When fellow blogger Jenny Marie suggested a monthly cookbook challenge earlier this year, I was immediately into the concept. I’m not the worst offender when it comes to ignoring my cookbooks, but I could certainly use a little kick in the pants to crack them open more often. Yet because Steven was still doing most of the cooking, I didn’t participate right away — I didn’t want to impose a challenge on his cooking or place any limitations on his meal-planning.
But then, a couple weeks ago, Steven mentioned that he was feeling frazzled by his solo dinner prep duties. Not by the cooking itself, but by the meal-planning. What timing! I happily volunteered to take over, recognizing it as a perfect opportunity to join this cookbook challenge. Now we’ve reached what I think is a really lovely equilibrium, and perhaps one that will work in the long term: I meal plan on the weekends (usually for just three to four meals, because we typically have a leftovers and/or fend-for-yourself nights every so often) and make the shopping list, one of us does the shopping, and then we jointly tackle the weeknight cooking. Although Steven still does the majority of it, we’ve found a great compromise that gets me back in the kitchen without overwhelming me: Since Steven works from home, he can do some prep during the day (chopping veggies, measuring ingredients, generally getting the mise en place ready), then one of us can just put it all together when I’m home after work. It makes everything SO much easier, especially for me. If we keep up with an arrangement like this, I hope to never experience that horrible cooking burnout again.
But I digress. Back to the cookbook challenge! This May, I opted for a criminally neglected book on my shelf: Isa Does It. Gifted to me by Steven’s mom a year or so ago, I flipped through it upon receipt, dog-eared a few pages, and then… really didn’t cook from it much at all. Given my belief that Isa can do no wrong, I had to rectify that mistake. So! Together, over the month of May, Steven and I cooked the hell out of this book so that I could write up a long-overdue review of Isa Does It. (Incidentally, Jenny highlighted the very same book back in February; check out her post for even more recipe reviews.)
Recipes from Isa Does It
For years I assumed all cheesy broccoli soups were just variations on a slightly boring theme. Tasty enough, and definitely something I’d whip up occasionally, but not a recipe I’d seek out. But Isa’s Cheddary Broccoli Soup (p. 53) proved me wrong in a major[ly delicious] way! Whereas I tend to add almond milk to my ad hoc broccoli soups, Isa relies on cashew cream to great effect. We blended this one just enough to destroy any big veggie chunks while still leaving lots of texture. It made a marvelously satisfying meal served alongside sourdough chive biscuits. (And yes, I did top my soup with sprouts in direct replication of the photo in the book because I am unoriginal. 10/10 would sprout-top again.)
A tipsy bake while I was home alone one weekend night (hold your tongue), the Chai Spice Snickerdoodles (p. 276) proved a simple and satisfying treat. A relatively straightforward sugar cookie dough gets rolled in a bath of flavorful spices, including cardamom, ginger, cinnamon, and cloves. Easy to make and easy to eat.
I think chickpeas might well be one of my top five ingredients. I’ll eat them in anything! They work especially well in the simple, satisfying Chickpea-Rice Soup with Cabbage (p. 32), where they’re paired with cabbage (as mentioned), carrots, and just a few seasonings (think thyme and dill). Isa describes this chunky, hearty style of soup as “babushka-style,” and I know exactly what she means. It hits the spot. It especially hit the spot when I came down with a cold over Memorial Day weekend (…) and needed something simple to soothe my throat. Steven suggested using wild rice instead of the jasmine rice recommended in the recipe, and it was a good decision: The wild rice provided a nice toothsome element. I paired my soup with some rye crispbreads and was quite satisfied with the choice. (I will note that there was an element of this soup that hit my palate the wrong way. Nothing overpowering, and I can’t put my finger on what it was exactly, but something to note. I’ll play around with the spices next time I make it.)
