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Dirt Candy Dinner

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On Tuesday night I closed the restaurant to treat my staff to dinner at Hearth (which was really great – which is surprising. I feel like when a place has been around this long it should be slacking off, but Hearth was serving food like it had just opened the month before – focused and ambitious). My peeps have been working hard, they’ve been helping me proof the cookbook, and there have been a ton of staffing changes recently which have been really disruptive and hard to deal with, but I feel like things have finally settled down and Team Dirt Candy is coming together again after much upheaval. More than anything, this place is a family.

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(l to r) Mel, my new line cook; Justyna, my server; Kristen, who’s been my server since Day 1, and who’s training to work my station; Nin, prep chef; Danielle, my kitchen manager, who has been the backbone of this kitchen since I opened; Me; Sherene, who’s a former intern who I just hired to come back in as prep.

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Elizabeth David Marginalia

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Peter Ross has been archiving and cross-indexing the post-it notes, scraps of paper, and marginalia he’s found in the massive collection of Elizabeth David‘s cookbooks that went to the London Guildhall library. What he’s discovered is that Elizabeth David liked to write notes to herself  and often, they were very mean.

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“Waverly Root is a pitiful phony.”

- scribbled in the margins of The Cooking of Italy by Waverley Root

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“The kind of pretentious rubbish that has brought French cooking into disrepute as a snobs preserve.”

- from the margins of Full and Plenty by Maura Laverty

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“Italian salad p50. Sounds just about the most revolting dish ever devised.”

- from a post-it note in Ulster Fare by the Belfast Women’s Institute Club

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Ah, the true meanness of the straight-shooter. Sometimes I think the food world needs a bit more of it these days.

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The recipe for Italian Salad and more on the marginalia of Elizabeth David, food writer extraordinaire.

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Mexican Smut

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When I first came up with my stone-ground grits, I wanted it to be an ode to corn. I was determined to get as many different versions of corn as possible into the dish, so there are stone-ground grits, corn cream (simply corn blended with water, the starch in the kernels thickens it), fresh corn kernels in the grits, and finally there’s huitlacoche. This is what freaks everyone out. Huitlacoche (hoot-la-ho-chey) is Mexican corn smut, or corn fungus, or Devil’s corn, or (in a literal translation) “raven poop.” It’s a fungus that attacks about 5% of corn crops grown in Mexico and it actually fetches a higher price than the corn.

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Huitlacoche in the wild.

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The fungus gloms onto the corn kernels and causes them to get so big and mutated that some farmers like to slice them off and fry them in butter. In the US, they’re mostly available canned or jarred since they’re highly perishable and they don’t grow in fields that have been treated with pesticides, meaning they don’t grow in too many American corn fields. They have a dark, rich, earthy taste, almost like Latin American truffles, and I blend them into a cream that I dot around the plate.

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“You say cuitlacoche/I say huitlacoche…”

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They add a deep, inky, almost smoky flavor to the dish. When people ask what they are, I tell them that they’re Mexican truffles, which is a term supposedly invented for them at a dinner in 1989 at the James Beard House when Josefina Howard, the founder of Rosa Mexicana, gave an all-huitlacoche dinner there which included huilachoche ice cream, tortillas, and soup.

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That black dot is the huitlacoche cream on my grits.

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(Learn more about huitlacoche)

(See fresh huitlacoche being harvested and cooked)

(One blogger’s terrified reaction!)


Greasy Thieves

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An epidemic is sweeping America and no one will do anything about it: grease thieves!

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The suspect, 19, told police that he worked for a legitimate grease rendering company but had been stealing grease from businesses to make money on the side. In a separate case, two brothers were charged with misdemeanor theft after stealing grease from a Chinese restaurant in the St. Louis area. The pair also said they were from Springfield, Mo. The owners of Hong Kong Express said St. Louis police caught the two on surveillance cameras stealing grease on Nov. 2.

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Yes, a disgusting, greasy bite.

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Read all about it and feel your hair turn gray and oily from fear!

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Not even Dirt Candy is immune. These days, restaurants either give or sell their grease to biofuel companies who come around and pick it up. I donate mine to RWA, a non-profit that converts it to biofuel. Dirt Candy produces about 15 gallons of waste grease each week, and RWA says that ours is the cleanest used grease that they get from any of their customers. Yay! Gold star for Dirt Candy!

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But a lot of companies aren’t RWA and they pay for old grease, and that has led to an epidemic of crime. Even the National Renderers Association is powerless in the face of this oily wave of criminality (I bet you didn’t know that grease has a lobbying group). In the current election season, it’s startling that no one is asking the candidates about grease thievery.

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Greasecrime, that is. Which is like thoughtcrime,
only doubleplus worse!

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Last month, I was working in Dirt Candy when I noticed three large men entering my basement. I went downstairs and saw that they were going through all my stuff. During the day, we leave the hatch to the basement open because we can see it from inside the restaurant and it makes sense not to have to unlock it every time we go downstairs. However, this is not to be misinterpreted as an open invitation to all and sundry to go have a rummage.

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“What are you guys up to?” I asked from the basement steps. My basement is tiny, and so these guys pretty much filled it. But now I had them trapped, as I was blocking the only exit. To get out, they’d have to go through me. Which may not have been a wise idea.

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“We’re here to pick up your oil,” one of them said.

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“You’re not my company,” I pointed out.

