Monday, October 15, 2012

Dirt Candy's Amanda Cohen takes us to vegetable heaven

Dirt candy indeed

Posted by Elizabeth Pandolfi on Mon, Oct 15, 2012 at 5:00 PM

Johns Island is already pretty close to a vegetable paradise, what with the countless farms, produce stands, and garden plots that dot the sides of its rural highways. So it was the perfect setting for the all-veggie dinner by renowned vegetable chef Amanda Cohen, owner of New York restaurant Dirt Candy and author of the world’s first and only graphic cookbook (although it probably won’t be the only one for long).

click to enlarge Chef Amanda Cohen
  • Chef Amanda Cohen

The dinner was hosted at the home of local underground dining organization L.I.M.E.’s Renata Dos Santos, and guests were invited to come in superhero garb. Though a fully suited-up Captain America stood in the driveway to welcome guests, only a few others came as caped crusaders. Our favorites were a pink take on the movie Kick Ass’s Hit Girl, and a very secret Superman. We didn’t see his telltale letter S until the very last course (he was hiding it on a T-shirt under a button-down).

click to enlarge img_2734.jpg

Since Cohen and her crew — which included her Charlestonian husband Grady Hendrix, Chef Ken Immer of OM Cooking, and a couple of brave culinary students from Trident Tech — were cooking out of Dos Santos’ kitchen, we had a clear view of the food preparations. That’s actually how Cohen likes it, as she relates in her cookbook — her restaurant has a fully open kitchen as well. The ponytailed chef (who is instantly recognizable if you’ve seen her cartoon in the cookbook) flitted from fryer to hors d’oeuvres station to salad prep, somehow keeping up an easy conversation with guests as they drifted by the kitchen.

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The vegetable adventure began with L.I.M.E.’s volunteer servers handing out beet-tinis, a play on the martini using beet juice instead of olive juice. The result was a beautiful, deep reddish-pink cocktail that was a hint sweeter and far more pleasant to drink than your typical martini. The intense color fit in well with the comic book theme, too — it could have been a red, drinkable version of Kryptonite.

The hors d’oeuvres were Cohen’s famous portobello mousse, served crostini-style with a peach fennel compote and a light sprinkling of greens to top it off. The mousse is the result of Cohen’s attempt to create a vegetarian foie gras, and it had a rich, concentrated portobello flavor that was perfectly balanced by the sweet peach compote. Later, during dinner, Cohen told us that the mousse had won a PETA contest looking for the best veggie (and hence cruelty-free) version of foie gras in the nation. We had no trouble believing her.

After spending an hour or so sipping cocktails, munching on hors d’oeuvres, and taking in Dos Santos’ incredible marsh view, we were seated at long tables to await our first course. Baskets of hush puppies were placed at each table, along with dishes of maple butter, and they were apparently so delicious that our tablemates emptied the basket before we’d even had a chance to try one. Once the second round arrived, we took a couple and confirmed that they were, indeed, seriously yummy. Very light, they had a hint of spiciness and were extra good when dipped in the maple butter. Who said vegetarian food has to be healthy?

The first course, a celery salad with grilled grapes and grilled oyster mushrooms, had a refreshingly subtle celery taste and a pesto dressing, which is where the grilled grapes were hiding. They were blended in with the basil, and added a hint of sweetness that was only discernible in every other bite or so. The salad greens were local, as was much of the rest of the produce, and were predictably fresh and delicious.

click to enlarge Celery salad with grilled grapes and grilled oyster mushrooms
  • Celery salad with grilled grapes and grilled oyster mushrooms

Second came a tofu steak with lime beurre blanc over a green ragout of snap peas, lima beans, and some sort of sauteed green that was among the best vegetable dishes we’ve ever tasted. The veggies were crisp and seasoned only by the lime beurre blanc, which allowed them to show off their inherent sweet, smooth, and savory flavors. The tofu had a delicious crisp coating that Cohen told us was actually tofu skin, which forms on top of soymilk as it’s heated.

The third course was the one we were most excited about, having read about it in the Dirt Candy cookbook. Cohen seems to be frequently inspired by iconic meaty dishes, and this one, smoked cauliflower with buttermilk waffles, is a play on that most beloved of hangover foods, chicken and waffles. We love waffles — actually, we love any kind of breakfast food — and cauliflower has to be one of the most under-appreciated veggies out there, so we were eager to see what Cohen would do with it. And she didn’t disappoint.

The smoked cauliflower was coated in a heavy, dark breading that was so perfectly done that it neither fell apart when you cut into it, nor left you with an overpowering fried taste. The cauliflower itself was utterly unique; we’ve really never tasted anything like it. It had a smoked flavor, certainly, but there was a lot more going on. You’ll just have to try it yourself to see what we’re talking about. The dish also included a maple arugula salad with a local arugula that was extra peppery and arugula-ish. We were lucky enough to be sitting next to George from Sweetbay Produce, a hydroponic nursery that donated greens for the dinner, and he recognized his leaves the way a mother duck recognizes her ducklings. It made us feel happy for those lucky little plants he raises.

After an admittedly awkward live auction that faltered before it could really get off the ground, it was time for dessert. Cohen served her famous red pepper velvet cake with a sweet buttercream frosting, accompanied by peanut ice cream. The ice cream was delicious, though a bit melted (unavoidable with so many guests to serve at once), but the cake was a tad too red peppery for our taste.

As soon as plates were empty, guests started making their way out the door, with several stopping to thank the chef and get their brand new Dirt Candy cookbooks signed. Captain America, always ready to help a friend in need, pitched in and took over dish duty.

click to enlarge Captain America and Grady Hendrix
  • Captain America and Grady Hendrix

While there may not be any new vegetarians as a result of this dinner, we know that those who arrived as skeptics left as believers. One of the last things we heard as we left for the evening was Superman telling Chef Cohen, “That was delicious, and I don’t eat this kind of food.” Apparently she really does have superpowers.

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