The Book: Dirt Candy: A Cookbook: Flavor-Forward Food from the Upstart New York City Vegetarian Restaurant The Sell: A cookbook presented as a comic book with vegetarian recipes good enough to intrigue even the most diehard omnivore.
"Dirt Candy: A Cookbook" is a cookbook about vegetables told through comic book art. Shockingly, it's all sorts of awesome. The book is named after Dirt Candy, a wildly popular
vegetarian vegetable restaurant in New York City helmed by chef Amanda Cohen. We had an opportunity to speak with her before her book was released.
Cohen's book is published by the same people who produced David Chang's "Momofuku" cookbook and it follows the same basic format. A narrative of the trials that faced the titular restaurant, interspersed with iconic dish recipes and salted liberally with anecdotes and meditations on the savage art of professional cooking. It's a formula that not only shows a reader a unique recipe but also entertainingly communicates the chef's culinary manifesto, although Amanda was quick to point out that she hates that word, "I'm allergic to manifestos, and I'm also not a fan of telling people what they should and shouldn't do. People decide to be vegetarian for all kinds of different reasons, all of them equally valid. But at Dirt Candy I want people to eat vegetables because they taste good, not for any other reason."
In Amanda's case her aim is demystify and elevate the art of cooking vegetables. She doesn't run a vegetarian restaurant so much as a vegetable restaurant. She spends an entire chapter delving into the history of vegetarianism and pointing out that, at least in Western culture, the actual vegetables in vegetarian cooking have taken a backseat to the politics and ethical quandaries surrounding the eating of meat. Her point seems to be that we should eat vegetables because they taste good not because we feel bad about eating Bambi. That shift in perspective is exciting for most omnivores as it suddenly makes cooking and eating vegetables infinitely sexier. Most people don't pine for a juicy steak because they think eating broccoli is morally wrong, they eat steak because it's delicious. Why shouldn't that apply to vegetables?
Indeed part of the genesis of Dirt Candy was that fine vegetarian dining options were so bleak that she had to give up vegetarianism to preserve her sanity, "I actually permanently added seafood to my diet for when I go out to a nice restaurants. While a lot of restaurants are doing more interesting vegetables these days, a good vegetable entree is still not very common. There are amazing sides and appetizers out there, but going to a nice restaurant and ordering the vegetarian entree is still like asking them to serve you the dish the kitchen cares about least. So I'm still eating seafood when I go out, also because I want to taste what other chefs are doing, and they're saving their best work for meat and seafood a lot of the time."
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When we asked Amanda which recipes she'd force people to learn if she was dictator of the world she responded by offering us two. The first is a fairly simple but delicious preparation for broccoli and the other is one of Dirt Candy's signature dishes: Barbecued Carrot Buns. She loves the carrot buns because they incorporate so many of their favored techniques. One of the big points she makes in the book is that people tend to cook vegetables precisely to the point of boring. In her mind, vegetables should generally be served only two ways. Either raw or nearly raw to preserve their color, texture and flavor. Or they should be roasted until their internal sugars starts to caramelize and their entire nature changes. The carrot buns, which are meant to fill the same noshing notch as more traditional BBQ pork buns, follow this premise. Their filled with the rich flavor of roasted carrots cut with the brightness of cucumber and other raw foods.
Beyond the recipes, though, this cookbook is presented as a comic book and the interior art is hilarious and well done. The writing too is particularly fun if you're a fun of kung-fu movies as the ongoing metaphor is that professional cooking is an eternal war rather than a simple profession or craft. While it is somewhat disconcerting to pick up a modern cookbook that isn't full of glossy food porn, it's actually pretty refreshing. If your first batch of barbecue carrot buns comes out a little soggy or lopsided, there won't be any professionally shot photography mocking you from this cookbook.