Eat your vegetables, says innovative star chef Amanda Cohen — they’re delicious

Cayman in the News 10 May 2019
For all the accomplishments and accolades that chef Amanda Cohen has accumulated in the last decade, she@s still prone to speaking as if she were the underdog.@Nobody likes vegetables. People don@t think they@re sexy,@ Cohen told a crowd that heard her speak and watched her cook at the 2019 Cayman Cookout, a lavish culinary festival that each winter attracts well-heeled foodies to Grand Cayman with its roster of celebrity chefs.
Article by Peter Hum

The Ottawa-born, New York-based chef will be cooking several times this year at events in Canada and would like to open a restaurant in Toronto.

For all the accomplishments and accolades that chef Amanda Cohen has accumulated in the last decade, she’s still prone to speaking as if she were the underdog.

“Nobody likes vegetables. People don’t think they’re sexy,” Cohen told a crowd that heard her speak and watched her cook at the 2019 Cayman Cookout, a lavish culinary festival that each winter attracts well-heeled foodies to Grand Cayman with its roster of celebrity chefs.

Cohen, who was born in Ottawa and raised in Toronto, was a Cayman Cookout luminary alongside star chefs including Eric Ripert, Emeril Lagasse and José Andrés thanks to the success of her vegetable-focused restaurant Dirt Candy.

Not only is Dirt Candy, now a sleek 50-seater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, one of New York City’s busiest restaurants. It’s even been named of the “10 restaurants changing how America eats now” thanks to Cohen’s winning way with vegetables.


Cohen, a 44-year-old who opened Dirt Candy in 2008, has seen her star rise beyond New York with the publication of her 2012 cookbook Dirt Candy and with her recent appearances as an Iron Chef on the Food Network Canada series Iron Chef: Canada.

Cohen, who says that she became a chef hoping that culinary skills would support her love of travel, has made professional trips in the last year to Warsaw, Paris and Grand Cayman.

In early May, she returns to Toronto, to speak at the annual Terroir Symposium and to cook at a fundraiser brunch that will help send a woman to culinary school in Ghana. In mid-July, she is to cook in Victoria, B.C., and in early August, at fine-dining destination Langdon Hall, the acclaimed hotel and spa in Cambridge, On.

“Every interview I do, every conference I speak at, every TV show I appear on, they’re all ways of making people aware of Dirt Candy,” Cohen says. “My No. 1 goal is staying open. Running a fine dining restaurant is a constant struggle and because I don’t have a celebrity mentor or a Michelin star (Canadians don’t get much love from Michelin) then I have to work twice as hard.”

When Cohen became a vegetarian about three decades ago, one motivation was peer pressure. She says she told her mother: “I want to do this because all my friends are really cool and I want to be popular.

“It was really cool back then. It’s much more normal now for people to be vegetarians. My mom was horrified. She was like, ‘You are going to die.’”

That said, Cohen was only formalizing her preferences when eating. “I didn’t love meat,” she says. “I didn’t love seeing things on the bone. I had this sort of visceral reaction to bones and meat and I didn’t eat very much of it.”

She became a New Yorker before she became a chef, moving there to attend university on a scholarship. After she resolved to become a chef, she attended the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York. “It was the only school that would allow me to not butcher,” Cohen says.

About 15 years ago, she became a flexitarian, allowing herself to sample meatier dishes because she thought being a vegetarian was holding her back professionally.

“I just sort of realized that I really wasn’t eating what chefs cared about,” Cohen says. “Chefs cared about the protein on the plate. They didn’t care about the vegetables or the vegetarians. I had this moment where I realized I was never going to grow as a chef unless I ate meat, or at least tried to eat something that other chefs cared about.”

Now, at Dirt Candy, dishes in which vegetables star — but which can also include egg or dairy as ingredients — can riff on meat-based dishes. For example, Cohen serves delicious Korean-fried broccoli, a luscious smoked beet sandwich and even broccoli dogs.

“The broccoli dogs started as a failed experiment to use broccoli to make barbecue. The smoked beet sandwich came about when I realized that smoked beets had a really luxurious, salty flavour and if you cut them thin they were almost like pastrami.

“And we already had some onion and chocolate desserts that worked really well and I wanted to see what happened when I combined something dense and dark tasting like mushroom with dense and dark tasting chocolate. This kitchen is my laboratory and I’m constantly experimenting.”

“We felt that vegetables are pretty amazing and nobody does anything interesting with them,” Cohen told her Cayman Cookout audience. “We started to feel like we were really pioneers and I would go look up a recipe for how you make a vegetable soufflé or a vegetable pie or a vegetable hot dog and there was nothing out there so we started to create our own language, our own idea of what to do with vegetables.”

The go-to technique of roasting vegetables at 350 F in the oven? Cohen says it rarely happens at Dirt Candy.

“If you cook them really high and really fast, they’re going to get a crunchy exterior and a really melt-y interior. If you cook them low and slow, you can get something really soft and luxurious, which is the same thing you kind of do with meat. Those are meat techniques.”

Demonstrating Dirt Candy’s carrot risotto, Cohen said: “If you think of a carrot, that’s kind of just a carrot. It’s uni-textured. What we’re trying to do with the carrot risotto is get different textures in there, get different flavours that we can pull out of the carrot just like you would with a piece of meat, so you get that mouth satisfaction.”

Cohen opened the first Dirt Candy, an 18-seater in Manhattan’s East Village, in October 2008 — “the worst month you could ever open a restaurant in recent history,” Cohen says, due to the recession that held the world in its grip.

