In our ongoing series The Key 3, we ask some of the best cooks and chefs we know to share their three most important recipes: the ones they keep in their backpocket and use all the time, the ones they think we should master as well. Host Francis Lam talks to Amanda Cohen a/k/a "The Vegetable Whisperer of NYC." Cohen is the chef/owner of New York's beloved restaurant Dirt Candy. They met up for a quick chat in the restaurant and then went into her kitchen for a lesson on Cohen's Chickpea, Tomato and Rosemary Soup. [Ed. Note: Thinking outside of Cohen's Key 3, we also have her earlier recipe for Portobello Mousse on our website.]
Chef Amanda Cohen outside of Dirt Candy in NYC. Her Key 3 includes Chickpea Tomato Rosemary Soup (Photos: Shay Paresh)
Francis Lam:Here we are in the beautiful Dirt Candy restaurant, your restaurant, where you famously make vegetables bend to the force of your will. Your menu is all named after a particular vegetable, and there are about 17 versions of that vegetable on the plate.
FL: We're going to talk about The Key 3 things that you think everyone should be able to make at home. We probably won't be able to make your food at home because we're not as good as you, but what should be able to make?
AC: I'm going to take one step back. It's not that you're not as good as me: it's that I have a crew of about 20 people in the kitchen helping me out; I doubt you have that many people at home helping you out. What I cook at home? I want basic recipes. There needs to be things in my arsenal that I can pull out of my fridge or cupboard and make easily. There are three things that everybody should know how to make. One is an easy, fast soup. One is risotto. The last is a leftover sandwich.
FL: What is this sandwich of choice?
Chef Amanda Cohen outside Dirt Candy (Photo: Shay Paresh)
AC: I usually have a lot of leftover greens. I often take home whatever's left in the restaurant on Sunday or will have bought stuff and never used it throughout the week. I take all those greens and we sauté them, take some fresh lettuce, figure out whatever condiments I have in the condiment drawer, pile that on top, and it's done. It's delicious. You're not just eating a salad, you're eating this “sandwich salad.”
FL: If it's sautéed greens of many stripes and colors – beet greens, turnip greens, whatever you have lying around – maybe some lettuce, condiments, do you have a sandwich philosophy? What will turn those things into a good sandwich?
AC: You need good dressings, something chewy, something crunchy, hopefully something crispy, and I always want something spicy. If you have all those components together you have a good sandwich. Maybe something acidic in there too, like a pickle.
FL: You were just in the walk-in five minutes ago. In your mind, think of the first bunch of greens you saw. You're making a sandwich out of an unlimited pantry. What would it be?
AC: We have romaine lettuce, so that takes care of that. We have a ton of broccoli rabe, which is nice. It's bitter; it's going to stir-fry nicely. We have our homemade hoisin sauce, as well as garlic mayonnaise. Those two take care of your dressings. Then we have dill pickles that, if I was at the restaurant, I would deep fry. If I was at home I would just slip them on it.
FL: This is so Lower East Side New York: it's a little Chinatown, a little Jewish, a little Italian.
AC: That's exactly where the restaurant is. We are on the cusp of Chinatown and the true Lower East Side. I get to incorporate all those ingredients.
FL: That's awesome. You mentioned risotto. What risotto should I always be able to make?
AC: Any risotto, because risotto is basic. We always have rice in my house, usually Arborio. Once you understand how to make risotto it becomes second nature, you don't have to think too much about it. I usually make a vegetable risotto because I have a juice store right across the street from my house. It's easy for me to run across the street, buy beet juice, make a basic risotto, and then add the beet juice. All the sudden I have this comforting bowl of beet risotto, where I feel like I'm healthy – even though it's probably not that healthy. But it looks healthy, so I've tricked myself.
FL: Colors are important.
AC: Colors are always important. I've done that at home with carrot juice and spinach juice.
Photo: Shay Paresh
FL: Walk me through it. You’re saying you make a super basic risotto like with stock?
AC: Even just water.
FL: Oh, wow.
