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Book Reviews

The Chicago Diner Cookbook
Book Review:
The New Chicago Diner Cookbook by Jo A. Kaucher
with Kat Barry & The Chicago Diner Crew
Whenever a fellow vegan or vegetarian learns that I am from Chicago, one of the first things often mentioned to me is envy, often expressed this way verbatim: You mean you get to go to The Chicago Diner whenever you want? I am very fortunate. The Chicago Diner has been normalizing and innovating indulgent, hearty plant-based meals ever since 1983, back when Chicago’s reputation as a burly, meat-and-potatoes city was still pretty entrenched. As a young vegetarian, I wandered into the location on Halsted Street and felt like I was in the equivalent of Willy Wonka’s factory for herbivores. You mean I could order anything on the menu?! Since those early days, I have acclimated to the idea of The Chicago Diner but I still get to enjoy watching other people make it to our very own mecca, their eyes dazzled by just the exterior of this humble-but-famous institution and the menu in the window, posing for photos in front of the sign out front, gasping at the food, the desserts, enjoying a leisurely brunch on the patio in the warm months. It really is an enchanting place.

As with their first Chicago Diner cookbook, now fans of globally-inspired vegan comfort food can recreate a little bit of the alchemy at home with their recently published cookbook, The New Chicago Diner Cookbook: Meat-free Recipes from America’s Veggie Diner, written by Jo A. Kaucher, with Kat Barry and the Chicago Diner crew. This new cookbook takes it up a notch from the previous with the breadth and variety of recipes. With their legendary, tantalizing Radical Reuben on the cover (so close, yet so far away), we are immediately lured in by the promise of meat-free deliciousness within its pages. Can we really recreate the magic of The Chicago Diner in our own kitchens? The book makes no promises but it will take you most of the way there.

Well organized, written with clear instructions and including ample, beautiful photography by Del Nakamura, Jo, Kat and the rest take us through a good portion of their most well-loved dishes and they introduce some new ones as well. The generous cookbook - 175 pages - offers pantry essentials and many different chapters, from Vegan Proteins and Fillings to Desserts, including a chapter on Entertaining, which pairs savory appetizers with cocktails. The whole book is studded with many of my favorites from over the years: Ginger Coconut Tofu Bites, the Buddha’s Karma Burger, their famous Cheesecake as well as offering many new ones to try, like the Overnight Pickles and Great Lakes Zucchini Bread. From the beginning to the end, this all-vegan cookbook is like The Chicago Diner itself, a little more refined but still a scrappy, heartfelt labor of love to the community and the meatless world at large.

With accessible ingredients, compelling descriptions and cooks’ notes to help simplify things even more, the magic of The Chicago Diner kitchen could be yours, too, whether you are in the city of broad shoulders or far away. This cookbook is a great gift for the newbie, the experienced cook, the vegan or the omnivore alike. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love with enjoying cruelty-free dishes with abundant flavor and not one iota of sacrifice, will love The New Chicago Diner Cookbook. Please enjoy the Savory Tomato Tartlettes: thanks to the publisher’s for permission to reprint.

Savory Tomato Tartlettes
Savory Tomato Tartlettes

These delightful tarts are perfect for events with standing room only since there’s no utensils needed.

Yield: 2 dozen tartlettes

For the Crust:
21/2 cups (303 g) unbleached organic all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup (224 g) vegan margarine, very cold and cut into small cubes
1/4–1/2 cup (59–119 mL) ice water
Cooking spray, for greasing

For the Filling:
21/2 pounds (1.13 kg) medium tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup (59 mL) extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3/4 cup (170 g) Tofu Ricotta (recipe follows)
1/2 cup (67 g) pitted kalamata olives
1/4 cup (30 g) capers
Fresh thyme, to taste

To make the Crust:
1. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal “S” blade, pulse the flour and salt together. Add the margarine and pulse until the mixture takes on a coarse consistency (10 seconds).
2. Continue to pulse the food processor while adding 1/4 cup (59 mL) ice water in a slow and steady stream. Add more water, 1 tablespoon at a time, as needed until dough just comes together. Remove the dough from the processor and place in a covered bowl. Refrigerate for 1 hour to 2 days.
3. Lightly grease 2 mini muffin pans with the cooking spray. Roll the dough into 24 small balls. Drop each ball into a muffin cup. Press the dough evenly into the sides of the muffin cups, shaping a crust. Go around the edges of each tartlette with a fork to create an attractive border.

To Make the Filling:
1. Preheat the oven to 400F (200C). Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. In a medium mixing bowl, place the tomatoes and onions. Drizzle on the oil and then season with the black pepper. Mix well.
3. Place the tomato and onion mixture on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes, until the tomatoes start to shrivel and the onions are browned. Remove from the oven and transfer to a bowl. Set aside and allow to cool. Reduce the oven temperature to 375F (190C). When the tomatoes and onions have cooled completely, chop them up. Return to the bowl and set aside.
4. In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal “S” blade, combine the Tofu Ricotta mixture and pulse a few times. Toss the Tofu Ricotta with the olives, capers, and thyme. Mix well.
5. Using only half of the Tofu Ricotta
mixture, fill each dough pocket in the muffin pans. Top each pocket with a portion of the tomato and onion mixture. Using the remaining half of the Tofu Ricotta mixture, sprinkle some of the mixture over the top of each pocket.
6. Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, until the top of each crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling. Remove from the oven and cool in the muffin pans on wire racks. Remove the
tartlettes from the pans, transfer to a platter and serve.

Tofu Ricotta

This is a very useful and versatile recipe to have in your repertoire. It’s a quick, delicious and healthy homemade cheese substitute that’s perfect in pasta dishes, as a topping on pizza, as a stuffing for lasagna and shells, or even as a salad all on it’s own.

Yield: about 4 cups

1 (12-ounce [341-g]) package extra-firm tofu, drained and crumbled
cup (76 g) chopped white onion
1 teaspoons sea salt
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 - 3 cups (60 - 90 g) finely chopped fresh spinach
cup (6 g) finely chopped fresh basil
cup (56 g) nutritional yeast flakes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried oregano
teaspoon black pepper

1. Place the crumbled tofu in a large mixing bowl.
2. In a small mixing bowl, combine the onion with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt. Massage the salt into the onion pieces with your hands to “salt cook” the onion. Add the garlic and massage together again.
2. Add the contents of the small mixing bowl to the large mixing bowl. Add all the remaining ingredients. With clean hands, mash the mixture together thoroughly. Use immediately in your favorite recipe or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Cooks’ Note: The consistency of your ricotta should depend on what you’re using it for. If you need to have a smoother texture, don’t mash the mixture with your hands; instead, pulse everything except spinach and basil in a food processor fitted with the metal “S” blade until it is smooth. The add the spinach and bail, pulse a couple more times and transfer the ricotta to a bowl or into your recipe.

VARIATION: This recipe is also great with kale instead of spinach, especially if you refrigerate it overnight (this allowing the kale leaves to soften a bit).

Savory Tomato Tartlettes ready to bake

Reprinted with permission from The New Chicago Diner Cookbook: Meat-free Recipes from America's Veggie Diner by Jo A. Kaucher with Kat Barry & The Chicago Diner Crew, Agate Midway, December 2013.

Photos: Del Nakamura 2013 The Chicago Diner, Inc.

2013, 2014, Vegan Street

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