Seitan nachos and brown rice bowls piled high with steamed zucchini once represented the apex of vegetarian cooking. Today, diners clamor for grapefruit with kale and kohlrabi at Manresa outside San Francisco, and $58-tasting menus revolving around ingredients like cured carrots at Dovetail in NYC. The vegetable has gracefully triumphed over the meat-obsessed zeitgeist, and Amanda Cohen has a lot to do with its rise from side dish to star.
When Toronto-bred Cohen opened tiny Dirt Candy in 2008, New Yorkers were accustomed to vegetarian menus peppered with hearty tempeh dishes masquerading as “chicken.” But at her restaurant, Cohen shunned all faux meats for vegetables; this simple, straightforward concept was, at the time, revolutionary. At her tiny restaurant, diners encountered an earnest but experimental menu featuring dishes like jalapeño hush puppies with maple butter, and tempura egg-topped grits dressed with pickled shiitakes.
“In the beginning, I’m not sure I was trusted as a chef,” reflects Cohen. “One of the things that was so obvious to me was that there were all these restaurants that catered to steak and chicken but not to vegetables. I think I was the first one to take a chance and say, ‘Let’s have fun with them,’ and prove they aren’t just for vegetarians. They make me a better chef, too, because I have to stay on top of my game.”
Vegetables make me a better chef, because I have to stay on top of my game.
Cohen, a former vegetarian herself, was “the nerd who read the cooking magazines my mom had lying around. My best friend was also into food and we would pull out recipes. At some point in the early ‘90s we were grilling pizzas and thought we were fabulous,” she remembers. After traveling in Asia she went to the Natural Gourmet Institute, eventually landing gigs with Bobby Flay and Moby. Time spent in hallowed New York vegetarian restaurants such as Angelica’s Kitchen, Pure Food and Wine, and the short-lived Heirloom also inspired Cohen’s quirky ethos, captured in her graphic novel-esque Dirt Candy: A Cookbook.
As fans waited two months to get reservations inside the Lilliputian space, it was obvious that Cohen’s playful re-imagination of the vegetable was a concept that demanded more commodious digs. Last month, Dirt Candy decamped to the Lower East Side with a menu twice the size. “We actually have storage, a walk-in, and counters. It’s a whole new world,” says Cohen. “But we’ve been too busy to enjoy it. One day we’ll laugh a little.”
Humor has long guided Cohen’s cooking. From peanut noodles whipped up for Beverly Hills 90210 viewings, to the divisive cauliflower pappardelle she just couldn’t say goodbye to, here are 10 of the dishes that transformed—and elevated— her perception of vegetarian cuisine.
Throwback Pasta Salad
There were five kids in my family, so by the time I was in my mid-teens my mother was done cooking and feeding seven people every night. The first dish I ever made on my own was this very ’80s pasta salad, featuring penne with Dijon vinaigrette, broccoli, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives, red peppers, red onions, and lots of garlic. My mom used to make it, and once I’d seen her do it a few times I decided to give it a whirl. It was the simplest thing. It became a constant in my house and no one ever said anything about it. I’m not sure if anyone actually liked it, but they didn’t not like it, and for me that was all the validation I needed. If those big bowls of pasta salad covered with Saran wrap had just sat in our fridge and grown moldy, I never would have become a chef. (Photo: Whole Foods)
Peanut Noodles During 90210 Viewings
In the ’90s, a bunch of us used to get together every week to watch Beverly Hills 90210, and when it was at my apartment I made these peanut noodles from a recipe I clipped out of the New York Times. I knew how to make giant portions of pasta and this recipe seemed exotic and at my comfort level—both simple and complex enough. It was spaghetti covered in a sauce made of peanut butter, garlic, soy sauce, ginger, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, chile peppers, and scallions, served hot. This was back before people had peanut allergies, and everyone loved it so much that after a while, I started to believe that people were coming over less and less for Donna and David and more and more for the noodles. It was the first time I felt like I’d found something I was good at. (Photo via dishmaps.com)
Candied Orange Slices in Beijing
In November 1996, I went to Beijing on my own. I was living in Hong Kong after college and was supposed to go with a friend, but she broke a leg and I made the decision to go by myself. It was an excruciating 48-hour train ride from Hong Kong and I dropped my guidebook in the train’s squat toilet and had to fish it out because it was all I had. I arrived in bleak Beijing clutching my stinky guidebook, lonely, scared, exhausted, and freezing cold. I was also starving and too shy to go into a restaurant. Then I saw a street stall selling bright-red candied crabapples and shiny, candied orange segments. We all grew up with candied apples—which aren’t very good—and oranges are everywhere, but the concept of a candied orange was mind-blowing. I bought a stick of oranges and my teeth cracked through the brittle, sweet, hard candy shell and then warm orange juice dripped out down my chin. Everything I’ve made since then has tried to recapture the pure pop poetry of that moment. (Photo via fragrantica.com)
Raw Oyster Mushroom Calamari at Pure Food and Wine (NYC)
I worked at Pure Food and Wine when it opened and one of my dishes was these “scallops” I made by punching out the center of oyster mushrooms. Every day, at the end of prep, we’d throw away all these perfectly fine leftover rings of oyster mushrooms, which really bugged me. I thought they looked like calamari, but I wondered how I could make them raw. So I breaded them, dehydrated them, and the results were these chewy, soft, silky little rings that went great with sauce. They made people laugh, and it was the first time I realized you could have a sense of humor with food. (Photo: Pure Food and Wine)
Birdnest at Heirloom (NYC)