AC: Water is fine. I'm lying a little bit here because I'm making it sound like I have a lot of ingredients in my house and I don't; I have nothing. I have a true chef’s kitchen, which means there's nothing in there. My fridge is sad and pathetic. If I had stock I would use it. Chances that I have stock? Pretty iffy. We’d start with a basic risotto. I always have wine, so that makes it easier. Garlic, onions, stock is a great thing. You're going to see later when I talk about the Chickpea Tomato and Rosemary Soup that I also don't use stock in it. You don't always need it. When you have a flavorful end product, the stock disappears, especially for somebody at home. That's a great restaurant trick; you don't need it at home. Start off your risotto: sauté your onions, get the rice and wine in there, keep adding water. Then at the last stage is when I would add the beet juice, because I don't want to kill it; I want to keep that bright flavorful beet juice. That’s the main flavor of the dish.
FL: This is awesome. Instead of the whole thing where people get freaked out about risotto, they think, “It has to be tender, but not too mushy. It has to be al dente, but how do you make rice al dente? It has to be soft and saucy, but not soupy.”
AC: Yeah, that's so complicated.
FL: People get in this psychological place where risotto is hard, but what you're saying is to sauté onions, throw in rice, throw in some wine.
AC: You keep adding liquid until it gets to the point you want it to be, then finish it off with the beet juice. This is always my philosophy about cooking at home: as long as it tastes good, it doesn't have to be perfect. That’s how you get people to cook more at home too; you just have to relax about it. If it didn't work out the first time it's fine; you're going to get a second chance. If you don't, you're dead, so you won't know the difference. Risotto, if it's a little overcooked or if it's a little undercooked, is still delicious. If there's too much liquid or not enough liquid, it's fine. It's a big bowl of comfort. You're not selling it. If you're selling it in a restaurant, then it has to be perfect. But if you're charging your family for it, that's weird.
FL: I love that. You make it plain, finish it with a good vegetable juice, and it's done.
AC: It's done. It’s still risotto. No matter what anybody else tells you, it's risotto.
FL: Awesome. We have sandwich land covered and we have risotto world done. Let’s walk over to the kitchen that we keep hearing and make that soup.
AC: Let's go.
Photos: Shay Paresh
FL: Here in the kitchen your industrious crew is prepping behind us. Thank you guys very much. And you are going to make your Chickpea Tomato Rosemary Soup.
AC: Here’s the thing with soups at home: you can either go with something long and complicated like starting with the chicken stock or vegetable stock, or you can make things simple and leave it at, “I just want a hot bowl of something liquidy that's delicious.” The nice thing with this soup is it works with any kind of bean, any kind of other flavoring, any herb. It's really what you have, and you can make it as “cheffy” as you want as you'll see at the end. There's a recipe for this, but don't worry so much about how much of each ingredient. We're starting with the pot. You want enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan.
FL: You're just squeezing a bunch of olive oil into the pan like, “no big deal.”
AC: No big deal. I have my little squeeze bottle of it, and it doesn't matter how much there is. I'm putting in about a cup of diced red onions. If you have a white onion that's totally fine too. I have some minced garlic; I'm going to put in about two tablespoons. If you don't like garlic, don't put in that much. I also have just a little pinch of chili flakes. You don't want the soup to be too spicy, but it’s nice if it has a little back kick. We're going to mix those up and wait for them to get translucent.
FL: In almost every recipe ever written in the English language, it tells you to get the oil hot first. Then when you throw in the onions it should sizzle right away to be aromatic. You're not stressed about that?
AC: I'm totally not stressed, and actually I think that's a false saying to do because I don't want my onions to burn. I can bring everything up to the same temperature if I throw it all in at the same time. I'm sure there's a scientist somewhere who will be like, "No, you have to get the oil hot for this reason." I've never tasted much of a difference, and this way I can make sure that the oil isn't too hot and I don't start burning the aromatics right away.
Photo: Shay Paresh
FL: Great. It’s starting to gently come up to a little bubble, and you let that baby ride.
AC: Exactly. The one thing I don't want is for my garlic to burn. We're almost at translucent. You can smell it. Now, I'm going to throw in the rest of the ingredients. We'll get a little bit of salt in there. These are canned chickpeas; feel free to use whatever kind of beans you like.
FL: About two cups of canned chickpeas?
