Putting Vegetables on Steroids

Amanda Cohen is the chef-owner of Dirt Candy, a small vegetarian restaurant in New York City's East Village. She often serves dishes that use the same ingredient in a number of ways, such as "Pea": garden pea broth with a spring pea flan and wasabi pea leaves. Or "Corn": stone-ground grits, corn cream, pickled shiitakes, huitlacoche, and a tempura poached egg. We spoke to Cohen about modern vegetarian cuisine, getting the most flavor out of vegetables, and eating nonveggie food to become a better veggie chef. She also shared a recipe with us for sweet carrot risotto, which we've adapted for home cooks.

Were you always a vegetarian chef?

I was a vegetarian for 16 years starting at around 15, and when I first started cooking pro, I cooked mostly vegetarian food. As time went on I started to branch out in order to become a better cook and learn to do everything. I realized if I wanted to compete, I needed to taste and eat what other chefs were cooking. I eat fish now, but I'm at the restaurant six days a week, so I do eat vegetarian most of the time.

How is your approach different?

Our take on Cohen's sweet carrot risotto

Our take on Cohen's sweet carrot risotto

A lot of vegetarian restaurants are focused on mock meat, and that has a place, but it's not what I'm looking for. We don't think of ourselves as vegetarian, we think of ourselves as a vegetable restaurant. We are serious about making great food, but aside from that we just want people to come in, relax, and have fun. We cook good food that happens to not have meat.

What's the secret to making a really great vegetable dish?

We try to figure out what the flavor of the vegetable is and then boost it. We put the vegetable on steroids—not only are you tasting it, you are overtasting it. We make a carrot risotto with carrot stock, chopped carrots, carrot juice, carrot dumplings, and carrot strips. So within that dish you have a bunch of ways of serving carrots, and it all comes together in an explosion of carrot flavor. We want people to taste the dish and realize that's what a carrot really tastes like.

What will you be making with spring vegetables?

Some things we are looking at are a sweet pea soup and a version of steamed pork buns—we are doing steamed carrot buns with carrot dough and barbecued carrots inside. People think of carrots as a winter vegetable, but they are sweetest and freshest in spring/summer. I'm kind of obsessed with them.

Who else do you admire for their vegetable cookery?

Green Zebra in Chicago also focuses a lot on great vegetables. And then there's Dan Barber [of Blue Hill], he is the vegetable king.

What do you think about the "eat less meat" bandwagon?

I think we were really lucky—our restaurant opened at the right time. People's ideas change. For years people didn't eat meat every night, but they didn't think [of it as a "thing"]. They just happened to have a meal without meat. We encroached on that idea of "I'm just eating good food, and it's vegetarian tonight. I don't care what you ate yesterday or tomorrow. Right now it's about vegetables."