One of the most common (and oft-abandoned) New Year’s resolutions is to eat better and become more health conscious, but instead of chalking up yet another to-do list item that we won’t follow through with, we’ve decided to kick 2013 off with a diet that’s earth-friendly and a little more fun, and chef Amanda Cohen of Dirt Candy, a veggie-focused eatery in Manhattan’s East Village, is here to help.
Dirt Candy, for those intrigued by the name, is Cohen’s creative term for vegetables—“dirt transformed by sunshine and rain into something that’s full of flavor”—and her restaurant’s got plenty of them: mushroom, fennel, onion, cabbage, chard and more make up an eclectic menu of dishes with bold flavors and rich combinations. Among the items offered are Chinese kohlrabi salad with purple cabbage wontons and Sichuan walnuts, buttermilk battered cauliflower with waffles, horseradish and wild arugula and even plant-infused desserts like rosemary eggplant tiramisu.
For Cohen, who previously served as chef de cuisine at Heirloom and Pure Food and Wine, Dirt Candy is the go-to destination for eaters who wish to experience nouveau vegetarian cooking. Its modern, homey interior is more than welcoming, and its 18 seats facilitate personalized attention from the staff and often Cohen herself.
We chatted with the chef about Dirt Candy’s inception and her choice foods off the menu, including Jalapeno Hush Puppies with Maple Butter—the recipe is listed below for adventurous home cooks. If you’re hungry for more, you can snap up her new flavor-forward comic book cookbook here.
How did you come up with the concept for Dirt Candy?
For about 10 years, I had worked in restaurants all over New York City and I was tired of seeing and doing the same things over and over again. I had some ideas of my own I wanted to try. Also, there are millions of seafood restaurants, thousands of steak restaurants, tens of thousands of BBQ restaurants, but no vegetable restaurants out there. I figured it was about time. Dirt Candy is my laboratory for cooking vegetables, and every day I get to try new things that no one else is doing. Vegetables aren’t considered cool so no one else is doing a whole lot with them, which leaves me with a wide-open field in which to play. They’re like the Wild West of cooking right now – there are no rules. Every day in my kitchen I feel like I’m on the best downhill plunge of the coolest roller coaster ever built.
What is your go-to snack between meals?
I don’t have one, unfortunately. At Dirt Candy I spend all day, every day, tasting everything at least twice, usually four to five times. My life is an endless series of spoons full of this sauce, or that relish, or this filling, or that broth. For me, the challenge is making sure I eat two full meals each day so that I get enough calories to survive, rather than getting stuffed by the spoonful.
What is your favorite item on the menu and why?
I just put an onion dish on the menu, and it was one of the most stressful things I’ve done in a long time. It was replacing a tomato dish that everyone loved, and that The New York Times singled out to praise, and so the stakes were high. I wanted to do a riff on scallion pancakes you get at Chinese restaurants, but they needed to be something special, too. What I wound up with are small pancakes stuffed with smoked onions, teeny tiny miniature pearl onion rings on top of a grilled onion salad, and a Thai basil cream sauce. People seem to love it, which is a huge relief. Screwing up and making a dish people hate is my biggest nightmare.
Jalapeno Hush Puppies with Maple Butter
Serves 4 to 6 (approximately 34 hush puppies)
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
1 1/4 teaspoons + 1/8 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups whole milk
1 extra large egg, beaten
1/2 cup finely diced red onion
1/2 cup minced jalapeno, with seeds
8 cups canola oil for frying
1. In a large pot, heat oil to 350 degrees.
2. Whisk cornmeal, baking powder, salt and flour together in a bowl.
3. Add jalapenos and onions to the bowl and mix. Gently fold milk into mixture, then very gently fold in beaten egg.
4. When oil is at 350 degrees, take two spoons (or a small ice cream scoop) and slowly push a spoonful of batter into the oil. It’ll sink to the bottom and then rise to top. When it reaches the top flip it over once. When golden brown, remove and let drain on a paper towel. If batter breaks apart in fryer, whisk in extra flour to remaining batter to make it stiffer.
Makes 1 1/4 cups
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 1/2 teaspoons dijon mustard
Salt to taste
1. Put ingredients in stand mixer and use whisk attachment to beat until fluffy.
2. Salt to taste and serve at room temperature.
Dirt Candy is located at 430 E. 9th Street between 1st Avenue and Avenue A.
Credits: Photos by Steven Elledge via Dirt Candy