AC: Exactly. I'm going to add in two cups of diced tomatoes. Give it a little stir. I'm going to keep the rosemary whole. I want it to flavor the soup, I don't want to bite into it. Sometimes I find rosemary can get bitter. Now, we're going to add some water to cover.
FL: Water, not stock. This is super lo-fi, like something my grandma would make.
AC: Without being too disparaging, it's like peasant cooking, using what you have on hand. If I didn't kill a chicken that day or murder a bunch of vegetables, I would only have water. And that's it. That's as easy as this soup can get. We're going to bring it to a boil.
Where we're going, pots don't need handles. Photo: Shay Paresh
FL: I've resisted mentioning this, but it's almost as if to demonstrate how incredibly simple this is, you're using a pot with no handle.
AC: It's true.
FL: There's no handle on your pot!
AC: You're getting to see a true kitchen, right? I feel like when you do shoots like this, chefs always pull out their nicest pots, their nicest spoons, and their nicest bowls. Not at Dirt Candy. Not for you, Francis.
FL: There's my pot. The handle fell off. I'm cooking.
AC: While that's coming to a boil, I'm going to chop parsley. There's a couple of ingredients that I think add to a soup, but you don't necessarily have to have them. I always consider these the “cheffy ingredients.” Parsley is delicious; it’s the backbone of the kitchen. It makes everything taste better. But if you don't have any on hand, don't worry about it. I'm also going to add lemon juice. That brightens up a soup. But if you don't have any, don't panic; you can use a little bit of vinegar. I have some leftover Pecorino Romano. I'm going to throw that in too. I'm going to zest some lemon at the very end. But if you don't have it, it doesn't matter.
FL: As a biased observer, I say that you should have all these things at all times. I feel like a lemon you should always have.
AC: It's true.
FL: We should start the Parsley Appreciation Society because everyone thinks that parsley is that goofy herb that sits on the side of your plate at the diner, but it's super delicious. It tastes like pure green, and it makes everything feel fresh.
AC: I feel like it's the salt of the herb world. It adds that extra amount of flavor to every dish. I'm going to zest a little lemon peel to add at the very end. Again, you don't need it, but it is delicious. If you have a lemon, you might as well use the zest. It drives me crazy when people add lemon juice to something, and not the zest. The zest adds a whole level of sweetness that juice doesn't. It's more of a whole lemon flavor.I'm going to give the soup a taste for seasoning, then I'm going to take out the rosemary. I'll finish this with a little bit of lemon juice. At this point you have a choice. I have no problem seeing oil on top of the soup, but lots of people do. The way to get rid of that is to take out a cup of the soup and puree it, then add it back in, but you don't have to.
FL: That'll thicken the soup, and also help the oil emulsify?
AC: It absorbs all the oil.
FL: You didn't cook this for very long. It's been boiling for a couple minutes.
AC: I'm just heating it. I'm hungry. It's lunch time; I need soup right away. No time. I just added about a half-teaspoon of lemon zest. I'm going to add a bit more than a tablespoon of the parsley, then take my cheese, and grate a little bit of that on top.
FL: This is Pecorino Romano, but I imagine given where we've gone today, Parmesan would work.
AC: Anything. Cheddar, mozzarella, it doesn't matter. Finish with a bit of fresh salt, and that's it. Would you like to taste?
FL: I would love to taste.
Photo: Shay Paresh
AC: Two-minute soup.
FL: A two-minute soup. That's so good!
AC: Right? It's so simple, but so good.
FL: With lemon zest, the end is great. You add it right at the very end, so it doesn't meld. It hits you first and you're like, "Oh cool, lemon." Then, "Oh wait, no it's tomato. Wait, no, it's bean."
AC: Nothing is cooked very long. What you're getting is a lot of flavor in a little bit of time because nothing's had time to meld. Think of that as the difference between a more traditional soup where you're getting one flavor and one texture out of the soup, usually soft. With this you have all these punches of texture. You’re getting hit with the tomato, chickpea, the onion, the parsley, the cheese, the lemon – it’s like a flavor party in your mouth.
FL: It's salad, but a soup. Welcome to Dirt Candy.
Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.