One reason I am so into the cookbook challenge concept is that it forces me to dig deeper into a cookbook rather than simply preparing recipes that jump out at me upon first thumb-through. For example, the Curried Peanut Sauce Bowl with Tofu & Kale (p. 199). Now, we make bowls like this on a near-weekly basis, and I would usually never think to use a recipe for the sauce. But because I had already exhausted my top choices from Isa Does It a couple weeks into May, I started choosing recipes I might otherwise have ignored. And that was a good thing! This curried peanut sauce is solid, even if Steven and I had a minor communication breakdown while preparing it. But the sauce withstood my skipping a few steps and turned out just fine. Otherwise, this bowl is just rice and tofu and kale, which is a classic combination that needs no elaboration.
After a painfully long and lingering winter, we skipped spring and jumped into summer (for a while, at least) in early May. Temperatures jumped into the upper 80s/low 90s, and what did I decide to make? Stew. Dilly Stew with Rosemary Dumplings (p. 151), more specifically. This was one recipe where Steven did the chopping and measuring prep during the day, and then I put it all together after work. I highly recommend that approach, if possible, because this isn’t the quickest recipe: It takes a while for the stew components (namely celery, garlic, carrots, and Yukon Gold potatoes) to cook through, and then you add the rosemary dumplings and let them simmer for another 15 or so minutes. The long lead time is worth it though; we both loved this recipe, even though we were eating it in the middle of a heat wave, and even though the dumplings never really cooked through. Whatever; they still tasted fine! This was not an appealing-looking dish, however… hence the lack of photos. But it’s tasty AF. Make it.
Alas, a (minor) dud: the Farro & Fennel Salad with Oranges (p. 70). Incorporating roasted fennel, chilled farro, arugula, orange segments, and toasted walnuts all tossed in an orange vinaigrette, this salad unfortunately did not impress us. Perhaps the proportions were slightly off, but the dressing was barely noticeable — only the orange segments provided any real orange flavor. (Admittedly, I did reduce the red wine vinaigrette ever so slightly. I DON’T LIKE VINEGAR; SUE ME.) And although the fennel was lovely and flavorful right out of the oven, it seemed to lose flavor when it hopped into the salad bowl with the other ingredients. The toasted walnuts and orange segments, on the other hand, did provide a lovely textural contrast and burst of flavor. We made this recipe in tandem, with Steven getting the fennel into the oven to roast, getting the tofu a-marinating (see below), and toasting the walnuts before I got home from work. I then took over and finished up from there, making the vinaigrette, slicing the roasted fennel, baking the tofu, and assembling the whole shebang. We served our salad alongside the Classic Baked Tofu (p. 238) because I wanted to make it a more a filling meal. While I am typically wont to throw together my own mish-mash marinade of an evening, I decided to give Isa’s a try because it’s always nice to jazz up your marinade game. Unfortunately, we both found it overwhelmingly salty. Steven did admit to dumping in a bit more Bragg’s than the recipe required in order to finish up our bottle, but even accounting for his addition this was far too salty. Umami overload!
Isa’s Puffy Pillow Pancake (p. 253) recipe is also available in Vegan Brunch, Vegan with a Vengeance, and online, but you can’t fault her for quadruple-dipping this one: It’s a solid pancake recipe to keep in your arsenal for Sunday mornings. I’ve made these pancakes prior to this cookbook challenge and will make them afterward as well. They are fluffy, puffy, and just sweet enough. You can’t go wrong.
I feel like nobody actually eats fava beans; we all just make “…and a nice Chianti” jokes about them. Well. I am here to tell you that I will now add fava beans to my regular bean rotation. I just adore their obscene size and nice toothsome bite! They play a starring role in the Lemon-Garlic Fava Beans & Mushrooms (p. 152) alongside chopped mushrooms and a garlicky sauce, which gets reduced and turns into a sort of gravy with the addition of breadcrumbs (!) and time. I thought this was a smart and unexpected dish, although Steven was not as thrilled with the favas as I was. (He didn’t care for their somewhat tough skins.) We paired the beans with Garlicky Thyme Tempeh (p. 236), a solid preparation for this oft-overlooked protein. (No fresh thyme? No worries. We used dried and it was fine.)
