September 13, 2013

Plum cookbook review


This has been a challenging review for me to write. No question Plum, by Makini Howell is a beautiful book — well laid out with lovely photos — but the cooking style is so different from mine that, although I don't want to impose my cooking preferences on my reviews, this one challenged me to the max.

Plum Bistro is a very popular Seattle organic, vegan eatery. I'd describe it as an upscale comfort food restaurant, and it often appears on lists of the best vegetarian/vegan restaurants in the country. I've eaten there many times, and sometimes I liked my meal and other times I didn't. Sometimes the food was so over-salted and over-seasoned that I could barely eat it, and the last time I was there (for brunch) my meal was totally bland. Sometimes the taste is good, but I feel like I'm consuming a bottle of oil. It's possible to try too hard to replace animal food in a vegan meal, and Plum may be trying a little harder than necessary. If you've ever dined at Vedge, you'll understand what I mean when I say that Plum is the opposite of Vedge. Vedge glorifies plants, and Plum tries its best to make you forget that you're eating plants.

When I looked through the recipes in the Plum cookbook for dishes to try, I found myself balking at the ingredients. I use fat in cooking, and I use high-fat foods like nuts and avocados, but I find it difficult to add 1-1/4 cups of oil to a sauce, or use 1/4 cup of oil in a dish that serves four. OK. That's my speech. There are plenty of people who will love the Plum cookbook, and I don't want to discourage anyone from giving it a try. Rich foods can be very gratifying on occasion, and you will find lots of options for indulging, here. There are also healthier recipes mixed in among the more extravagant ones, and plenty of interesting cooking ideas to be discovered. And you can always modify recipes to your liking, which I try not to do when I'm reviewing a book.


The first recipe we tried was creamy millet corn chowder — one of the easier, healthier dishes in the book. (It only had two tablespoons of oil for four people.) It was pleasant, but not especially memorable. I enjoyed the combination of millet and corn, and it made a simple, light supper. In addition to the millet and corn, it also contained spinach and potatoes, but I was wishing it had had a lot more spinach. The next day, for lunch, I added a couple of fresh tomatoes, lots more spinach and a few peanuts, and I liked it a much better.


For our next recipe, I asked my husband to make one of Plum's signature dishes, Plum's Smoky Mac.* (see note below) I was afraid I might not be able to deal with the ingredients, and I knew he would follow the directions. I grated the cheese, made an almond flour substitute for the bread crumb topping, and left. Well, after what seemed like forever, I went to the kitchen to see if I could help. I'd been hearing the sounds of a struggle — crashing pans, frantic scurrying, odd muttering — and began to feel guilty about asking him to make the mac. He was running around like a madman, seeming to dart in several directions at once. The kitchen appeared to have been bombed, and he yelled at me to go away and not bother him. He was almost done, he shrieked. Ha.


Some time later I was called to the table where a very large casserole of mac and cheese was placed. I'm not gonna lie and say it was too rich and fatty, and we didn't eat it. It was too rich and fatty but it was insanely delicious, and we gobbled it up like we hadn't eaten in a week. I've even toyed with the idea of making it again sometime for company, but that remains to be seen.


With the mac we had charred broccolini. The photo in the cookbook is much better than mine and makes the dish look very beautiful and appealing, but this was another recipe calling for 1/4 cup of oil to serve four people. If I were to make it again, which I probably won't, I'd reduce the oil to one tablespoon or less.

Everyone is looking for something different in a cookbook, and the Plum cookbook may be perfect for you if you like heartier, richer fare that reminds you of the days before you were vegan, if you just want to add some vegan food to your diet, or cook vegan food for omnivore friends.

You can see some of the recipes on Amazon if you're interested in learning more about the Plum cookbook. There's a recipe for quinoa-millet cherry salad that looks pretty good. I also want to note that gluten-free recipes are clearly marked.

Note: *It's not exactly the same as the mac that people are so crazy about at Plum. That's called Spicy cajun mac 'n' yease. From what I understand, the recipe is secret, and couldn't be shared in the book. However, the Plum's smoky mac is similar.

A free copy of the Plum cookbook was sent to me by the publisher. All opinions are my own, but you can probably tell. The post contains Amazon links.

40 comments:

  1. What a great review. Maybe I'm biased, though, because I feel like it's *exactly* what I could say if I were reviewing this cookbook—right down to the thing about having your husband make the mac&cheese because he wouldn't balk at the directions. I read that part aloud to my partner and we shared a laugh. :)

    Anyway, I think you nicely balanced your personal preferences with the intent of the book. :)

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    1. Thanks, Kelly. I was worried about interjecting too mmany of my preferences into the review. But sometimes it's hard to stay completely neutral. I have to be honest, though. :)

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  2. I love the front cover of the cook book, plus I have been to Seattle's Plum Bistro once. My partner has been there a few times, but dining with him for the first time, the service wasn't good (the staff asked if he was going to lick the plate or not when he wasn't finished with it), but the food was okay. And the Vedge, I can't wait! I'm psyched to try their food in November, it will be so exciting! Plum's Smoky Mac is something I would like to make from a cookbook... it looked good! I I had their spicy cajun mac and cheeze at Plum Bistro (it was mildly spicy, rich, fatty and greasy...but delicious). Thanks for the honest review and I love reading all your reviews! Keep it up!

