Spawn of seitan

So long, frumpy tofu stir-fries. Dirt Candy chef Amanda Cohen shows us how to eat like a vegetarian and love it.

Commodities East

Commodities East Photos: Roxana Marroquin

Amanda Cohen may be a vegetarian chef, but, she says cheerfully, “that doesn’t mean I’m healthy!” Butter, cheese and tempura-fried eggs are all on the menu at her meat-free restaurant, Dirt Candy (430 E 9th St between First Ave and Ave A, 212-228-7732). While she hasn’t eaten meat in almost two decades, Cohen understands why many people are happy to support the Greenmarket but loathe to patronize restaurants that serve only produce. The city’s food scene continues to evolve, yet somehow, much of the vegetarian contingent has remained static (think brown rice and flaccid steamed vegetables). That said, she’s found plenty of places to indulge near her East Village workplace.

East Village Cheese
One thing often lacking in a vegetarian diet is protein. Cheese is an easy and delicious source, and it’s incredibly affordable at this dairy mecca, where Cohen shops regularly. “It’s really, really cheap,” she enthuses. “They don’t offer any samples, so you just go with it.” Today, she buys two pounds of Bulgarian sheep’s-milk feta ($3.99/lb) and two quarts of San Giuliano green olives ($5.99/lb). “I don’t know where they get these,” she says of the olives. “I’ve searched everywhere. They’re amazing.”
40 Third Ave between 9th and 10th Sts (212-477-2601)

Sunrise Mart
Anyone who complains that vegetables are boring (yeah, you, Bruce McCall, page 30) needs to pay a visit to this second-floor grocery, which sells everything from lotus root to Japanese eggplants—and the Asian oils, sauces and condiments that give them added dimension and flavor. “I come here for random vegetables and things like lemongrass and galangal,” Cohen says. “We use lots and lots of trumpet royale mushrooms ($3.99/lb) for our Greek salad.” She notes that the store’s selection of vegetables varies regularly, but that the unpredictability is part of its charm. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
4 Stuyvesant St at Third Ave (212-598-3040)

Commodities East
“I love the fact that this place has survived Whole Foods,” Cohen says of this prototypical health-food store, which has an impressive bulk section featuring various grains, nuts, dried fruits and granolas. The narrow aisles weave between shelves stocked floor-to-ceiling with everything from recycled toilet paper to gluten-free Mary’s Gone Crackers ($3.99), which Cohen buys to accommodate the needs of one of her diners. She praises the quality and range of the organic produce, buying some red radishes ($2.29/lb) and a handful of rosemary ($3.29/bunch).
165 First Ave between 10th and 11th Sts (212-260-2600)

Cohen is a bit of a caffeine fiend, and prefers to get her fix at this tiny coffee bar, which also happens to offer a frequently changing range of meatless pastries and sandwiches—one favorite is goat cheese and kale on focaccia ($6). “I love their cortado ($2.75), and they have iced coffee ($3.50) to die for,” Cohen raves. “And everybody is so nice.”
86 E 7th St between First and Second Aves (212-388-9731)

Birdbath, Neighborhood Green Bakery
Bakeries tend to be the only food establishments that are unfailingly vegetarian-friendly, and this eco-conscious, organic City Bakery offshoot is no exception. While it offers plenty of healthful treats, Cohen is partial to the texture of dairy-enhanced delights like the softball-size baker’s muffin ($3.75). “And it’s covered with powdered sugar, which doesn’t hurt,” she says.
223 First Ave between 13th and 14th Sts (646-722-6565); 145 Seventh Ave South at Charles St (646-722-6570)

S.O.S. Chefs
For Cohen, the main problem with most vegetarian restaurants is pallid flavors. “I like spicy, more exotic flavors,” she says. Herbs, spices and nuts are good ways to elevate vegetarian food from side dish to main attraction, and they’re all in abundance at this cavernous chef’s supply store. Cohen comes here for specialties like sumac ($5.50/lb) and Sicilian pistachios ($120/pound). The vast shelves are lined with a variety of oils—truffle, olive, hazelnut—vinegars, dried mushrooms and a dizzying array of seasonings. In other words, pretty much everything you need to create culinary fireworks.
104 Ave B between 6th and 7th Sts (212-505-5813)

Kate’s Joint
“I don’t go to vegetarian restaurants,” Cohen admits. But she likes this place for its greasy-spoon comfort food. While Cohen mourns the loss of the murals that once decorated the walls, she’s happy that she can still get a Un-turkey Club ($7.95)—a triple-decker stuffed with mayo, ersatz poultry, tomatoes and lettuce—with a plateful of fries to give her fuel before a long night in the kitchen.
58 Ave B at 4th St (212-777-7059)

Read ’em and eat»
Two kickin’ vegetarian recipes (that won’t have you missing meat) from Dirt Candy chef Amanda Cohen