She continues, sounding once more like an underdog: “I didn’t know if anybody was going to want what I was offering. I knew that it was sort of going against the norm. I was a female chef offering vegetables. There’s nothing there that signalled success.

“We fought a lot in New York to get a lot of recognition,” Cohen says. “It was hard and it’s exhausting when you’re always, look at me, look at me, I do vegetables.”

But Dirt Candy became so busy that it was even named the busiest restaurant in New York City, Cohen says. The restaurant even turned away Leonardo DiCaprio, who should have made a reservation, the New York Times reported.

In his 2012 review of Dirt Candy, the Times’s critic Pete Wells lauded Cohen’s food as “vegetable cookery that is original, clever, visually arresting and, above all, a lot of fun to eat.”

Cohen says it’s key that Dirt Candy focuses on vegetables not for lifestyle reasons, or to save the planet, or to advocate for animal rights, but because vegetables can be the delicious stars on a plate.

“My cause is great food,” she says. “The restaurant has always been about vegetables and serving great food more than about any sort of ethos.

“The fact that we happen to be morally superior is just a bonus,” she kids.

Cohen says she appeared on Iron Chef: Canada despite detesting cooking competitions.

“I think they’re heavily slanted toward chefs who cook meat, so I always expect to be roadkill on them,” Cohen says. “Also, I am very, very competitive so if I’m going to do one, then losing has to be out of the question. I don’t mean it needs to be rigged. I mean, I need to have the time to rehearse my team and practice enough so that I know we’re going to have a better than average chance of winning.

“The reason I said ‘yes’ to Iron Chef: Canada is because of the last word in that title: Canada. It’s still my home and being Canadian is really important to me. If I was going to sweat blood and drill my team 23 hours a day, I was going to do it for Canada.”

Cohen thinks highly of the Canadian food scene, which she has “really just grown by leaps and bounds in the last couple of years” thanks to chefs bringing culinary advances from abroad, the country’s multiculturalism and amazing local ingredients.

Cohen says she would like to open a restaurant in Canada.

“I think always in the back of my mind, there’s been this nugget of an idea that I’d like to open something in Toronto where my family is. And the time has never really seemed right. But as I think that Dirt Candy in New York settles down more and runs itself, there’s a real possibility that I could do that.”

Stone-Ground Grits with Shiitakes, Watercress, and Poached Egg

Most people cook grits by pouring them into boiling water. The grits absorb the flavourless water and taste like glue. Grits are a vegetable in disguise — they’re corn. So the trick is to enhance the corn flavour. Dirt Candy cooks grits like risotto, which makes them light and fluffy, and we add flavour from the start by using corn cream. Make sure you’re using stone-ground grits, and not instant grits. Your dry grits should be yellow, not white.

Serves: 4–6

3 to 4 tbsp (45 to 60 mL) extra virgin olive oil
½ cup (125 mL) diced yellow onion
1 tbsp (15 mL) minced garlic
2 cups (500 mL) stone-ground grits
¼ cup (60 mL) white wine
5 cups (1.25 L) vegetable stock at room temperature
1/2 cup (125 mL) sliced shiitakes
¼ tsp (1 mL) crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups (500 mL) watercress (or arugula or any slightly bitter green)
2 cups (500 mL) Corn Cream (see below)
1 cup (250 mL) fresh or frozen corn kernels
2 tbsp (30 mL) unsalted butter
¼ cup (60 mL) crumbled ricotta salata cheese
2 tbsp (30 mL) white vinegar
4 extra large eggs

1. Put a pan over medium heat with 3 tbsp (45 mL) olive oil, onion, and garlic. Stir for about 2 minutes, until the onion is translucent, then add  dry grits, and keep stirring until they coat the garlic and onion, about 2 minutes. Add the white wine and cook until liquid is gone.

2. Turn heat to low, and add ½ cup (125 mL) vegetable stock. Stir until the grits start to expand and the liquid is absorbed. Continue to stir, and add the stock ½ cup at a time until all the stock is used. Salt to taste.

3. Fill a large pot with 6 cups (1.5 mL) of water and 2 tbsp (30 mL) vinegar (ratio is 3 cups (750 mL) of water to 1 tbsp (15 mL) vinegar). Bring to a boil. This will be for the poached egg.

4. Heat 1 tbsp (15 mL) olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat, and sauté the shiitakes and red pepper flakes. Add grits and stir in 1½ cups (375 mL) of the corn cream, making sure to break down any lumps.

5. One by one, crack eggs in a bowl then slide them into the boiling water. Stir the water gently since stirring the water will keep the poached egg together as it cooks. When the whites start to solidify (about 1 to 2 minutes) lift eggs out with a slotted spoon and set them aside.

6. Add the watercress to the pan and stir into the grits. Add the corn kernels and remaining ½ cup (125 mL) corn cream. Mix in the butter, and salt to taste.

7. Crown each plate of grits with a poached egg, then crumble ricotta salata cheese over the top.

Corn Cream

This preparation can also be used as a hollandaise sauce substitute and over poached eggs.

2 cups (500 mL) corn kernels
Salt to taste

Makes: 2 cups

1. Put both cups of corn kernels in the blender, and cover them with water.
2. Blend until smooth, about 3 minutes.
3. Push through a chinois (a fine strainer) to remove chunks. Salt to taste.

Source: Adapted from the Dirt Candy Cookbook

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