Chef Amanda Cohen's unique graphic-novel cookbook Dirt Candy, named for her influential vegetarian restaurant on New York's Lower East Side, features an illustration of the chef at age 5, eating ice cream with two friends: a monkey and a panda. Both monkey and panda are chefs, with starkly contrasting—but complementary—personalities.
The panda, Cohen explains, is "pretty relaxed and cool," while the monkey is "very, very high-strung." Put the two of them together and they represent the full spectrum of chefdom.
"If you're a chef, you're always a little stressed out; you always feel a little bit behind and, as the monkey, you really have to try hard to not go bananas," says Cohen. "Then on the flip side, chefs can be really calm and reassuring, and that's more the idea of the laid-back panda."
In 2008, when Cohen opened Dirt Candy in a tiny 18-seat space, she wasn't certain her vegetarian concept would thrive. She undoubtedly could relate to the monkey chef. "I had no idea if it was going to be popular, and so that's why we opened a really small place to begin with," she said. "I could run it by myself with no one else helping me out."
But her inner-chef panda—lighthearted, tranquil and fun—remained optimistic, and Dirt Candy became a success for the creative risks she took with vegetables. Dirt Candy moved into a much larger location on Allen Street in 2015. "I think people gravitated toward it for two reasons. One, we were fun—our main message when we started was just, you know, dinner should be fun, food should be fun," Cohen says. "And then we really tried to separate that idea that, 'Oh, I'm going to eat vegetables because they're good for me and I'm on a diet or whatever reason.' Come eat vegetables because they are delicious."
Cohen's objective has evolved, showcasing the versatility of vegetables using techniques like grilling, smoking, deep-frying, juicing and dehydrating. "When you sit down and have a carrot dish at Dirt Candy, you're kind of like 'oh, I'm not sure I've ever actually eaten a carrot,'" she says.
For a Mother's Day meal, Cohen combines her creativity with the comfort moms deserve on their day: She turns to her recipe for stone-ground grits with corn cream, shiitakes and watercress topped with a poached egg. (For an extra flourish, you can also opt to tempura-fry the poached egg.)
One of her favorite aspects of the dish is that it challenges people's perception of grits. "It's sort of one of the dishes that we made our name off of when we first started because we really treated it like corn and not just like some sort of starch or grain [where] you add a lot of butter and cream to make it delicious," Cohen said. "Instead what it tastes like is just the most in-your-face corn that you've ever had." Just be sure to use stone-ground grits and not instant.
A perk of the recipe, she adds, is that most of the prep can be done the day before. "When you're going to serve [the grits], just add in some of the corn cream and maybe a little butter and you're good to go," she says. The eggs can also be poached a day in advance—"just poach it maybe a little bit less than you normally would have and then you immediately put it into cold water," Cohen suggests.
The egg-topped grits make a perfect breakfast or brunch, says Cohen, but their risotto-like consistency also makes this dish great for dinner.
"Our idea is that you should be always discovering new wines, so we work with a lot of smaller vineyards," Cohen says of the wine-pairing program Dirt Candy. She sticks to this mentality for this Mother's Day wine pairing, choosing biodynamic Austrian producer Gut Oggau's 2017 Theodora cuvee, a blend of Grüner Veltliner and Welschriesling.
"It sort of has all this exotic fruit in it—it's a little spicy, it's quite acidic, and I think it all pairs really well with the grits," she says. "Every sip is a little bit different. The thing with the grits is it's full of comfort, right? So if you had a wine that was just sort of really stable throughout, you wouldn't get the best out of each of them."
Below, Wine Spectator shares a selection of recently rated Grüner Veltliners and other vibrant white wines.
When it comes to Dirt Candy, Cohen's goal has never wavered: "Make the restaurant better than it was the day before." That's not a bad way to approach Mother's Day each year, either.
Reprinted with permission from Dirt Candy: A Cookbook: Flavor-Forward Food from the Upstart New York City Vegetarian Restaurant, by Amanda Cohen, Ryan Dunlavey and Grady Hendrix (copyright 2012).
Stone-Ground Grits with Corn Cream, Shiitakes, Watercress, and Poached Egg
For the corn cream:
- 2 cups fresh corn kernels
- Salt to taste
1. Put both cups of corn kernels in the blender, and cover them with water.
2. Blend until smooth (about 3 minutes).
3. Push through a chinois or sieve to remove chunks. Salt to taste.
For the stone-ground grits with shiitakes, watercress and poached egg:
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup diced yellow onion
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 2 cups stone-ground grits
- 1/4 cup white wine
- 5 cups vegetable stock at room temperature
- 2 tablespoons white vinegar
- 1/2 cup sliced shiitakes
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 4 extra-large eggs
- 2 cups watercress (or arugula or any slightly bitter green)
- 1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
- 2 cups corn cream (see above)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup crumbled ricotta salata cheese
1. Put a pan over medium heat with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, the onion and garlic. Stir for about 2 minutes, until the onion is translucent, then add your dry grits, and keep stirring until they coat the garlic and onion, about 2 minutes. Add the white wine and cook until liquid is gone.
2. Turn heat to low, and add 1/2 cup vegetable stock. Stir until the grits start to expand and the liquid is absorbed. Continue to stir, and add the stock 1/2 cup at a time until all the stock is used. Salt to taste.
3. Fill a large pot with 6 cups of water and 2 tablespoons of vinegar (ratio is 3 cups of water to 1 tablespoon of vinegar). Bring to a boil. This will be for the poached eggs.
4. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat, and sauté the shiitakes with the red pepper flakes. Add the cooked grits and stir in 1 1/2 cups of the corn cream, making sure to break down any lumps.
5. To poach the eggs: Crack one egg into a bowl, then slide it into the pot of water, which should now remain at a simmer. Stir the water gently, since stirring the water will keep the poached egg together as it cooks. When the white starts to solidify (about 1 to 2 minutes), lift egg out with a slotted spoon and set it aside. Repeat this process with remaining eggs, one at a time.
6. Add the watercress to the pan and stir into the grits. Add the corn kernels and remaining 1/2 cup corn cream. Mix in the butter, and salt to taste.
7. Crown each plate of grits with a poached egg, then crumble ricotta salata cheese over the top. Serves 4.
Tempura-Fried Poached Egg (Optional)
For the basic batter:
- 1/2 cup, plus 1 tablespoon unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup seltzer water
- 1 cup panko crumbs
- 1 teaspoon salt
1. In a bowl, mix flour and seltzer water together into a paste. Note: If you want beer batter, substitute 1/2 cup of beer for seltzer.
2. Pulse the panko a few times in a food processor and then mix with salt. Put this into a separate bowl from the flour and seltzer water.
- 2 tablespoons white vinegar
- 4 extra large eggs
- 2 cups basic batter (see above)
- 8 cups canola oil for frying
1. Fill a large pot with 6 cups of water and 2 tablespoons of vinegar (ratio is 3 cups of water to 1 tablespoon of vinegar). Bring to a boil.
2. Crack one egg into a bowl, then slide it into the water, which should now remain at a simmer. Don’t stir the water. Stirring the water will keep the poached egg tighter, but tempura frying requires lots of ridges and flakes and pieces for the batter to stick to.
3. When the whites start to solidify (about 1 to 2 minutes) lift egg out with a slotted spoon and put it directly in an ice bath. Repeat this process with remaining eggs, one at a time. They must be completely cold for tempura frying.
4. In a large pot, heat canola oil to 350° F.
5. Dip eggs in the basic batter, then roll them in panko crumbs.
6. Deep fry eggs at 350° F until golden, about 2 minutes.
10 Recommended White Wines
Note: The following list is a selection of outstanding and very good wines from recently rated releases. More options can be found in our Wine Ratings Search.
Falanghina Beneventano 2017
Score: 90 | $15
WS review: Bright acidity and a chalk-tinged streak of mineral define this light-bodied, lacy white, which offers flavors of green melon, peach skin, ground ginger and star fruit. Drink now through 2022. 3,300 cases made. From Italy.—Alison Napjus
FEUDI DI SAN GREGORIO
Greco di Tufo 2016
Score: 90 | $31
WS review: A tangy, light-bodied white, with a light, pleasing plumpness to the palate's passion fruit, tangerine and melon fruit flavors. Minerally fleur de sel and stone notes echo on the sleek finish. Drink now through 2021. 2,000 cases made. From Italy.—A.N.
Grüner Veltliner Kremstal Furth-Palt 2016
Score: 90 | $21
WS review: An interesting example, with yellow apple and bergamot flavors tied to a detailed structure. Notes of cardamom and sage mark the inviting finish. Drink now through 2022. 2,500 cases made. From Austria.—Aleks Zecevic
Riesling Alto Adige 2017
Score: 90 | $19
WS review: Honeysuckle and lemon mint notes waft from the glass of this lip-smacking white. Light-bodied and lithe, with nectarine, wet stone and pink grapefruit granita flavors. Drink now through 2024. 1,300 cases made. From Italy.—A.N.
Riesling Nahe Löhrer Berg 2017
Score: 90 | $17
WS review: Fine and graceful, this shows a filigreed profile, with notes of cardamom and coriander framing the core of passion fruit and tangerine flavors. Silky in texture and firm in structure, with prominent but well-integrated acidity for balance. Drink now through 2026. 1,200 cases made. From Germany.—A.Z.
Grüner Veltliner Kamptal Strass 2017
Score: 89 | $22
WS review: A glossy white, featuring lentil, green apple and tobacco notes, laden with white pepper hints. Racy acidity imparts lift, but this is firm, with a tactile sensation on the finish. Drink now through 2021. 3,333 cases made. From Austria.—A.Z.
Grüner Veltliner Kremstal Kremser Wachtberg Reserve 2017
Score: 89 | $25
WS review: A more opulent style, featuring green pea, white pepper and oolong tea aromas and flavors. The texture is velvety, with vibrant acidity fueling the core and linking it to a stubborn savory mineral note on the finish. Drink now through 2024. 1,000 cases made. From Austria.—A.Z.
Grüner Veltliner Niederösterreich Klassik 2017
Score: 89 | $16
WS review: Features loads of vanilla flavor and smoky aromas on the nose, while the palate is showing good depth of flavor as well as balance and structure, with a savory feel overall. Hints of thyme linger. Drink now. 1,000 cases made. From Austria.—A.Z.
Falanghina Taburno 2017
Score: 88 | $17
WS review: Crisp acidity and a hint of chalk provide a snappy frame for the flavors of apricot, passion fruit and spice in this light-bodied white. Drink now. 3,500 cases made. From Italy.—A.N.
Grüner Veltliner Wachau Fio 2016
Score: 88 | $20
WS review: A savory version, with an elegant profile, this is beautifully integrated with the mineral and vegetal character, firm structure and vibrant acidity. Lingering finish. Drink now through 2025. 10,000 cases made. From Austria.—A.Z.