At NYC's Dirt Candy, chef Amanda Cohen assigns vegetables new roles and responsibilities
In an era where vegetables have become a bigger, more assertive presence on restaurant menus, they still have yet to conquer the final fronteir: dessert—at least not on a wide scale. While chefs have certainly experimented with vegetables in sweeter contexts, none have committed to their sugary potential with the boldness of Dirt Candy chef Amanda Cohen, who features vegetables in every single dessert and pastry she serves at her New York restaurant. Desserts include a celery cheesecake roll, onion chocolate tart and cucumber semifreddo pie, and highlights of the brunch pastry offerings include the chocolate and onion scones and walnut-fennel sticky buns.
Do not confuse this for the sneak-cauliflower-into-your-kids'-pasta genre of vegetable preparation popularized by Jessica Seinfeld, who wrote the cookbook Deceptively Delicious. At Dirt Candy, nobody is trying to trick you. The vegetables are the stars, and you can always taste them, no matter what they're stuffed in. Some diners meet this with resistance.
"I'd say 95% of the time, we can change their minds," says Cohen of vegetable-dessert naysayers. "But there's that 5% who just say, 'I'm sorry, that's too weird,' and I'm so sad standing there watching them push our cucumber semifreddo or something around their plate."
When Cohen opened the first iteration of Dirt Candy, which closed in 2014 after six years to move to a bigger location, she challenged herself to include vegetables in every dessert. Now, she's joined by pastry chef Shannon Murphy, who is equally excited about this venture. "The whole reason she took this job is because she wanted to experiment with vegetable-based desserts that were more ambitious than just putting a scoop of carrot ice cream on the side," says Cohen. "And she burns her eyebrows off every night when she runs the Eggplant Foster cart."
Reimagining vegetable preparation required unlearning some conventional wisdom. Cohen found that, far too often, the way people think about vegetables has to do with their typical preparations (like cucumbers = raw, Brussels sprous=roasted,) or people conflate the vegetable's texture with its flavor.
"One thing I do is separate the flavor from the preparation technique and from their texture," says Cohen. "People think of eggplants as having a smoky flavor because they're usually grilled or roasted. People think of carrots as crunchy but that's their texture. So an onion actually has a lot of sweetness in it if you caramelize it for so long that they lose their astringency. And when you pair them with chocolate they add a lot of depth to the chocolate flavor."
Similarly, fennel is at once sweet and savory, which Cohen felt made it perfect for a breakfast pastry, so she incorporated the vegetable into sticky buns for some "savory oomph."
"Sometimes it's really simple," she says. "We made Eggplant Foster because I wanted to play with fire."
Cohen says her mission is to have people crave vegetables the way they crave pizza, but she recognizes there is still a long way to go.
"It's so weird to me that vegetables are this largely unexplored and unexploited lost continent with so much room for innovation and invention, yet people seem to associate them with the ghost of their mother, standing over their shoulder and shaking her finger, saying, 'Eat your veggies,'" she says.
A bite of the crumbly, buttery chocolate-onion scone should clear that right up.