10:51 am Sep. 10, 2012
Chef Amanda Cohen may mince a lot of onions, but she has never been one to mince words.
That's why I was thrilled to hear that Cohen, the chef-owner of Dirt Candy, a vegetable-centered restaurant in New York City, and a former Iron Chef contender, had written a cookbook with her husband, author Grady Hendrix. And not just any cookbook, a manga-inspired graphic-novel cookbook called Dirt Candy: Flavor-Forward Food from the Upstart New York City Vegetarian Restaurant. (The Dirt Candy team will appear tonight at Housing Works Bookstore in Soho in all their feisty, vegetable-loving glory.)
Since Dirt Candy opened in the East Village in late 2008, Cohen, who is a graduate of the Natural Gourmet Institute and an alum of several revered vegetarian kitchens in New York City (Heirloom, Angelica's Kitchen, Pure Food and Wine), has been on a mission—a "daily war," as she calls it—to change diners' often fraught relationship with vegetables. The problem, she believes, is that chefs tend to give produce short shrift.
“America may be a melting pot of food traditions, but one thing that hasn’t melted is the dominance of the French-style main course, which favors large proteins,” she writes. “This has made it almost impossible for vegetables to become the main course.”
Cohen treats produce with the same obsessive attention other chefs give meat, teasing out each one's unique characteristics by "cooking it every way we can—frying, baking, smoking, roasting, grilling, caramelizing, dehydrating—to figure out it's every taste." The resulting dishes, like her stone-ground corn grits with corn cream, huitlacoche (corn's equivalent to a truffle) and a tempura poached egg, are complex, sophisticated and have earned Dirt Candy a devoted clientele. The cookbook, which came out in late August and features the art of cartoonist Ryan Dunlavey, simply expands her reach.
Like Dirt Candy itself, the cookbook contains no recipes for meat or fish. It also features a repeating character named Dion, a "dairy-free cow" tasked with sharing vegan substitutes for each of the dairy dishes. And yet Cohen insists that hers is not a vegetarian cookbook—at least not of the "self-righteous, holier than thou, health-obsessed, over-cooked vegetable and gloopy brown sauce" variety. Or the 101-salads-masquerading-as-entrees variety. Instead, the book offers recipes for smoked cauliflower and waffles with horseradish cream sauce, pea soup with spring pea flan and pickled potatoes, and jalapeño hush puppies with maple butter—dishes that surprise and satisfy by encouraging their main, plant-based ingredient to shine.
On the subject of salads, perhaps the most mocked of all vegetarian fare, the Dirt Candy cookbook shares several techniques to combat the "salad is boring" trope. To be truly delicious, Cohen says, salads require the same components of any great dish: contrasting texture, big flavor and, perhaps most importantly, fat. The books' raw fennel salad with candied grapefruit pops and grilled cheese croutons (literally mini grilled cheese sandwiches) is a good case in point.
Hendrix said that Dirt Candy's cookbook is likely the "first graphic novel cookbook in the United States" (the form is already used in Japan). It may sound like an unusual pairing, but the action-packed nature of comic books suits Cohen's purposes quite well. In addition to sharing recipes, the book serves as her platform to bash some of the myths that surround the food industry, and restaurants in particular. Her targets include: sketchy building contractors and ridiculous customer requests (like the diner who asked for all her food to be blended before being brought to the table), as well as clueless food writers who like to imagine chefs skipping around farmers' markets and whipping up elaborate meals at home ("I live on takeout and leftovers," Cohen writes), and whimsical foodies who insist that pickles are “magic.”
Cohen also turns the spotlight on herself, cluing readers in to the simmering self-doubt and overwhelming anxieties inherent to the business of feeding others. The result is not a rant so much as a refreshing look into a food culture that could stand to take the whole chef-worship thing down a notch.
"One of the best complements about the book I've received was from a fellow chef who said, 'thank you for articulating the things I've never been comfortable to say,'" Cohen said.
For the bookstore appearance tonight, Hendrix promised some "very dramatic readings” of the recipes by downtown New York performing artist, and Dirt Candy regular, Edgar Oliver, along with plenty of samples of the food itself. (More information here.) It is sure to be an entertaining time—but for those who can't make it, take consolation in this sneak peek of one of the cookbook’s most delicious recipes.
Hush Puppies with Maple Butter
The 'Dirt Candy' cookbook book calls this dish "like crack: cheap, easy, and people can't get enough of it."
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
Canola oil for deep-frying
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
6 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1 1/4 teaspoons plus 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup finely diced red onion
1/2 cup diced jalapeno
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1 extra large egg, beaten
1. Make the maple butter: Put the butter, syrup, and mustard in a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat until fluffy. Salt to taste. Set aside or cover and store in the fridge for up to 1 month. Serve at room temperature.
2. Make the hush puppies: In a large pot heat the oil to 350 degrees.
3. In a bowl whisk together the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt.
4. Add the onion and jalapeno to the bowl and mix. Gently fold in the milk, and then very gently fold in the beaten egg.
5. Using 2 spoons or a small ice cream scoop, slowly push a spoonful of batter into the oil. If the batter breaks apart in the fryer, whisk a little more flour into the remaining batter to make it stiffer. When the consistency is correct, the batter will sink to the bottom and then rise to the top. When the hush puppy reaches the top, flip it over once and fry until golden brown, 2-3 minutes. Continue frying in batches until all the batter is used. Serve the hush puppies warm with the maple butter.