'Dirt Candy': A Visual Veggie Cookbook With A Memoir Mixed In

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The Ones That Got Away series: There were so many good arts and entertainment stories in 2012 that we couldn't get around to reporting on everything as it was released. So this week, our arts reporters are circling back to look at books, movies, TV shows and trends that we should have paid more attention to.

Amanda Cohen's Dirt Candy is a graphic novel, vegetarian cookbook and memoir. But because it's all of those things, it's also not exactly any of them — so it fell between the cracks.

Cohen's restaurant in New York City's East Village is called Dirt Candy because it's focused entirely on vegetables (which Cohen says are candy from the dirt). Even though the place has become a foodie destination, it's teeny, with just nine tables. The narrow dining area doubles as the prep kitchen before people come for dinner.

There's barely room to breathe as Cohen's helpers slice through heaps of long beans to be served with Moroccan herbs and coconut-poached tofu, and whisk gallons of scallion pancake batter. (That's what I swooned over during a dinner that started with crispy hot jalapeno hush puppies and a meltingly rich cube of portobello mushroom mousse, modulated with a bright truffle pear and fennel compote.)

But Cohen wanted to capture the relentless behind-the-scenes labor that goes into running a restaurant. And she wanted to demystify — maybe even de-romanticize — what goes into opening your own place. There were questions she wanted to answer for people, such as: "How did we build this restaurant?" and "What's it like to work with a contractor and are they always trying to kill you?"

Dirt Candy, A Cookbook: Flavor-Forward Food From the Upstart New York City Vegetarian Restaurant answers those questions with a certain grim humor. And it takes readers through a pocket history of vegetarian eating, breaks down why salads cost $14, evangelizes on behalf of deep-fat frying and shows — with the help of black-and-white drawings — how, for example, to mold her smoked corn dumplings into perfect little half-moons.

Dirt Candy the restaurant had been open for about three years when Cohen decided to write the book — reluctantly. She'd worked in too many kitchens where the chefs became so distracted by their cookbooks they forgot about the food. She had a giant fight about it with her husband, Grady Hendrix, who remembers saying something like: "'You may as well do something idiotic like write a comic book cookbook!' And we both kind of stopped [and said] 'That's it.' "

Hendrix ended up helping Cohen write the cookbook, along with artist Ryan Dunlavey, to create something whimsical and energetic that borrowed elements of American comic books and Japanese manga. One part, about Cohen's ill-fated appearance on the TV show Iron Chef America, is drawn like a training sequence from a kung fu film. Another section, about Cohen's love of a deeply unpopular entree is drawn in the style of a 1950's romance.

Matthew B. Wilson is among the reviewers impressed by this vegetarian cookbook, even though he describes himself as "a guy who loves comics and eats a lot of chicken nuggets." He says this is exactly the kind of project that tests the boundaries of the form he loves, making it more palatable (so to speak) for people who might not be drawn to graphic novels, but are interested in adventurous cooking, vegetarianism or who fantasize about owning a restaurant.

"You know, you hear about how difficult it is to open a restaurant and how restaurants fail within however many months," he observes. The Dirt Candy cookbook, he says, remains true to the essential nature of comics by featuring a lone protagonist facing down adversity: "That's a superhero story."

Recipe: 'Roasted Cauliflower With White Wine Pappardelle And Pine Nut Parmesan'

This was the first pasta dish on the menu at Dirt Candy, and I was really proud of it because a) we had to make it without gas (the restaurant's lines weren't hooked up at that point), and b) it was a really smart deconstruction of traditional Pappardelle With Wild Boar Ragu. Unfortunately, customers didn't feel the same. It remains one of the most divisive dishes ever on the Dirt Candy menu, and I kept it on for longer than I probably should have.

White Wine Pappardelle

2 cups semolina

1 cup denatured wine

1 1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 tablespoon salt


1) In the bowl of a mixer make a mound of the semolina and then make a well in the mound.

2) Pour wine and oil into the well, and add salt.

3) Mix the dough until fully combined and the dough is smooth.

4) Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest for 1/2 hour.

5) According to the instructions of your pasta roller, roll out the dough to No. 4 on your machine — it should be sort of thicker.

6) Cut the sheets of pasta into thick strips — 1-inch wide is great, and don't worry about it being uneven. You want this to feel rustic.

NOTE: To denature white wine, heat 2 cups of white wine at 140 degrees for 45 minutes, which will remove the alcohol. It will reduce to about 1 1/4 cups of wine as it cooks.

Tomato Sauce

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 cup white onions

1/4 cup minced garlic

3/4 cup golden raisins

2 tablespoons capers

2 tablespoons cup dried oregano

1/2 tablespoon chili flakes

1 cup tomato paste

4 cups crushed tomatoes

1 tablespoon salt


1) Caramelize the onions in a pan with the oil. About 20 minutes.

2) Add garlic and let soften.

3) Stir in oregano and chili flakes.

4) Stir in capers and raisins.

5) Add in tomato paste and crushed tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Let simmer for around 10 minutes.

6) Add salt.

7) If the mixture looks too thick, thin it with water.


1 head of cauliflower, sliced into florets

1/4 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon salt


1) Preheat oven to 375.

2) Toss olive oil, salt and cauliflower together.

3) Roast in tray for 25 minutes, until golden brown.

Pine Nut Parmesan

3/4 cup water

1 1/2 cups pine nuts

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons nutritional yeast

2 teaspoons lemon juice


1) Process everything together in a food processor until the pine nuts are broken down into tiny little pebbles, about 30 seconds.

2) Spread on a silpat and dehydrate in oven for 5-8 hours. To dehydrate, turn your oven as low as it will go (around 200 degrees) and let it preheat at that temperature. Then place the silpat inside on a baking sheet. After about 30 minutes, bring it back up to 200 degrees, then turn it off again for 30 minutes. Repeat. For 8 hours. Try not to kill yourself.

3) Now you'll have a large flat wafer of dehydrated pine nuts. Break it into shards for plating.

To Serve

1/4 cup chopped parsley

1) Heat tomato sauce to a simmer in a large pan.

2) In a pot of boiling water cook about 32 strands of pasta for 1 minute, then remove with tongs.

3) Add pasta to tomato sauce and cook for about 30 seconds.

4) Salt to taste.

5) Divide pasta and sauce between 4 plates

6) Top with cauliflower and one or two large shards of pine nut parmesan

7) Sprinkle with parsley and serve.?

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


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