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    1. The front cover and the entire book, are beautifully done. I've heard others complain about the service, but we haven't experienced problems. We have had issues at the other Plum Cafe and Hillside Quickies locations. Like I said, the mac and cheese was delicious but a little over-the-top fatty. Oh well.

      I think you'll love Vedge, and I look forward to your review.

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  3. I don't think vegan food- even organic vegan food, makes any inherent promises to be healthy, but when a collection of recipes consistently calls for so many empty calories I begin to think it's just a lazy way to add flavor. And, let's face it; I don't need any help to be a lazy cook. I'm sure I wouldn't hesitate to visit this restaurant, but I'll probably skip the cookbook.

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    1. I'd love to read your review, if you ever go! I think there's more to plant-based cooking than trying to recreate animal-based foods, and that's where I have some of my problems with Plum.

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  4. I usually love Plum but I do tend to get the same thing I like over and over. But occasionally it's too greasy. Have you had the sushi roll with the chipotle cream? so good.

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    1. I don't remember having the sushi roll, but if I find myself at Plum again, that's what I'll order.

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  5. Your husband did a wonderful job! The Smoky Mac looks delicious! Sometimes super fatty stuff hits the spot, but sometimes it really can be sickening. I made a fasolada once that called for an obscene amount of olive oil - I regretted not going with my gut and reducing the oil significantly later when my tummy was very upset!

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    1. Yep, sometimes fatty stuff hits the spot, and we all know which places to go to get a fix. My tummy is not too thrilled when I overindulge, and usually sets me straight. Most of the time, though, I don't enjoy greasy food, and there are restaurants I won't go to for that reason.

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  6. We try not to oil or fatty processed food at home (other than the special occasion, like our once in a while pudgie pies), so this cookbook probably isn't my cup of tea. However, that mac & cheese sounds excellent! I laughed when reading about your husband cooking it. Mike has those cooking moments, too. :)

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    1. Us too. Like I said about making the mac again — never say never. :)

      I did have my husband read the kitchen section before I published it, and he was laughing and agreeing that I'd caught the scene pretty well. Actually, in reality, it might have been a little worse.

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  7. I almost always cut back on oils and fats as well as sugars in recipes but I usually feel like I'm missing something. It's not how I like to eat often but it can be fun. Kudos to you for going through with the amounts as written. At least people know what they're getting into.
    The cookbook has come through work a couple times and it looks beautiful but it's not exactly the sort of dishes that appeal to me (and apparently you too.)
    Always into visiting a new restaurant, though.

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    1. We usually cut back, too, but I don't feel like I'm missing anything, except maybe indigestion. We're not always healthy eaters — sometimes we indulge in more extravagant fare. It's all about balance, right?

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  8. I love your honesty! I had a decent meal at Plum in early summer, but I definitely understand what you mean by being the opposite of (the sublime) Vedge. And I would balk at 1 1/4C oil in recipes! Ah!

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    1. I don't mean to imply that Plum isn't a good restaurant, or that the cookbook wouldn't find favor among it's users. I'm just not used to such a liberal use of fat anymore. I think it's possible for food to taste great and also be relatively healthy. Makini Howell considers herself a bold cook — maybe I'm a meek one. :D

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  9. Thanks for the review of this cookbook, I laughed outloud at your husband because I would probably do the same thing! I am not into oil but the book looks so beautiful, maybe I can get it as a coffee table book? Haha

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    1. You could probably get it at the library to try out. There are lots of interesting ideas and the food does taste good, as I honestly admitted. :) It would look great on the coffee table, too.

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  10. That's really interesting. I am not a vegan for health reasons at all and I indulge in my fair share of vegan junk food, but 1 1/4 cup of oils seems even kinda much for me. I don't buy many cookbooks these days for money and space reasons but this may be one that I check out from the library (if they have it) or borrow. Mainly because Plum is touted as like the most awesomest restaurant in Seattle.

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    1. I prefer Sutra to Plum, but lots of people love Plum. (Many don't, for various reasons.) If you like to indulge in rich food sometimes, you would probably really enjoy the Plum cookbook. I'll revisit my copy, and maybe trim down some of the recipes to try — maybe even a somewhat more conservative version of the mac 'n' cheese. You should make that. Seriously.

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  11. Ah the husband the kitchen!! Kudos for the beautiful dish he turned out. Larry is too OCD to have the kitchen look like a war zone, but it would have taken him two weeks to turn out this dish, and two weeks of screaming to leave him alone.
    Great job on the review. We cook with next to no oil so I am thinking this is probably not a go to book for me.

