It’s been a busy period here at Nerdsong central, so I’ve had less time than normal for both cooking and updating my blog, but I figured it was way past time I posted about the rest of the Vegan Diner cookbook challenge. For those just joining us, the cookbook challenge involves taking one underutilized cookbook in your collection per week and making at least three new recipes from it. As I mentioned in my last post, I was really inspired by Julie Hasson’s Vegan Diner, and went a little crazy, making a lot more than the three recipe minimum, so I thought I’d spread the Vegan Diner love over several posts.
I already posted about the “breakfast” diner food I enjoyed. Today, it’s time for lunch and dinner.
Vegan cheese (or cheeze, as it’s often spelled to differentiate it from its dairy counterpart) can be a contentious issue. Cheese is one of the hardest things to give up when going vegan, and is also one of the hardest things to replicate. Commercial plant-based cheezes like Daiya, Cheezly, and Sheese have their fans and their detractors, but I think most vegans agree that if you expect them to taste like dairy cheese, you’ll be disappointed. A lot of them are good when used in recipes, or melted on pizza, but not the kind of thing you’d happily eat on a cracker*. So I was really curious to try the Great Smokey Mountain Cheeze in Vegan Diner. It would be my first attempt at making my own cheeze, and it looked simple enough. But how would it taste?
The answer is, it tasted amazing! It’s a creamy, spreadable cheeze that’s got a bit of a smokey, spicy bite to it (thanks to the addition of smoked paprika). It’s spreadable, but also holds up to slicing, not like a hard cheese would but like one of those spreadable cheeses that come individually wrapped in foil. And most importantly, it passed the cracker test!
I found myself taking little nibbles of it every time I went to the fridge for something else, and the fairly large batch I made on Monday barely made it to the end of the week. I ate it on crackers, on bread, on a bagel. So, this is definitely a cheeze that stands on its own. The next test is, how would it melt? Enter the grilled cheeze!
As I mentioned in my last post, diner food is comfort food, food that reminds you of your childhood. Grilled cheese and Tomato Soup are a classic combo that fits that bill. I was happy to discover that the Smokey Mountain Cheeze lends itself perfectly to this all-time favorite sandwich, and The Old-Fashioned Tomato Soup – fresh, creamy, and just garlicky enough – makes the perfect foil for it!
So far, I’ve focused on breakfast and lunch foods, but of course, diners are known for their down-homey dinner foods too. The one I decided to try from Vegan Diner was the Veggies and Dumplings. This was somewhat more labor-intensive than the other dishes I’ve made from this cookbook, but so worth it!
As Northern Europe slides inexorably into winter, I find myself craving hearty, stick-to-your-ribs meals, and this was just what the doctor ordered: saucy, veggie-rich stew, with fluffy, steamed dumplings. This recipe makes a buttload, so it’s something that you could serve to the whole family, or in my case, have lots of leftovers for generous late-shift work dinners.
If anyone had asked me before what my favorite cookbook was, I would have unhesitatingly responded that it was Appetite for Reduction. Now, I can say without a doubt that Vegan Diner has shot into the number one spot in my cookbook case!
Coming up: Chloe’s Kitchen, and some thoughts on why I made the choice to go vegan.
*Recently, there has been more focus on making actual cultured vegan (generally nut-based) cheezes that seem to take things to the next level, but these are not a feasible option for everyone. The store-bought ones are both expensive and only available in limited areas, and the homemade ones take a certain level and skill and patience that I certainly don’t have at this time.
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!