The Unexpected Pantry Staple This Professional Chef Can’t Live Without

It's not salt.

March 14, 2019
Photo by Mark Weinberg

Amanda Cohen—the James Beard–nominated chef who introduced the tristate area to Brussels sprout tacos—knows a thing or two million about making vegetables exciting.

Her produce-forward restaurant Dirt Candy has been making headlines for its inventive menu since it opened in 2008. (In 2015, Cohen swapped digs for a larger space in the Lower East Side.) Think: The sort of all stops–pulled, splashy dishes that suggested carrots were just as suitable of an entrée as red meat, long before trendy plant-based fare was ubiquitous in New York City. The restaurant's website cheekily states, "Anyone can cook a hamburger, leave the vegetables to the professionals."

We spoke with Cohen to get her take on all things March—like, which fresh ingredients we should be cooking with during the in-between season, and her go-to plant-based comfort meal. In the process, she revealed her secret pantry ingredient for making any cold-weather dish sing, and, let's just say we're stocking up.

ELLA QUITTNER: It's such a weird time of year! (At least, here in New York.) Some days it's freezing, and some days the temperature is totally bearable. What's in season right now, for early to mid-March?

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Top Comment:
“That salad dressing!”
— Girlfromipanema

Amanda Cohen: We’re still at the tail end of winter produce, so what’s out there is what’s been available for most of the winter: squashes, heartier greens like Swiss chard and kale, and root vegetables like rutabaga and turnips. The nice thing about the seasons running later this year is that it means summer produce, like tomatoes, will last into the fall.

EQ: What are some of your favorite things coming into season later in March? And your favorite ways to use them?

AC: The best thing about the season is it’s almost time for my forager to hit the woods again. There’s nothing more fun to me than making a fresh foraged salad. People get shy about foraged berries and greens but they all have a wild, earthy flavor that can be balanced with a soft cheese or a creamy dressing. Add even one foraged ingredient to a regular salad and it’s like a (nice!) slap in the face. In a couple of weeks, it’ll be the beginning of ramps, and we’ll start seeing fiddlehead ferns, nettles, and garlic pennycress. You can find most of these at farmers' markets, so go wild.

EQ: Let's talk March weeknights. What do you turn to when you're in the mood for something hearty and comforting, but you're pressed for time?

AC: I don’t really cook at home because that’s what I do for a living. However, when I’m on my own and need comfort food, I make a fast, easy soup. I first take a can of any old beans I find in my cabinets, add some fresh tomatoes, onion, garlic, water, and any fresh or dried herbs I have lying around, and throw them all together in a pot and let them simmer for about 15 minutes. I always have odds and ends lying around, and this is the best way to use them.

EQ: What's the one pantry staple or condiment you couldn't live without?

AC: I always have preserved lemons on hand in winter. I chop them up onto salads and throw them in dressings, grate them onto the top of my soup or my pizza; I use them anywhere I can. They’re like lemon salt and sunshine in the cold winter months.

I use them anywhere I can. They’re like lemon salt and sunshine in the cold winter months.

EQ: What's your go-to formula for the salad dressing? And your favorite way to riff on the basic method?

AC: The easiest dressing is to throw half a preserved lemon in the blender with two cloves of garlic and then stream in about one-third cup of olive oil while it blends. Add one tablespoon of white wine vinegar, salt to taste, and you’re done. The only thing you have to do is make sure there are no seeds in your lemon before you blend it. If you want to make it a little more complicated, add some parsley or cilantro (or any fresh, green herbs, really) while you’re blending.

EQ: Switching gears from pantry, what's the one tool you couldn't cook without?

AC: Pretty much the only tool I use all the time at home is my Wüsthof chef’s knife. It fits my hand perfectly, can smash garlic, chop vegetables, and, in a pinch, I’ve opened a can with it.

EQ: We love the monkey bread in recycled flower pots at Dirt Candy. What are some other ideas for containers or tools we might already have in our homes that we could be using to cook more sustainably?

AC: Just the act of cooking at home is more sustainable than going out to a restaurant. As long as you’re using a tote bag at the supermarket and not ordering from a delivery service that over-packages, it makes more environmental and economic sense to stay home and cook. (Which is a really self-defeating thing for a restaurant owner to say.)

EQ: We love your wine list, always. What are some of your favorite under-$15ish picks for wines right now that our readers might want to try at home?

AC: Right now, I’ve got a couple of bottles of Velvet Devil Merlot—it’s a straightforward, easy-drinking wine that takes the edge off the cold weather.

A nicely balanced bottle of riesling is something else I always have on hand, in case I want to sip on something lighter than a red wine. We all know I love my vegetables, and you can never go wrong pairing a vegetable-based dish with a glass of good riesling. My go-to is Kung Fu Girl Riesling from Washington State because it’s dry, crisp, and vibrant on the palate.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What's the one pantry ingredient or condiment you couldn't live without? Let us know in the comments!

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Ella Quittner

Written by: Ella Quittner

Ella Quittner is a contributing writer and the Absolute Best Tests columnist at Food52. She covers food, travel, wellness, lifestyle, home, novelty snacks, and internet-famous sandwiches. You can follow her on Instagram @equittner, or Twitter at @ellaquittner. She also develops recipes for Food52, and has a soft spot for all pasta, anything spicy, and salty chocolate things.

1 Comment

Girlfromipanema March 14, 2019
That salad dressing!