Dirt Candy: A Cookbook

Dirt Candy: A Cookbook cover

I hadn’t previously heard of Amanda Cohen, owner and chef behind the Dirt Candy vegetable restaurant in New York City, but that’s not surprising, since I’m primarily a carnivore. However, I was familiar with the outstanding work of artist Ryan Dunlavey, most recently on the impressive Comic Book History of Comics. He’s a wizard with the presentation of non-fiction material in comic format. Given how a cookbook is a natural for visual presentation — showing techniques, for example, or what ingredients or a dish should look like — I eagerly anticipated reading this unusual volume.

Not only did the book live up to my expectations, it turned out to be even better than I thought. Instead of just recipes, the book also includes stories from Cohen’s struggle to open her restaurant. (It’s about half graphic memoir, with each chapter starting with comics before moving to the recipes.) That business is tough, but fascinating and entertaining to hear about, especially in such a crazy city. Plus, you’ll learn why salads cost $14, a hugely insightful revelation about the economics of the restaurant business.

Dirt Candy: A Cookbook cover

The title, both of the book and her place, Dirt Candy, comes from her wanting “people to think of vegetables as a treat, as something fun. Like candy from the dirt.” Cohen organizes the chapters, in the fashion typical of cookbooks, by type of food: salads, sauces, entrees, desserts, etc. However, there’s also an introduction, where we meet our author, her restaurant, her staff, and where she explains her philosophy. This section also covers basic cooking techniques, including sweating, blanching, and reducing, as well as Cohen’s time competing on Iron Chef America.

There’s early indication of how creative the visuals are going to be, as Dunlavey uses imaginative images wherever he can to keep the author’s monologue highly readable. My favorite is the panel where Cohen’s saying, “Cooking vegetables is like the Wild West: There are no rules, so anything goes.” Dunlavey has drawn various veggies, with stick arms and legs, having shootouts with each other. (The corn gets it in the ear, ha ha.)

Even when the characters are simply talking to each other (or the reader), they’re expressive and emotional, which keeps them entertaining. I also found them easy to relate to; I’ve never cooked or staffed an eatery, but their high-stress tasks have a lot in common with many jobs.

I’m not sure the recipes are those I’ll ever try — some are very ambitious, using advanced techniques like molecular cooking to make tomato pearls, and some take from five hours to three weeks to prepare — while others just don’t sound to my taste (especially the ones using ingredients or spices I’ve never heard of). I might steal some of the concepts, though, to use in simpler preparations. The Grilled Cheese Croutons — cutting a grilled cheese sandwich into little bite-sized bits — is top of the list.

I sure enjoyed reading about all these dishes, though, and the restaurant’s high on my list to try the next time I’m in NYC with an adventurous eater. Here’s the book’s trailer:

You can buy a signed copy (with free shipping) at the restaurant’s website; that link also has some preview pages. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


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