Amanda Cohen made vegetables cool. She waged the first all-veggie battle on Iron Chef America against the renowned Masaharu Morimoto. She wrote a graphic novel cookbook. And at Dirt Candy, her diorama-sized Manhattan vegetable restaurant – not traditional “vegetarian,” with all the connotations – roots, shoots and crucifers are prime-time stars, never taking the back seat to a fake meat.
Meet Cohen on Sunday, February 3 at bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy in Rhinebeck, where she will be signing cookbooks and serving samples of Portobello Mousse, her most famous dish. “Foie gras is considered the most decadent of French foods, and I wanted to replicate that rich, luscious sensation with vegetables,” Cohen writes of the savory mousse in Dirt Candy: A Cookbook. “I think of this as my version of foie gras, but calling it that would be hanging too big a target around my neck.”
That’s not to say that she’s afraid to stick her neck out. Dirt Candy: A Cookbook by Cohen and Ryan Dunlavey, with Grady Hendrix (Clarkson Potter, 2012) catalogues Cohen’s palatable hits as well as veggie travails, from unsatisfied customers to the restaurant contractor from Hell. Interspersed are brief histories of vegetable production and consumption, an explanation of $14 salads (hint: You’re paying for time at the table) and edible ephemera told through world-class, kick-ass illustration by Dunlavey. “I love the recipes, I love our story; but it wouldn’t be half of what it is without Ryan’s art. He really manages to capture the stories of the restaurant,” says Cohen. The panels are black-and-white, but the story is colorful.
So is the food: shocking-green spinach soup; sunset-pink candied grapefruit. In the end, Cohen comes out on top by going big instead of going home: More butter, more fat, spice, vinegar, wine and sugar yield bigger, better flavor. Diners began reserving weekend tables two months in advance. Doyenne-of-domesticity Martha Stewart paid a visit, and Dirt Candy developed a roster of reverent regulars.
Tuesday through Saturday, Cohen is in the kitchen, only exiting to give relief to the single server covering the restaurant’s nine tables. Sunday and Monday are her days off, but they hardly constitute a weekend. There are interviews to give, bills to pay. On Sundays, Cohen tests new dishes.
“We’re just about to put a parsnip dish on the menu,” says Cohen, “and this is our second attempt at pushing parsnips. We’ve made parsnip kimchi, soft, buttery parsnip balls…A parsnip is like a white carrot – a little bit sweeter and at the same time a little more bitter, much more vegetal, heartier, tougher – but it has this really nice sort of starchy sweetness to it that, if you like, you love. If you don’t like sweet vegetables, then it’s hard to get you to like it.
‘How can we use the parsnips to sort of highlight its inherent taste, but not its sweetness? We spend a lot of time eating them and we go through this process. What do they taste like roasted? What do they taste like sautéed? What happens if we use them raw? What are we looking for?”
This intense empirical approach is what Dirt Candy is all about. You can see it in the cookbook and hear it in Cohen’s conversation: she loves what she does – vegetables! – and she wants you to love them, too. For those who love vegetables, who like vegetables, who’d like to like vegetables, those who enjoy a good story or are considering opening a small business of any kind, Dirt Candy: A Cookbook is for you.
“I really want cooks, people who love to cook, who want to try new things and a lot of new techniques to read it,” says Cohen. “There’s something for everybody in this book, and you know it’s amazing to see who’s come to our readings, who has questions, who’s into it: graphic novel-lovers, cooks, professional chefs, parents and their kids. Kids interested in eating and cooking vegetarian! That sort of blew my mind.”
Cohen will be at bluecashew this Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. Dirt Candy: A Cookbook will be available for purchase and signing. For more information about this and upcoming events, visit www.bluecashewkitchen.com or call (845) 876-1117.
Chef Amanda Cohen signing Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, Sunday, February 3, 2-5 p.m., bluecashew Kitchen Pharmacy, 6423 Montgomery Street, Rhinebeck; (845) 876-1117, www.bluecashewkitchen.com.