Whole Food Plant-Based Versions: Joe Vanessi’s Special

by Maria Theresa Maggi on December 4, 2014

veganized Joe Vanessi's special

When I was a child, my mother would throw together a week night comfort meal she called “Joe Vanessi’s Special,” a recipe from one of our many Italian friends. It was one of my favorite meals. The smell of it cooking in the square cast iron pan my Italian grandmother gave to my French Canadian mother as a wedding gift was the smell of quintessential comfort.

I’ve been vegan and eating plant-based whole foods for nearly seven years now. For a lot of my adult life before this, I was vegetarian. I can hardly think of a time I miss meat, even turkey, which I used to like a lot when I was younger. I’m happy to alter more traditional omnivore or ovo-lacto dishes to accommodate my new healthy way of eating, but I rarely try to get them to taste “just like” something else used to. My objective is always that they taste good in their own right, so I keep eating the food that has turned my health around in so many amazing ways.

That being said, Joe Vanessi’s Special is not something readily or easily “converted’–two of its main ingredients are ground chuck and eggs. It’s a sort of scramble made with those two, spinach, onion, and parmesan cheese. Since I can’t eat vegan meat or cheese analogues, I could never think of whole plant substitutes that would even come close. It just seemed like a comfort meal that would remain a tasty memory from my  meat eating childhood, until a happy kitchen coincidence inspired me.

One of the things I usually make at Thanksgiving is a wild rice stuffing to put into squash, but this year we went a different route. (If you’re looking for some easy plant-based holiday ideas, more on that in a future post.) So the week after Thanksgiving, I felt like cooking myself some wild rice pieces I had on hand. One of my favorite ways to eat wild rice when it’s not a stuffing is to toss it with some easy spinach pesto I’ve mentioned on the blog before. This time I mixed all the rice up with all the pesto and ate some with  mushrooms, broccolini and chickpeas.

As I was putting away the rest of the rice/spinach pesto mixture, I realized that it reminded me of Joe Vanessi’s Special. The color and earthy taste of the wild rice was certainly not meat, but as it cooled and stuck together it had that kind of texture and Italian seasoned flair. And the wheels of my culinary imagination started turning.

One of the nicest things about the Burmese style chickpea tofu I shared with you a while back is its custard like consistency. Even more so than soy tofu, it replicates the textures of moist scrambled eggs. I couldn’t resist asking myself what if I made a batch of it and used that as the “egg” in the special?

Just to be sure I was on track, I googled Joe Vanessi’s Special, which I had never thought to do before. I found it mentioned in an interesting article about the culinary history of North Beach in San Francisco. Apparently our friend’s name combines three different restaurants–one  in North Beach originally called New Joe’s, which burned down in 1932, and one called Original Joe’s (which opened in the Tenderloin instead of North Beach) and one called Vanessi’s. The favored story goes that the chef at Original Joe’s created the special when he threw together the scramble from leftovers in the kitchen for hungry late-night musicians. It became a famous sought-after San Francisco North Beach”special” and was replicated in restaurants around the Bay Area (perhaps even Vanessi’s). Original Joe’s burned down in 2007, but the “special” lives on.

Frankly, I thought my choices would probably produce something tasty, but not something that took me back to a plate of the original special my Mom used to make. As I was beginning my lunch, I remembered that my Mom often used green onion in our version. And since there was no meat, I added a couple of chopped mushrooms to the pan for extra earthiness and meat-like texture.

I didn’t measure as I cooked, so I’ll try to approximate what I added. I certainly didn’t expect this quick plant-based hash to take my taste buds back so vividly to that childhood supper. But it was amazingly like it, only, of course, lighter and healthier. I think it’s going to be in regular rotation around here for the winter.

Although the Special itself comes together in a flash, you have to have some cooked wild rice pieces mixed with spinach pesto to be ready to go.  I think, too, that doing that a day or two ahead and letting the pesto sink into the cooked wild rice goes a long way toward concentrating flavors that fat in meat and cheese would otherwise instantly provide. You also need to have some chickpea tofu made. So this is both a fast and a slow food recipe. The first part is slow and the second part is as fast as a stir fry. Give yourself time to do both over a day or two to get the best results.

It’s funny. I really don’t miss meat, or even this dish, much as I liked it as a kid. But inspiration has a way of surprising me. I’m glad I paid attention to my crazy idea, even though I thought it might be a big flop. I ended up having a taste of the past that was much more evocative of the original that I ever would have dreamed. If only I had that square cast iron pan to rustle it up in, I might feel like I’d entered a time loop back to the dinner table of my past. But no matter, it’s still in the family, at my sister’s house, where once in a great while, she makes my mother’s version. And now, at my house, another Italian family tradition I wouldn’t have guessed could be transformed successfully from its original state has made it through the plant-based portal.

Maria (moonwatcher)




Leave a Comment

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Pam December 5, 2014 at 11:06 am

I love the idea of the plant based portal! 🙂


2 moonwatcher December 5, 2014 at 11:17 am

Thanks Pam! Me too. 🙂


3 Veronica December 5, 2014 at 1:19 pm

That sounds delicious and such a great way to meld flavors to make an old favorite. And it’s great when something you’re thinking might not come out right turns out awesome. 🙂 I will be trying this one out! I hope you had a fantastic holiday! xo


4 moonwatcher December 5, 2014 at 8:51 pm

Hi Veronica–thanks and yes it sure is! I am honored you will try this out. We had a very nice holiday in my new place. Hope you guys did in yours too. 🙂


5 Kathleen December 6, 2014 at 7:23 am

Oh, Maria, this is one I’ve GOT to try. I always love the pacing of your recipes as I never feel crunched for time or find myself in a hectic swirl when I cook from your blog. This one is great because I can leisurely assemble the cook-aheads and yet have a quick meal on the table when I get home from work. Bless you and a very Merry Christmas to you.


6 moonwatcher December 6, 2014 at 8:49 am

Thank you, Kathleen, for taking the time to post this lovely comment. It makes me so happy than my leisurely pace is comfortable for you, too. It really is nice to have some basic components ready for when you want a quick but delicious meal. Blessings back to you and a merry holiday season too!


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