When I was the chef de cuisine at Heirloom I made these sweet-potato noodles that were deep fried into a nest, served on a bed of greens with lemon foam, and they had a sous vide-poached egg cracked tableside into the nest. Most vegetarian restaurants are really vegan, so one of the things I wanted to do at Heirloom was put eggs and dairy on the menu and make it more accessible. Sous vide had just become a thing—it was before you had to tell the health department you were doing it, and it seemed so exotic. Seeing how it changed the texture of an egg was wowing. People would get really tense when the waiter showed up with the egg, expecting it to be raw, and then they’d love it when a perfectly poached egg slid out of the shell. This dish killed. It had a sense of humor, it was surprising, and most importantly, I realized that there was nothing uniquely “vegetarian” about it. It’s the moment I learned that vegetables could be as high-end, as complex, as intricate, and as challenging as anything being served anywhere else in town. (Photo via ushgnyc.com)
Cauliflower Pappardelle at Dirt Candy
One of the first dishes on my menu at Dirt Candy was a cauliflower pappardelle, and I loved it too much. I wanted to do something with cauliflower that we could cook on our stove because we didn’t have a lot of space. Pasta was perfect. Most pappardelle is made with a ragu of roast boar and sprinkled with pine nuts. I made this one with roasted cauliflower, raisins, and sheets of dehydrated pine nuts, and I was intoxicated by my own cleverness. Everyone else hated it, but I insisted on keeping it on the menu long after common sense dictated it should come off. It sounds weird, but I think it was almost too exotic for the time. People weren’t ready for sweet and salty. Deep down, I was scared because, what if I couldn’t come up with another dish? Every time I make a new dish I’m terrified that it will be my last, and I clung to this one like a drowning woman. Finally, I killed my cauliflower, and that’s how I learned that my diners are the final word, not my ego. (Photo via dirtcandy.com)
Portobello Mousse at Dirt Candy
I love mushrooms, but I try to stay far away from them in the restaurant because they are a natural substitute for meat in other vegetarian restaurants. However, I knew there was something I could probably do to elevate them. It took me a few years, but I played around and finally came up with my Portobello mousse. It’s also the dish that really bailed me out of trouble. Only 50 percent of running a restaurant is about the food. The rest is about taking care of your dining room and one of the biggest headaches is your HVAC. You may serve the best food in town, but too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter and no one wants to eat at your place. The HVAC at the old Dirt Candy was always breaking down and I desperately needed a new one because summer was coming and I couldn’t handle another four months of sweaty, pissed-off customers. At the last minute, I got the word that my Portobello mousse had won a prize from PETA for $10,000. The day I got the check I signed it over directly to my HVAC guy. (Photo courtesy Dirt Candy)
Broccoli Dogs at Dirt Candy
This is the dish that almost killed me. I knew I had to take my smoked cauliflower and waffles off the menu and I wanted to make something with an equally bulky vegetable instead. Broccoli fit that niche. We were experimenting with smoked vegetables and I wanted to take long stalks of broccoli, carve them up, smoke them, and fry them so I’d get something like ribs, which I’d serve with different barbecue sauces and sides, like a summer picnic on your plate. But no matter what I did, this dish wasn’t working. I banged my head against it for four months, making over forty variations, until one day I grabbed some broccoli bread, stuck a piece of raw broccoli inside, and said, ‘Look! It’s a stupid broccoli dog.’ Then I threw it in the garbage. My sous chef looked at it and said, ‘That looks cool.’ Two weeks later, smoked broccoli dogs with Carolina barbecue sauce went on the menu, and they haven’t come off since. It’s fun when you can make a dish like this and wonder, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done this before?’ (Photo courtesy Dirt Candy)
Eggplant Tiramisu at Dirt Candy
This tiramisu is the dessert that set the tone for all Dirt Candy desserts to come. I wanted to push boundaries and get people out of their comfort zones. When my first pastry chef left I didn’t have time to interview new ones so I just took over doing it myself with my sous chef, Danielle. There are some vegetables that are appropriate for dessert—carrot, pumpkin—but eggplant was definitely not one of them. I was obsessed with cotton candy, and I wanted to make an eggplant-flavored one, but that turned out to be really gross. Then we decided to do a savory rosemary cotton candy, and I harnessed the sweetness of eggplant in a classic tiramisu. The final result ended the meal on a savory herbal note, rather than with a gut-busting sugar bomb. It worked. People couldn’t resist a big ball of fluff. Maybe it wasn’t the sugary sweetness they were used to, but they liked the textural component. It was the first Dirt Candy dessert to get written about and I thought, ‘Okay, Danielle and I have got this. We don’t need a pastry chef.’ (Photo via dirtcandy.com)
Cauliflower and Curry at Dirt Candy
I love cauliflower because it’s versatile and works in pretty much any kind of preparation. It has a lot of texture and absorbs flavors well. For the past few years at restaurants I’ve seen many cauliflower heads on plates served with big knives and halfway through it you’re like, ‘I can’t eat another bite of this.’ I wanted to make cauliflower delicious again. When I was putting the new menu together, I wanted to give everyone who had stuck with me a chance to work on recipes themselves. One picked cauliflower, originally with dumplings. Then as Nin, my sous chef, started making it she realized that it was white on white. The tweaking began, and the flavors moved in a more Indian direction because cauliflower has a very light flavor and curry can be as big and bold as you need it to be. Nin ate Indian food every night for a week, and the flavor started to develop—a chutney appeared, paneer got added, and it developed a life of its own. Watching my staff make those jumps made me so proud. You’re only as good as the people who work for you, and instead of starting a dish from scratch, this time I started from a foundation they built for me. (Photo courtesy Dirt Candy)
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