Time to get our summer burger-makin’ on! I chose the Island Black Bean Burgers (p. 90) as our first homemade veggie burgers of the year. Featuring both black-eyed peas and black beans, this is an all-around solid bean-based burger. Note that it doesn’t hold together particularly well, so if you are the type of vegan who grumbles when your burger crumbles, you may want to augment the recipe with an additional binder. But the flavors were quite nice, especially when topped with the accompanying Nectarine Salsa (p. 90). We opted for mangoes instead of nectarines since I don’t care for out-of-season stone fruit, and it was an excellent substitution.
I have never been much of a raisin fan, especially in cookies. Give me chocolate chips over raisins any day! But you know what? I now (partially) understand the appeal of these wrinkly buggers, and I get why oatmeal-raisin cookies are a thing. That’s thanks to the Jumbo Oatmeal-Raisin Cookies (p. 275), a recipe I made twice during the month. Yes, I had to dig out an expired bag of raisins from deep within the pantry, but they still couldn’t diminish the deliciousness of these cookies! They’re everything I want in an oatmeal cookie: texturally diverse and sweet with just a little cinnamon spiciness. They’ve also got that buttery, melt-in-your-mouth smoothness that makes them go down easy. I also love that this recipe uses both oil and applesauce; it made me feel slightly better about chomping on two of them for breakfast one day at work when I’d run out of healthier options! :D The only issue? They were a little crumbly and might benefit from a little more ground flax. I might also reduce the sugar next time I make them; they were verging on too sweet for me!
I’m not quite sure why, but I never think to make chocolate cookies. Maybe I assume they won’t taste chocolatey enough, so I might as well eat straight-up chocolate instead? Regardless, after the massive success of the oatmeal cookies, I decided to try the Kitchen Sink Chocolate Cookies (p. 278) as well. In my attempt to be faithful to Isa’s recipes as written, I quashed my growing alarm as I poured mix-in after mix-in into the bowl. The result? A cookie dough positively exploding with raisins, chocolate chips, and peanuts. This is an unruly dough; as I tried to corral spoonsful onto the baking pan, I had to fight chocolate chips and peanuts that wanted to pop out every which way. I was worried there wouldn’t be enough actual dough to rein in all the mix-ins once baked, but luckily they stayed together fairly well after about 12 minutes in the oven. That said, I would likely reduce the amount of mix-ins to 1/3 cup each rather than 1/2 cup, and I’d roughly chop the peanuts as well. Steven also didn’t care for the raisins in this cookie; I could take them or leave them. Overall, a cookie that was surprisingly chocolatey, yet not quite as satisfying as the oatmeal cookies. Ah well.
My go-to banana bread is the lower fat version from Veganomicon, but I was excited to mix things up and try the Marbled Banana Bread (p. 268) from Isa Does It. I wish I had a photo of the bread after I baked it, but you’ll just have to settle for the before shot to get a sense of how visually appealing this quick bread is. And guess what? It tastes as wonderful as it looks! I whipped this up the night before Mother’s Day, and Steven brought it over for brunch. (I, alas, was en route to Kansas City for a work obligation and only got to try a butt-end piece.) He reports that his mom loved it! And who wouldn’t. It’s chocolate bread! I also tried to make this again for a Memorial Day weekend cookout, but I was in a cold-induced haze and screwed up the recipe. I won’t bore you with the details of my mistake, but suffice it to say that you do, in fact, need to split the six tablespoons of boiling water between the two batters, and you should not, in fact, add more water to compensate (!?!) unless you want a stodgy bread that will never cook through. Sigh.
Isa describes the Quinoa Caesar Salad (p. 61) as a bit much for weeknight cookin’, and she’s not wrong. The recipe itself isn’t too complex — it’s a salad, for crying out loud! — but it does have quite a few components. There’s quinoa, marinated tempeh “croutons,” and a homemade cashew-based Briny Caesar Dressing (p. 62) that incorporates a head of roasted garlic. Yet Steven managed to pull it all together on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, giving us a nice healthy start to our holiday. I would’ve helped, but alas — the aforementioned spring cold had me feeling a bit run-down. The verdict? This is a solid salad. It will fill you up thanks to all those proteins (quinoa, tempeh, cashew dressing) and nice healthy fats (avocado!). However, we do recommend omitting the raw garlic in the dressing; it added a slightly unpleasant bitter tang and overpowered the briny flavor that should’ve come from 1/4 cup of capers. Steven upped the arugula to counteract the dressing, and that helped. (Yes, this caesar salad includes arugula, but don’t worry… it also calls for romaine for all you purists!) He also recommends reducing the Bragg’s in the tempeh marinade, as it was quite salty.