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    1. A little OCD in the kitchen can be a good thing. I like to keep a tidy kitchen as I cook, or I start to feel a little stressed. I like to feel like I have lots of space to work in, and with a smaller kitchen that involves cleaning as I cook. We all have our personal styles. Ken's tends more towards chaos. To be fair, though, it was a complex recipe with many parts.

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  12. Oh my, 1 1/4 cup oil in a dish? That is crazy! Unless it is for 100 people, which I doubt it was :-) I would have been substituting like crazy! I am glad you found a few things to make at least, and I am sure with your creativity in the kitchen you will find a way to make lots of the dishes work for you :)

    Courtney

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    1. In the mac that my husband made, for example, 2/3 cup of oil was part of the "soy cream" component, plus there was other fat in the recipe, not counting the five cups of cheese, etc. It was 6 to 8 servings. (cough, cough) Of course there are recipes that aren't as rich, but the general tone is one of intensity. I'm pretty sure I can make many of the recipes work for me, though.

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  13. Oh Andrea, what a wonderful review. I'll tell you the truth, I ordered this book from amazon, on an impulsive whim. When it came, I was so excited because it really is so beautiful. But, once I started reading the recipes, I was bummed. The very first ingredient in the very first recipe was something like "store bought pizza crust," huh? Plus, so much fat and oil and I just expected so much more. In the end, I decided to cut my losses and return it, even if the return shipping did cost me $5. On the plus side, I adored your descriptions of your husband in the kitchen! Ha ha. I wish I could point out a recipe to musty and come back later to find a giant casserole of Mac and cheese. His only specialty is take out!

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    1. Thank you, Amey. And thank you so much for sharing your experience with the cookbook. It's a relief to know I'm not the only one to be a bit surprised by the recipes. And, you know, there are many times when "take out" is a much appreciated skill.

      On the other hand, I was thinking that the soy cream (recipe available on Amazon) would be perfect in your pasta primavera. ;)

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  14. I must say that 1/4 oil for the brocolini is way too much!
    Before I was vegan there was an adult mac n cheese I made that had 3 different types of dairy cheese...really rich and good and my husband was just recently talking about it. This mac n cheese may do the trick for a special occasion.
    I like your honesty about the book too!

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    1. I think the mac recipe would work perfectly for a special occasion. Thanks for your vote for honesty — I wonder what the publisher would thing.

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  15. I saw a few of the Plum recipes printed in a magazine somewhere and thought they looked pretty tasty, but anything with that much oil would freak me out a bit. Would you cook them again only with less fat?

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    1. Oil does make food tasty, but there are other, healthier ways to get great flavor. I may try some of the recipes with revisions.

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  16. Thanks for the honest review Andrea, I've been thinking about getting that book for a while. I've never actually eaten at Plum but I've heard great things about it, so I thought this might be a good one to have for special occasions and what not. I'm no fat phobe but that much oil seems kind of crazy, it sucks if you feel you have to alter every recipe.

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    1. I don't want to discourage you from getting the book. Maybe try to look at it first at the library or even on Amazon. Everyone has a different cooking style, and you may find it works for you for special occasions. Like I said in the review, the mac tasted great!

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  17. so many of the reviews on amazon complained about the missing spicy man n yease recipe.:) i was bummed too when i found out about it:) but that smoky mac looks awesome!
    that 1/4 cup oil is usually found floating at the bottom when i am done eating the mac everytime i order some.
    thanks for the honest review. it definitely doesnt look like everyday fare, but might work for the omnivore parties.

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    1. I think the recipe in the book is very similar to the one in the restaurant and could be tweaked with cajun spices. As for the oil, the oil in the recipes we tried was really IN them — not left behind. The dishes might be good at a party — they sure taste good!

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  18. The charred broccolini looks really great, but that is an awful lot of oil, I agree!

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    1. It does seem like overkill, doesn't it?

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  19. Thanks for the review and play-by-play...I must admit I'm the pan-banger in this house and always cross my fingers that it will end up with a masterpiece on the table. ;)
    I peeked at the recipe index...fabulous stuff, definitely upscale but intriguing enough to make me want to try the recipes. I'd start with something simple like Peppered Agave Figs...yumza!

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    1. You're welcome. There are a lot of interesting recipes that could make for some good eating!

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  20. Wonderful review! Thank you! I recently ate at Plum (following a move to Seattle from Wisconsin myself) and contemplated buying their cookbook. Perhaps for special occasions.
    Next stop: Trying Sutra that everyone raves about :D.
    Thank you for all your delicious recipes too!

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    1. Thank you! Welcome to Seattle. I found your blog and read it, so I know a little bit about you, and can't help but wonder where you practice.

      Sutra deserves the raves, and is a wonderful spot for a special occasion. My last experience there (http://bit.ly/17uXh1x) was great.

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