Dirt Candy: A Cookbook (A Cookbook Review)

Taken at Choice Eats 2013.

From an unusual (but delicious) restaurant, Dirt Candy, comes an unusual (but innovative) cookbook. This graphic novel (aka cookbook) tells the story of a girl and her restaurant, and all the messy, tell-all details that have made it what it is today – one of the most celebrated vegetarian eateries in NYC. Restaurateur Amanda Cohen, artist Ryan Dunlavey and journalist Grady Hendrix bring it all to life in one of the most imaginative cookbooks I’ve ever seen - “Dirt Candy, flavor-forward food from the upstart New York City vegetarian restaurant.”

The Story

It starts with the obvious - Amanda Cohen runs a successful vegetarian restaurant in New York with many awards, complimentary press and a full house every night - life is good and easy, right? Wrong. That story line ends by page two and the truth comes pouring out. She details the insanity of finding a space and building out her own restaurant. She introduces you to the quirky personalities of her staff, which are impossible to overlook in a kitchen the size of a bread box. She dishes about running a kitchen efficiently, and it looks like she has figured it out. Michael Natkin of the vegetarian blog, Herbivoracious, interned at Dirt Candy and shared his experience of the magic that happens in the little kitchen on 9th Street in Manhattan:

I’m standing in an area that is maybe 2 feet by 1, between her station, the bathroom door, and the reservation computer. Except it is a spot that the servers constantly need, so I dance towards the station one way, then back to the wall. She’s giving me small portions of almost everything on the menu, which is amazing. Somehow, she’s managing to expedite the service, make all of the cold dishes, finish the hot plates, answer the constantly ringing phone, manage the servers, run food, chat with customers, handle walk-ins, show me how to make some of the plates, and talk shop, all simultaneously and calmly.

Amanda’s story goes on to rant about customer complaints (from Yelp “This chef girl is a stupid cow!”), her time on Iron Chef (they lost), why a salad costs $14, immigration issues and the many preconceived notions about vegetarian food (expensive, bland, healthy …. because healthy is a bad thing?).

The Recipes

This fabulously self-deprecating story winds its way around some of the most interesting vegetable recipes and  cooking techniques, from basics like blanching and shocking, to pickling, deep frying and smoking. This juicy graphic novel entertains while it educates. Amanda’s recipes are vegetarian and can be made vegan – the “dairy-free cow” will show you the way with tips for vegan variations - just like at her restaurant where the entire menu can be made vegan on request.

The recipes in the cookbook replicate the interesting and complicated-looking dishes that are served in her restaurant – Fennel Salad with candied grapefruit pops and grilled cheese croutons, Carrot Risotto with carrot dumplings and carrot ribbons, Zucchini Ginger Cake with zucchini cream and zucchini candy. Delicious, yes! But can I make that? Chef Amanda breaks down the multi-layered process so that we can give it a try.

For example, Smoked Cauliflower and Waffles with horseradish cream sauce has six recipes to complete the dish as she imagines it. If you are feeling adventurous and have the time,  you will create smoked cauliflower + waffles + horseradish cream sauce. And if you are feeling extra creative in the kitchen you can finish it off with the optional items – maple arugula salad, cauliflower bits and pickled cauliflower. Wow, that would impress your guests for sure!

If you are not feeling up to tackle one of these many layered meals, you could pick and choose singular recipes. Or dine at her restaurant. But the cookbook is worth the read if you enjoy cookbooks; I’m sure you haven’t seen many like this one.

Have you ever dreamed of opening a restaurant? Are you an adventurous cook? Do you devour graphic novels? Are you intrigued by talking monkeys, pandas and vegetables? It’s all in one place for your enjoyment in Dirt Candy, A Cookbook.

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