breakfast Sausage Patties. These are now my favorite thing ever. Not only were they a breeze to make (mix dry ingredients, add wet ingredients, form patties, steam, refrigerate overnight), but even when just mixing the ingredients, my mouth was watering from the amazing aroma wafting up and me from the bowl. Julie Hasson has figured out the perfect combination of herbs and spices for a breakfast patty.
The patties browned really nicely in the pan, and the texture was flawless. They made a great accompaniment for My Big Fat Greek Scramble. Every vegan cookbook worth its (black) salt includes a tofu scramble recipe (dessert cookbooks excluded, of course) and they’re all slightly different. This colorful scramble filled with spinach and red pepper and Kalamata olives did not disappoint. The first time I made it, I followed the recipe exactly, and it was almost perfect. The only thing I did differently the second time was to substitute some kala namak for the sea salt to enhance the egginess of the dish.
Separately, the scramble and the sausage patties are both things I would make again, but together they are an absolute winner. Perfect Breakfast for Dinner fare!
So much for the savory. Diner breakfasts also bring sweet things to mind. So I decided to have a go at a sweet breakfast treat, the Blueberry Nutmeg Muffins. This also allowed me to broaden my vegan cooking horizons by baking with flax meal (often used as an egg substitute) for the very first time. And again, it was so easy and went so much more smoothly than I expected. Julie Hasson has truly fool-proofed these recipes if a relatively inexperienced chef/baker like myself gets results like these right off the bat. These muffins rose perfectly, had a wonderful crumb, and again, the flavor combinations were impeccable. I brought some in to work on Sunday, and they were all gone by the afternoon. I even got compliments about them from the omni foodie in the group! Needless to say, I left a few for myself at home, but these are now long gone. The sweet spiciness of the nutmeg and the tartness of the blueberries complement each other really nicely in this recipe. I’m looking forward to trying more of the baked goods in here!
Next up: Lunch!
So, I was planning on posting a little something in between Cookbook Challenges about the advantages of having vegan pals to hang with, but after the iPad WordPress app ate my blog post just as I was finishing it and trying to add a photo, I lost my inspiration. I’ll probably be posting something about that again soon, but in the meantime, it’s time to tell you about the second cookbook I’m doing for the cookbook challenge: The Complete Guide to Vegan Food Substitutions by Celine Steen and Joni Marie Newman.
I love this book. First of all, it’s adorable. It’s smaller than the average cookbook, and easy to pop in your bag and browse through in the train, in the tram, or on your break at work. Plus, it’s illustrated with really cute drawings of happy farm animals.
Secondly, not only is it filled with great recipes, but the authors do a great job of explaining how the right substitutes work in vegan cooking and baking so that you have a good basic understanding of ingredients to try to veganize your favorite non-vegan recipes. This can be particularly daunting with baked goods, and while I’m not there yet (in terms of veganizing non-vegan recipes), I know I’ll come back to this cookbook as a reference when I’m ready to take that step. Oh, and they’ve got a lot of gluten-free and soy-free recipes in there for folks who are sensitive to those items.
I was kind of crunched for time this week, only really having two days when I had time to cook, and a whole slew of late shifts at work. So I decided to go for three recipes I thought would work well as leftovers to bring with me for my early evening “lunch” (i.e. dinner) break.
The first was the Green Tempeh Veggie Feast, an artful combination of sautéed tempeh, leeks, Brussels sprouts, and this amazing pepita (pumpkin seed) pesto. I always love tempeh, and I’ve become a real fan of Brussels sprouts in the last year, so I knew this would be a hit. What really puts this dish over the top from “yummy, healthy greens and protein” to “oh, wow” is the pesto! The Tempeh Veggie Feast is really easy to make, and makes a shit-ton (or .907 metric shit-tons for those of us in Europe), so it’s perfect for a weeknight meal when you just want something healthy, hearty, and delicious and are happy to have leftovers. And while I really enjoyed the flavor sensations, it’s not really the prettiest dish in the world, so I wouldn’t necessarily make it for an occasion that calls for something fancy shmancy.
