If you asked me when I visited Seattle for the first time — and when I dined at Plum Bistro — I’d have a quick answer: “Oh, a couple years ago.” Well, color me surprised when I looked back into the ol’ blog archives and discovered that my first trip to Seattle was just about five and a half years ago. Sigh. Insert cliché about the passage of time here.
If I visited Plum more than five years ago, I probably received its owner’s cookbook just a year or two later. My brother Ian gave me Plum: Gratifying Vegan Dishes from Seattle’s Plum Bistro for Christmas one year, since he and his girlfriend brought me to the restaurant in the first place. It’s a gorgeous book, and I’ve leafed through it admiringly more than once. But I have to admit that I rarely cooked from it… making it a perfect choice for my June cookbook challenge! I was excited to give Makini Howell’s creative recipes a fair shake. Here’s how it went down.
Recipes from Plum: Gratifying Vegan Dishes from Seattle’s Plum Bistro
Eager to hit up our local farmers market when it opened in early June, I selected the leaf-free Avocado Salad with Seitan Bites (p. 36) for a Saturday lunch. Cucumbers, red onions, tomatoes (I used cherry since the big slicers weren’t in season yet), and avocado jump in a bowl with seitan chunks and a simple dressing to make a shockingly filling dish. (We used Upton’s seitan, but you could surely use homemade.) The salad was quite tasty, if surprisingly heavy: The dressing calls for 1/2 cup of oil! I reduced it by half(ish) and still felt it was a little bit much. We had quite a bit of salad left over after lunch, but unfortunately it didn’t keep well; everything kind of lost its liquid so that the leftovers I brought to work the following Monday included browning avocado chunks swimming in dressing, tomato juice, and who knows what else. It was, frankly, unappealing. I opted for a sandwich from a local shop instead and foisted the leftovers on Steven, who has a mercifully less picky palate. Overall, though, I really liked this idea; I would never have put together these ingredients. Seitan in a salad?! Madness. But it works. I’d like to play with this concept, lightening up the dressing and maybe adding some arugula for bite and a little extra nutrition.
You’ve had barbecue jackfruit, barbecue seitan, barbecue lentils (just me?). But now, enter barbecue mushrooms! In Howell’s Barbecue Oyster Mushroom Sliders with Pickled Onions (p. 62). recipe, meaty oyster mushrooms get sautéed with garlic in barbecue sauce, then nestled in burger buns with a scoop of barbecue-infused mayo and a forkful of pickled red onions. I opted for regular buns instead of sliders and used the barbecue sauce recipe from The Homemade Vegan Pantry. I really enjoyed this new take on a pulled pork-esque sandwich. I’m excited to play around with oyster mushrooms in other recipes, too. My only quibble? They were a little oily, even though I reduced the 1/4 cup called for. Howell’s recipes are rich!
Although a classic corn chowder was a semi-regular dish on my family’s dinner rotation while I was growing up, I was never a fan. Something about the sweetness and creaminess of the dish was anathema to me. So when I saw the recipe for Creamy Millet Corn Chowder (p. 41) — an elevated take on the classic dish, made hearty with the addition of millet — I knew the time had come to try corn chowder again, this time as an adult with a more appreciative palate. Steven put this one together one evening, and as he got ready to serve the finished product, he gave it a taste. From the living room, I heard him curse. Alas, the single jalapeño rendered the chowder surprisingly spicy, overpowering any nuance of flavor. It was certainly edible, but not ideal. Still, this updated chowder was a definite improvement on the chowders of my youth, and I’d love to make it again without the jalapeño. (I should note that the leftovers were less spicy, although they soaked up all the liquid and turned into more of a chowder-y mashed potato dish than a stew. Not that I was complaining; it was quite good!)
Although I have no objections to seitan, I really don’t cook with it all that often. The store-bought variety is pricy, but if you want to make it at home for a specific recipe, you need to plan ahead. Yet two out of the four recipes we tried from Plum were seitan-based! True to its name, the Oregano and Parsley Grilled Seitan Steaks (p. 81) require you to marinate juicy seitan steaks in a slurry of oregano, parsley, red wine vinegar, and other spices to give them a nice fresh kick. I used the seitan recipe from It Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken, which was really juicy and toothsome. After steaming the steaks per Sam’s instructions, I switched over to the Plum marinade and let the steaks soak up those flavors overnight in the fridge . Then they just needed a little time on a cast-iron pan to heat up. (Alas, I have no grill handy.) I served them along with millet and kale for a super filling dinner. I enjoyed the herby marinade as well. We have oodles of oregano out back, so I appreciated the chance to use lots of it up at once.
Overall thoughts on Plum: Gratifying Vegan Dishes from Seattle’s Plum Bistro
Aesthetically, Plum scores plenty of points. I appreciate that although it’s a hard cover, it has no dust jacket; they seem impractical for cookbooks. The design is relatively simple yet elegant, with a fair amount of photos sprinkled throughout the recipes. Charity Burggraaf’s photographs are thoughtfully composed, with just enough style to avoid coming off as forcedly rustic.
And the recipes themselves? So creative. Makini Howell has a masterful understanding of flavor, and she combines ingredients in surprising ways to create both fresh takes on familiar recipes and inspiring new dishes. Although I didn’t make too many recipes from this book, the ones I tried were memorable. Yet the fact that I didn’t burn through these recipes is telling: This is not a book for the casual cook just hoping to get a quick dinner on the table. The recipes aren’t exactly pantry-friendly; rather, they require you to plan in advance and shop for ingredients with care. Once I put my finger on that nuance, I understood why Plum sits on my cookbook shelf without getting frequent use, and now I know exactly when to bust it out: When I’m planning a dinner party or other gathering and want to wow my diners with inspiring, gratifying vegan food.
The verdict? Plum is a worthy addition to your cookbook collection, but not a necessity. Best for advanced home cooks who want to experiment with new flavors or who have dinner guests to impress.
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