Kitchen Test: A Cook’s Review of The New Chicago Diner Cookbook

Meat-free since 1983 in a city filled with hotdog stands and beef sandwiches is reason enough to know the flavor is there to keep The Chicago Diner the long-lasting vegan institution that it is. In 2014 Jo A. Kaucher, Kat Berry and The Chicago Diner crew put out their favorite recipes for customers to make at home in The New Chicago Diner Cookbook (Midway, an imprint of Agate Publishing). My robust cookbook collection already holds many vegan and vegetarian titles alongside the standard tomes and chef favorites. After cooking through the Chicago Diner’s cookbook, I quickly realized why my other plant-based books stayed on the shelf, only being used for select recipes, filled with markings of “not good, do not make again”, they lacked the full-on satiety that the Chicago Diner provides. The entire week that I cooked through this cookbook, my daughter whose diet mainly consists of bread and cheese, constantly proclaimed that she loved every recipe. She loved the cookbook, she loved the food, and each and every time I reminded her that those recipes, those meals, were all made with only plants.

The first taste of the Chicago Diner had to be their signature Radical Reuben. Filled with marinated seitan, kraut, peppers and a vegan thousand island, it was my savory favorite. A huge surprise since I am very rarely tickled by a sandwich, and have admittedly never ordered a Reuben since traditional meaty corned beef always seems too salty, too meaty and very off brand for my eating habits. The marinade of the seitan is key. A mixture of pickle juice, beet juice, herbs and seasonings infuse the seitan with a flavor only made better by the pan sear before serving.

Another highlight, which I heavily doubted, was the Quinoa Chili. I made it just to see if my thoughts on quinoa could persist. They did not. I find quinoa to be bland, a strange mouth feel and the most dissapointing of all the grains. This chili, despite its lack of the usually chili heavy hitters like fatty ground beef, added sugars, or even abundance of spice hit the spot on Chicago’s chilly May evenings. It was filling and comforting and even the quinoa couldn’t keep me from having a second bowl.

Since we're a family with two small children, pasta is a mainstay for dinners and while I attempt to boost the health of noodles and add some sort of nutrition to my carbo-loading kids, many times the sauce or greens or somewhat hidden vegetables are slid off the pasta piece by piece leaving a plate of sauce left behind. Not for Chicago Diner’s Fettuccini with Cashew Alfredo. Packed with protein and creaminess, thanks to the blended nuts and almost mac and cheese vibe without the heft of dairy with the addition of nutritional yeast, even with the Flashed Greens mixed in, full bites were consumed, no complaints, no squeegeeing of noodles needed.

The cinnamon rolls were the best I have ever had and I grew up begging, pleading and devouring Cinnabons after every trip to the mall. Every Christmas or when the mood strikes, I concoct my own versions with different glazes and fillings. I’ve tasted and tested and baked and eaten the world's cinnamon rolls. The Chicago Diner's is decidedly the most delicious. Even before the dough was baked, I could tell this would be the fluffiest roll I’d ever created. The dough was like playing with a cloud. Once baked, I wondered, would the cloud become easily over baked, would it be too crisp, so filled with air that it was crunchy and lacked any chew? The recipe promised big and gooey and that was met.

The only failure I encountered was the Cocoa Mousse Cake, which could very well have been a flaw in the cook instead of a flaw in the recipe. My mousse didn’t set, it hovered at a not quite liquid state and was a pourable frosting instead of a layer of lightness in the middle of a decadently dense chocolate cake. Still delicious, just not the cloud that was expected. I would happily visit the kitchen at the Chicago Diner to see where I went wrong and snag bites of the real deal.

The cookbook covers breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert fit for everyday and dinner party fare. From comfort to elegant and way more than salads or crudité. Who knew that a Chicago-based diner could be your inspiration for more sustainable, healthy, and environmentally friendly eating?

The New Chicago Diner Cookbook is available from the publisher and anywhere books are sold.  

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Caroline Huftalen

Caroline L. Huftalen is the food editor at Third Coast Review and columnist behind Dear Cinnamon. Her reviews and interviews can also be seen on BuskingAtTheSeams.com. Huftalen is the founder of Survivors Project, Inc. which raises awareness for domestic violence by sharing stories of survival. A graduate of the University at Buffalo and the Savannah College of Art of Design. Huftalen lives in Chicago with her family and is currently writing a novel.