The same cannot be said for the other two recipes I made for this challenge. The next night I doubled up my cooking efforts and made the Denver “Quiche” and the Creamy Polenta Chili Bake. These were both AMAZING, and deceptively easy to make. Because of the ease of making these, they could definitely (and likely will) make their way into my weeknight rotation, but they are both also impressive enough to share when having folks over for dinner. The quiche is even good cold, and travels really well, so it would make a great bring-along for a potluck.
The Chili Bake combines a really simple two bean chili (I made mine a bit spicier than what the recipe calls for but that’s just the way I roll), with a topping of creamy polenta (as you not doubt astutely surmised from the name of the dish) that bakes really nicely on the top and reminded me of the comfort food experience of eating chili with corn bread. This recipe could easily be made soy free if you choose a non-soy plant milk (like almond or rice) to make the polenta, and use a bit of olive oil instead of vegan margarine. I liked the chili recipe, which uses kidney and black beans, but I might experiment with using different chili for this as well (like the Quick and Hearty Chili from Vegan Diner that I might make for the next cookbook challenge).
The real star of the show, though, was the quiche. I had no idea how easy or delicious this would be. It’s amazing how the right combination of ingredients (in this case silken tofu, chickpea flour, and nutritional yeast) can come together to make something so perfect. Add the right vegetables, some kala namak, some liquid smoke, and a veggie protein (I subbed vegan bratwurst for the suggested seitan, which I didn’t have) and you’re on your way to quicheville! Ok, it doesn’t taste exactly like an egg-based quiche, it’s true. But what it does taste like is a creamy, smoky, savory pie of goodness. Seriously, I can’t recommend this recipe enough! (And oh, dear lord, please don’t let my poorly-lit cell phone pictures turn you off of this.)
So, week two of the cookbook challenge was a resounding success. Next week, I’ll be tucking into one of the books I’ve had the longest, but have yet to make anything from: Vegan Diner by Julie Hasson. I’ve been checking out the recipes and I truly can’t wait. The only problem is going to be narrowing down what I want to make!
If you’re bored enough to have checked out the “about” section of this blog, you may have noticed that I referred to myself as a bad birdwatcher. I suspect that many of my friends would object to my applying that moniker to myself. After all, at times I certainly can be quite good at birdwatching, and my non-birding friends are always impressed at my birdy knowledge. Compared to the big boys, though, I am just a novice. But the term “bad birdwatcher” needs a bit of explanation. It’s not about where I fit on some heirarchy of skills. Bad birdwatching is a state of mind.
The term was coined by Simon Barnes in his excellent book How to be a Bad Birdwatcher. It’s been a while since I read the book, so forgive me if my memory of its contents is a bit fuzzy, but what has stuck with me was Barnes’s approach to birdwatching, which truly can be applied to most aspects of life. It can be summed up in these simple sentences from the book:
“Look out of the window.
See a bird.
Congratulations. You are a bad birdwatcher.”
In other words, you don’t have to be an expert, or even necessarily very good at something, to do it and enjoy it.
As someone who has often been paralyzed by her own need for perfectionism, I found this a truly refreshing approach. I don’t have to be a twitcher with an impressive life list and the ability to recognize every LBJ on sight. I can take joy in just observing birds, learning about them in my own way and my own time. I don’t have to go out in search of rarities. I can enjoy the antics of the Long-tailed tits in the trees out back, and it still counts as birdwatching. Of course, that doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in seeing new birds or adding to my list. (I’m very excited to have seen my first Black terns on Tuesday.) It’s just not my priority, and I find that just taking it step by step – first learning to recognize the everyday birds around me, then starting to pay attention to their songs, then adding to my knowledge of different species as I come across them – I’m becoming a better birdwatcher than I ever thought I’d be.
Yet I still proudly wear the moniker “bad birdwatcher”. For me, birdwatching is not about ticking a name off a list and moving on. It’s about enjoying the beauty of everyday things. It’s about appreciating nature in the middle of a crowded city. It’s about marveling at the biodiversity in the life that surrounds us. And it’s about taking a step back and really being in the moment.
And all without a PhD in ornithology.