I have written a lot of book reports over the last year. The vegan cookbook world is exploding with all kinds of entries, from seasoned cookbook writers to brand new vegan bloggers. Today, I am talking about PLANTLAB by Matthew Kenney, a visually stunning, innovative, and original cookbook that is both inspirational and aspirational. If you are a cookbook fan like me, it belongs on your cookbook shelf! Let me tell you why.
It’s because Matthew Kenney is a really creative. He was one of the original raw, plant-based chefs who opened Pure Food and Wine in New York City, one of the first vegan restaurants I ever ate at. Today he lives and works in LA and has restaurants in Miami, London, Bogota, Bahrain, and New York including the amazing Bar Verde, Double Zero and XYST.
It’s also because this cookbook is designed unlike any cookbook I have ever seen. It is divided into two parts – the photos and the recipes. The photos have no titles, only page numbers in parentheses that refer to the page for the recipe. The recipes have no headers, no explanations of origin or stories, just the recipes and page numbers in parentheses that refer back to the photos. You have to flip back and forth between the photos and the recipes to see what you are working toward which is fun and a little annoying at the same time. It is fun because I find myself staring at the photos marveling at the creativity and trying to figure out what the dish is. Annoying because when I am cooking the actual recipe I have to flip back to find the picture of what it is supposed to look like.
It’s also because it is educational. There are four chapters – Fundamentals, Advanced, Professional, and the Future of Food – based on how Matthew has taught people to cook over the years. The recipes go from “simple” to “complex” although I think some in the Future of Food section are easier than ones in the earlier chapters. While each recipe has multiple parts, they are not necessarily complicated in and of themselves. Most of the recipes are doable except for ones with fancy cooking techniques like sous-vide, a method of cooking in which food is vacuum-sealed in a plastic pouch and then placed in a water bath. I don’t have this contraption so I am skipping those recipes for now but I will probably go back and just cook them some other way (that would be regular, I suppose.)
I have made a lot of recipes so far and learned a lot. I am a busy mom and I don’t employ a sous chef (ha!), so I had to plan ahead in order to ensure I had all of the components ready. I tried to follow the assembly instructions when it came to plating and, although they don’t look exactly like the photos, I have to admit I am really proud of myself!
Fundamentals. I made the first two recipes this summer when I got a sample of the book. They are the super, super basic, Venice Beach Garden Salad (not pictured) which is just greens (kale from my garden) with lemon vinaigrette and the Avocado Toast with radishes, husk cherries and fresh parsley from my garden. The husk cherries are a brilliant topping for avocado toast, and when they are back in season, they will be back on my toast, for sure. The recipe also called for kumquats but I subbed tomatoes from my garden.
I also made Fruits + Yogurt which is a coconut and cashew based yogurt mixed with strawberry syrup, candied pecans (candied with maple syrup!) and lots of berries. I love the addition of cashews to a coconut based yogurt (which I have been making for years) and will be making this regularly going forward. The recipe calls for tropical fruits but it is February in NYC, so I used berries, which let’s face it are not really in season either but since I do my part for the environment by being vegan I’m okay with that. But, I digress.
Advanced. This section has a lot of vegan cheese recipes but honestly I am kind of over cheese at the moment so I skipped those for now. I made the Pastrami-Roasted Carrots (yum, will be tweaking that marinade for everyday use) and the Brussels Sprouts with maple-carrot puree and mixed seeds. Both are great side dishes.
The Kale Polenta with almond ricotta, roasted fennel, creamy polenta, kale pesto, and tomatoes is outstanding. The recipe combines polenta and kale pesto, and, I usually hate fennel but between the roasting and the combo with the other flavors, I may be converted. The recipe also called for spigarello but I couldn’t find any and mustard greens for garnish but I used arugula instead. Look at those gorgeously red tomatoes. At this time of year, you say? Yes, they are from my garden! I froze them whole at the end of the tomato season (when I just had too many to eat and they just started to split) and sautéed them until they popped. They were perfectly delicious!
I also made the Green Herb Tacos with roasted squash, oyster mushroom barbacoa, pepita cream, and guacamole puree. I have to say that I think this recipe has just a little too much going on. The marinade was a bit much for me and I wasn’t that crazy about the pepita cream. But I can figure out a way to strip down the barbacoa marinade and just use cashew sour cream for the pepita cream.
I also decided to serve the Coconut Yogurt (that I had already made strawberry) with my homemade (and if I dare say, famous) The Ultimate Ultimate Granola because this was really all about the plating. All of the dishes in this book have to look fancy. I mean, look at that powdered dried strawberry garnish! Anyway, this is so easy, I can’t figure out why it is in the Advanced section.
Professional. There are a lot of ramen recipes and pizza recipes with creative toppings in this section. I can make pizza without following a recipe though. Here is a glimpse into some of the pizzas.
The Future of Food. I have to be honest and say I am not sure why the recipes in this section are considered the future of food. Some are really easy! I made the Chickpea Frittata with cashew yogurt, green goddess dressing and lemon dressed greens. I love this chickpea frittata batter recipe and the whole concept, especially the yogurt, but I would definitely simplify it next time like just using fresh avocado instead of the green goddess avocado based dressing. And side note, we recently had lunch at Matthew Kenney’s new restaurant XYST and I ordered this. I have to say either I am a great cook or the recipe is written really well because mine was just as good (if not better!) than the one at the restaurant.
The Polenta Scramble with glazed shiitake mushrooms, kale and harissa over a potato patty is a other winner. I used my own homemade harissa and what a great way to flavor the other components of the dish. I do think the potato patty was a little overkill even though I am always happy to eat a big latke but next time I would probably just leave it out.
I made the Chocolate Orange Tart with chocolate crust and orange cream. The garnish called for chocolate sauce but I thought it was just a little too much so I left it out. But the orange cream and the dill? Holy dill! That is such a brilliant combination. Plus, if people don’t like it (like my husband!) it is easy to pick off. The only issue is that the proportions of the different parts are kind of off. I turned the pie tart into mini tarts because that is how I roll but even still there was extra crust which I turned into nut balls as well as extra mousse filling and orange cream which I turned into little parfaits.
Cooking through this book has been quite an experience. I have learned a lot about layering, textures, color and garnishes. Quite frankly, you could make a lot of what is pictured here on your own without recipes because it is a lot of stuff you are already probably making. But, if you get this book and make any recipes, let me know how it goes!