Amanda Cohen describes her New York City restaurant, Dirt Candy, as a "vegetable" restaurant. It's specifically not a vegetarian restaurant—because she wants to escape all of the holistic, macrobiotic baggage that comes with that term. Her main goal: to cook vegetable dishes that taste amazing. Not surprisingly, she plays with the typical cookbook formula, too, in her new Dirt Candy Cookbook, which doubles as a graphic novel. We asked Cohen for advice on how to master the art of cooking vegetables.
DETAILS: What is the biggest mistake people make when cooking vegetables?
AMANDA COHEN: I'll never understand why grown men who wrestle grizzly bears suddenly turn into insecure wimps when confronted with a carrot. The key to cooking vegetables is "go big or go home." Cook things way longer, or far shorter, than your instinct says. If you're roasting a vegetable, roast it forever so the sugars have time to caramelize. If you're grilling vegetables, get that grill super-hot, then put the vegetables on it for the briefest moment to keep them crisp. If you're sautéing vegetables, then get that pan hot, drop them in, start stirring, and remove them as soon as their colors brighten. You want your veggies to stay crisp and colorful.
DETAILS: What about seasoning?
AMANDA COHEN: Before you serve a dish, add a little citrus or a pat of butter to "finish" it. Be liberal with salt (restaurants use way more salt than home cooks do), be generous with butter (the secret weapon in a lot of kitchens), and be sloppy with olive oil. You want to blow the flavors up big. Hesitation, self-doubt, and half-measures have undermined legions of home cooks.
DETAILS: A lot of people think of vegetables as sides to meat. Any advice on making vegetables the centerpiece of your meal?
AMANDA COHEN: Vegetables aren't meat. They have a higher water content than meat, their cell structure is uniform throughout, and you can't just fling them in a pan and pray. You've got to work to bring out their taste. The best thing to do is cook a vegetable in itself. If you're making grits, don't add water; add corn cream (because grits are just corn in disguise). If you're making carrot risotto, use carrot juice, not water. Make asparagus stock and cook your asparagus in it. And get some different textures on your plate. You want tomatoes for dinner? Then slice some raw and serve them with mozzarella; take some cherry tomatoes and make quick pickles; batter and deep-fry some slices of green tomato, and maybe grill a few, too.
DETAILS: Say I'm cooking a three-course meal to impress a date. What would you recommend?
AMANDA COHEN: Salad, entrée, dessert. A traditional fall salad is greens, nuts, fruit, cheese. So get some arugula, spinach, or a baby-greens mix, toast some pecans in the oven (put them on a sheet tray or a piece of tin foil in your oven until they turn dark), find a juicy (but not soggy) pear, chop it up, and toss everything together with a Dijon vinaigrette. The touch of awesome you need are grilled-cheese croutons. Make a grilled-cheese sandwich with blue cheese, press it down flat, then cut it into [tiny] squares. Put two to three on each salad.
For your entrée, make carrot risotto. An easy dessert is a quick, crustless apple pie and ice cream. Chop up an apple and sauté it in a pan with some butter, sugar and cinnamon. Cook it low and slow until the apples get soft, then pour it over a scoop of vanilla ice cream and sprinkle the whole thing with granola to give it some crunch for contrast.
—Keith Wagstaff is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him @kwagstaff.
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