We made the Sweet and Sour Brown Rice Salad (p. 78) during that early May heat wave, and it was a much more seasonally appropriate choice than stew! I made both the rice and the sweet chili sauce over the weekend, and then Steven assembled it all before I got home from work one day. This chilled salad features adzuki beans (we subbed small pink kidney beans), mung bean sprouts, peanuts, scallions, and LOTS of fresh mint and cilantro, dousing them all in a sweet and sour chili sauce. Interestingly, I halved the sauce recipe — intending to halve the entire recipe — but Steven missed my cryptic note on our meal-planning notepad and prepared the rest of the salad to full proportions. It still worked, and I almost think the full amount of sauce would’ve been overkill. It could’ve used some additional lime juice, however, because the sour aspect was not noticeable in the sauce.
Technically we didn’t make the Smoky Incan Stew (p. 165) during May, but it’s a recipe Steven has put on our roster of favorites because it is fantastic! Quinoa, sweet potatoes, black beans, corn, and tomatoes comprise the bulk of the stew, and they’re dressed up with lots of smoky spiciness from chipotle peppers in adobo and a hefty sprinkling of cilantro. Although I have to give the “Incan” adjective in the recipe title a bit of side-eye, this is a winner. The recipe produces a ton, making it a great bulk cook for lunches and leftovers.
Unlike Isa — who admits as much in the headnotes to her Tabbouleh of the Sea (p. 74) recipe — I quite like traditional tabbouleh. Therefore, I don’t exactly need a flavorful spin on the dish to render it palatable. In fact, if I consider this recipe against traditional tabbouleh, it falls short: I prefer the standard recipe to Isa’s take, which subs whole wheat couscous in place of the traditional bulgur wheat and adds smushed chickpeas and capers for a briny take on the dish. Best to consider the recipe as something separate, with “tabbouleh” removed from the title. Do that, and the dish comes into its own as something wholly unique and quite satisfying, with the capers adding a lovely little briny bite. Maybe not my absolute favorite from the book, but definitely a dish I’d make during the summer for easy cool lunches and leftovers. It’d also hold and transport well, making it an excellent candidate for picnicking. I particularly want to make this one again so I can use my own home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers; we had to rely on store-bought tomatoes for this one, and they were just sad. I typically avoid tomatoes during the winter, but I wanted to follow the recipe closely for accurate judgment. Since it was May when we made this, and Steven chose some lumpy, heirloom-y tomatoes that seemed vaguely promising, we had high hopes, but, alas, they were bland and flavorless. I’m holding out for home-grown! (On that note, you should give the Go Vegga Instagram feed a look for garden-y goodness! This year, I’m documenting my rough-and-tumble garden for your viewing pleasure.)
Overall thoughts on Isa Does It
This is a gorgeous, hefty hardcover! I love the full-color matte photos, which are plentiful and inspiring. For the most part they seem true to the recipe, although Isa specifically recommends making the dilly stew in a cast-iron Dutch oven yet shows the recipe in a cast-iron sauté pan (with FAR FEWER than the estimated 14 dumplings the recipe makes!). The instructions read clearly, and the headnotes have that signature Isa voice. Vegan with a Vengeance was my first-ever vegan cookbook, and I love how Isa’s tone hasn’t changed too much since then.
I also really appreciate Make Ahead tips sprinkled throughout the recipes. I’m usually pretty well able to plan out my cooking steps in a time-efficient way, but I still like seeing time-management suggestions provided for me.
Looking back, I’m actually quite impressed that we cooked so much from this book, especially since I was out of town on a business trip for five days, and then we were in Chicago together for a weekend! I guess it helps when you use it as your single source while meal-planning. :D
The verdict? Isa Does It is a winner! What are your favorite recipes from this one?
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