by Corinne Whiting
– The Capitol Hill Times –
Some way, somehow, Makini Howell has created the creamiest, zestiest, tastiest vegan version of “mac and cheese” (or “Mac and Yease,” rather) you might ever taste. The secret ingredients in this beloved Plum Bistro dish? Howell’s lips are sealed. When asked, she merely breaks into a wide, contagious smile and replies with a single vague clue: “a nutritional yeast source.”
But don’t worry, we have good news. As of earlier this week, Howell does divulge the magic behind many of the masterpieces made famous at her wildly popular vegan restaurant that opened in Capitol Hill in 2009. In Howell’s just-released cookbook, “Plum: Gratifying Vegan Dishes from Seattle’s Plum Bistro” (Sasquatch Books; $29.95), vegans and omnivores alike delight in vibrant photos and 60 innovative recipes that instruct readers how to concoct their own healthful meals at home using fresh and local food.
The cookbook includes chapters on soups, salads, entrées and desserts, as well as tempeh and seitan. Readers find directions on how to craft their own plates of Pesto Plum Pizza, Barbecue Oyster-Mushroom Sliders, Fresh Blueberry Shortcake and homemade vegan pasta. Other enticing options include Tiramisu Pancakes, Grilled Black Plum and Jicama Salad with Radicchio, Habanero Yam Soup, Blue Corn Pizza with Pesto-Grilled Heirloom Tomatoes and Ricotta as well as transitional raw recipes like Raw Tostadas with Spicy Strawberry Avocado Salad. All recipes are vegan; many are also gluten and soy free.
Howell, a lifelong vegan and self-trained chef, earned a degree in fashion design and spent eight years making men’s clothing before successfully translating her skills to the kitchen. She draws parallels between the two art forms.
“Food is really creative,” she comments. When it comes to her culinary talents, Howell has also built upon what she observed growing up. (Her parents, who did eat meat for the first part of their lives, developed the tofu used in Plum recipes; perhaps they can be credited for many of the dishes’ meat-like textures and consistencies.)
Howell light-heartedly discusses her enduring veganism. “I was that kid at the school lunch table,” she admits, referencing tofu-centric meals that no doubt produced perplexed stares from her Tacoma classmates. “I did feel left out.” This sense of exclusion made Howell empathetic toward others who also feel like outsiders, ultimately motivating her to create “a place where vegans, omnivores and foodies can all enjoy the food.”
At her venues, Howell emphasizes cuisine that is “local, sustainable and organic,” and one immediately senses that these are hardly just buzzwords. On the Plum website, a statement reads: “We want our love of a plant-based diet to be the embodiment of the change we are all going to meet in the coming years with regard to how we harvest food and how we treat our host planet.” Howell places her attention on organically grown seasonal vegetables, non-GMO soy plus organic and local fruits and herbs grown on family-owned farms. The brand name alludes to the symbolism attached to plum trees in Eastern art – beliefs like “hope and community of life, enhancing the triumph of good over hardships. It also represents constancy and kindness. A plum tree is admired for its ability to reform itself and to withstand adverse conditions. Images of the plum blossom denote the passage of time from winter to spring.”
Howell’s expanding vegan empire continues to thrive. The Bistro hired its first sous-chef six months ago, she also owns Plum Cafe in Capitol Hill, and Plum Market recently opened in Seattle Center. On April 28, Plum will be one of eight restaurants participating in the Neighborfood event – a celebration of food, family and the community in Capitol Hill. Each ticket includes food at each eatery, and a portion of proceeds benefit the Humane Society. (See HYPERLINK “http://www.dishcrawl.com/capitolfood”www.dishcrawl.com/capitolfood.) Plum has also recently raised funds through Kickstarter for a food truck that will soon hit the road, bringing vegan eats to spots like South Lake Union and the Ballard market. Its theme? A “burger” truck, of course.
“Seattle’s been really good to us,” says Howell, who admits to “stalking the Pike-Pine corridor” for the ideal Plum Bistro home in 2009 – at the height of the recession – until she found a landlord willing to take a chance on the city’s first fully vegan restaurant. The fantastic space she found (“just small and just big enough”) features a rustic chic décor, a gigantic garage door that rolls up in warmer months and a long, communal table that seems to perfectly embody the essence of the Plum philosophy.
Plum Bistro hasn’t been designed like a typical vegan restaurant, Howell explains, pronouncing it a safe space for those with preconceptions about what vegan food entails. In this airy, inviting dining room, she’s attempted to “take that feeling of not being included and flip it around.” Diners can find familiar dishes (with a twist) like “steaks,” “Reubens,” “pizzas,” even “burritos.” At Plum, Howell says, “Everyone has a place at the table.”
Visit www.plumbistro.com. Cookbook release events will take place with Howell Thursday, May 2, at Book Larder (4252 Fremont Avenue North, 6:30 p.m.), Monday, May 6, (Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 Tenth Avenue, 7 p.m.), Friday, May 10, at Williams-Sonoma (216 Bellevue Square, Bellevue, 4 p.m.) and Tuesday, June 4, Ciao Thyme (207 Unity Street, Bellingham, 6:30 p.m.).