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January 27, 2009

"Dirt Candy" Chef on Picnics and Toronto

Dirt Candy
Coming soon: Kimchi doughnuts
with green chutney dipping sauce.

Photo: Dirt Candy

by Julia Bainbridge

Chef Amanda Cohen loves vegetables, which she affectionately calls "dirt candy," and has worked at numerous vegetarian restaurants in New York. Her nickname for all things rooted in the earth or growing on trees has become the name of her first solo venture, which she opened in New York's East Village in October 2008.

"I don't care about your health. And I don't care about your politics either. But I do care about cooking vegetables," Cohen says on the Dirt Candy restaurant Web site. Case in point: Jalapeno hush puppies with maple butter and the kimchi doughnuts pictured at left. In non-fried options, Cohen and her sous-chef (they are the only two cooks in the kitchen) serve up spinach soup with smoked tofu dumplings, lemon confit, and water chestnuts; crispy tofu with green ragout and Kaffir lime beurre blanc; and mixed greens--although they get topped with grilled cheese croutons and candied grapefruit pops.

The DT spoke to Cohen last week about healthy snacks she brings to the airport when heading to her hometown of Toronto. Her answer was simple: A picnic. "The last couple times I traveled were soon after 9/11, so the airport was basically shut down," she said. "There was a new terrorist alert--I had to get to the airport early, and I knew I was going to be stuck there forever, so my husband and I had a little picnic. We brought grapes, bread, cheese--although we made sure we didn't buy any smelly cheeses--and cookies." When asked if she went with the theme and brought a blanket to spread on the terminal floor, she said it wasn't necessary. "This was when airlines were still giving away blankets."

As for spots to hit upon arrival in Toronto, find some of Cohen's favorites after the jump.

* When Cohen arrives in Toronto, she goes straight for the street food. "There are really good hot dogs sold on every street corner in Toronto," she says. "It's funny: It's not a Canadian thing; definitely a Toronto thing." Although she opts for a veggie dog--and Toronto stands are so considerate, they cook the vegetarian items and meat items on separate grills--she goes wild with the condiments. Olives, hot peppers, bacon bits (which are, contrary to popular belief, vegetarian), onions, sauerkraut--you name it. "It's a two-part hot dog: The dog and the condiments."
* Cohen is a pescetarian, so her favorite-restaurant list is seafood-friendly. She loves the shack-like Oyster Boy on Queen Street that serves oysters and mussels on the half shell. "It's quite small, crowded, loud, and fun. One of the first places like it in the city."
* Lee is one to try for Asian tapas. The restaurant was opened by Susur Lee, who recently left for New York to open Shang to much fanfare.
* Cohen says Toronto has a great Chinese food scene. Makes sense, since it has two Chinatowns to choose from. Turns out Toronto has one of the biggest Chinese populations in North America.
* "Toronto is really multicultural," says Cohen. "Every group or neighborhood has its own tiny grocery shops and restaurants associated with it. And it's a small city, so it's all doable."

Further reading:
* A Whole New Canada
* Dirt Candy is certified by the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) and is made of recycled and sustainable materials. Click here to read an interactive publication of the GRA's new standards
* Gourmet's first taste of Dirt Candy
* Catch of the Day: International noshables

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