Dirt Candy : a cookbook : flavor-forward food from the upstart New York City vegetarian restaurant

Before your mother was trying to get you to eat your vegetables, someone was doing the same to her. All the way back to John Harvey Kellogg’s vegetarian diet that was intended to restore the body’s purity (But what will I eat!? Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, of course) and Sylvester Graham’s sweet and crunchy cure for onanism (the Graham Cracker), American health foods have framed vegetables as bland, better-for-you alternatives to meat – rather than the delicious ends in themselves that they are. Dirt Candy aims to change this.

Built around recipes from chef Amanda Cohen’s New York restaurant of the same name, Dirt Candy is one part vegetarian cookbook and another part cooking primer. The recipes break down very fancy-sounding dishes I might never attempt on my own – portobello mousse with pear and fennel compote, anyone? – into something I can make with my hand-me-down blender and a trip to the Korean market. The recipes also offer simple cheats that make traditionally preparation-heavy dishes do-able: ‘ravioli’ made from thinly sliced daikon radishes that are filled, painted with egg wash, and pressed together? Then dipped in a panko batter and deep-fried? Yes. Yes, now, please.

Vegan tips and substitutions abound, presented by a cartoon cow. Which leads us to the second part of the book, which is built around comics – yes, this is a cookbook/comic book! – which elucidate both the basic and the finer arts of cooking. Thanks to them, I now know the difference between blanching & shocking, sautéing (what’s known in the biz as ‘starting a pan’), sweating and caramelizing. I also learned that the point of sautéing is to flavor the oil, rather than to soften the onion, aromatics, or what have you – a total shift in my sauté methodology. The comics also chronicle Cohen’s travails while starting her own restaurant, and her & her crew’s brief stint on Iron Chef.

What truly stands out about Dirt Candy is that the recipes are good. Really good. Last weekend I made a variation of the crispy tofu with spicy broccolini and beurre blanc sauce for guests, who were wowed. What’s more, I’d followed the tip to veganize the beurre blanc, a classic French butter sauce. Cohen substitutes a can of coconut milk for the traditional four sticks of butter, and it did not sacrifice flavor. Her grapefruit pops (grapefruit wedges dipped in simmering caramelized sugar that emerge as crunchy sweet bites on a stick) were also a hit.

Acquaintances often mistake me for a vegetarian, but I’m not – I will defend a bowl of Jinya’s noodles with pork belly not to the death, but with significant effort. However, I LOVE vegetables. Amanda Cohen and the crew at Dirty Candy does them very, very well – and they’ve brought more delicious variations of them into my kitchen, for which I am very grateful.