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“Who’s your company?” the leader said.

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“Not you guys,” I replied.

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“Well, we’re here to pick it up whether you like it or not,” he said.

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“Really?” I asked.

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“We’re going to take it,” he said. The other two guys started shifting around menacingly.

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“Can you please leave my basement,” I said. This sounds more threatening than it was. The Dirt Candy basement is famous for being hot and uncomfortable, so I was really just inviting them to do something they already wanted to do.

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“Fine,” the guy huffed as they edged past me on the stairs. At the top he turned around. “If you ever want your oil picked up, call me.”

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It was like I was being asked on a grease date! And I never saw them again.

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So to all of you who produce large amounts of used cooking oil on a regular basis: be alert! Grease thieves are on the prowl! And they might be coming for you!

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It’s not funny, Simpsons!

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Meet our Wine Zoo: Nemea Aivalis

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We don’t have much room to store cases of wine, so rather than offering people the same old list of Syrahs, Cabernets, Chardonnays, Pinot Grigios and the rest of the usual suspects we thought we’d make up a wine list of the strangest and most unusual wines we could find, sort of like a wine zoo for exotic animals.

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One thing I’ve learned at Dirt Candy is that if a wine is from Greece, I’ll always give it the benefit of the doubt. Greek wines don’t have the same classy reputation that Italian or French wines do, but some of the most berserk bottles I’ve tried have hailed from the cradle of democracy itself. The latest addition to Dirt Candy’s exotic wine zoo is Nemea Aivalis 2010.

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This is a biodynamic, organic wine that is grown on a teeny tiny family vineyard where they torture their vines and give them horrible lives – depriving them of food and warmth and love – whenever possible, all in the name of developing flavor. The land has been in the Aivalis family for four generations and currently the winery is the personal vision of the larger-than-life Christos Aivalis.

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Read the rest of this entry »


Fork in the Road: We love you back!

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The Village Voice‘s blog, Fork in the Road, just posted their 2012 Top Ten Restaurants in the East Village list and Dirt Candy is number 9. Squee, I say. And again, I say it: squee. I really love the Village Voice‘s food coverage, and Fork in the Road is a food blog that seriously attempts to do justice to New York City’s culinary scene, so this is a big honor. (And no, I’m not prejudiced. Promise!) No matter how you slice it, to be on a list with big name East Village establishments like Momofuku Ssam Bar and Prune is a blast.

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(Read the full list)

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Happy Holi!

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Today’s is the beginning of Holi, so to all my Hindu customers….HAPPY HOLI!!!!

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Holi’s the Hindu festival of colors and it’s one of those celebrations like Mardi Gras where all the boundaries between rich and poor, men and women, snobs and slobs, totally falls apart and everyone runs out in the streets and acts crazy. Being Indian, celebrations of Holi look pretty much like the greatest Bollywood dance numbers ever filmed, with hundreds of people spraying dyed water all over the place and flinging big fistfuls of colored powder into the air.

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Bollywood has risen to the occasion by turning out a ton of amazing Holi musical numbers in their movies, and here’s a few:
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This one is from 1970′s KATI PATANG which is based on an American film noir called “I Married a Dead Man”:
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Then there’s this one from 1984′s MASHAL, which stars Anil Kapoor, the guy who plays the gameshow host in SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE:
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Finally, there’s this one from 2005′s MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING:
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You can read more about Holi here. And you should definitely celebrate today by throwing colors on someone! If they act confused – or file charges – just scream “Happy Holi!” at them and start dancing. Don’t worry – in a few seconds, everyone will join in!

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Happy Purim!

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March is the month of awesome holidays, so to all my Jewish customers: happy Purim! One reason I love Purim is that it’s when you’re supposed to drink like there’s no tomorrow and eat a ton of hamantashen (see below).

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Me, as a child, with hamantashen.

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As a kid I always liked the story of Esther because it starts with a 180 day (!) booze-fest for everyone in Persia, followed by a separate seven-day wine party. I sometimes think that if New Yorkers could sit down to a serious drinking party for seven days it might work out a lot of the city’s problems.

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Village Voice Choice Eats Coming Soon!

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On Tuesday, March 13, Dirt Candy is going to be closed because we’ll all be up at the Lexington Avenue Armory participating in the Village Voice’s Choice Eats hoedown. These have always been a blast to be a part of in the past (read my round-ups of 2009 and 2010) and this year it’s going to be even better!

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Plus, if you come to Choice Eats you’ll get to try food from a ton of other restaurants like Del Posto (where I had our farewell party for Diana, my server), Edi and the Wolf (I was their first customer ever), Kuma Inn (the restaurant that inspired me to open Dirt Candy), and a whole lot more! So come on up to Choice Eats and come on over to the Dirt Candy table and say “hi!”

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(Full details and tickets for the party)

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Looking for a Line Cook

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The surest sign that the economy is improving is that the last time I was looking for someone to work at Dirt Candy I got close to 70 resumes. This time? More like 25. So either people are wising up and going into easier fields than working in a restaurant kitchen, or less people are looking because more of them have jobs. Either way, it’s a win for the economy!

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I’ve been hearing this from chefs all over town – less applications are showing up for more jobs. But that doesn’t change the fact that right now I’m looking for a line cook. Working at Dirt Candy isn’t for everyone. If you want a comparison, imagine working on a submarine: the work is intense, there are moments of excitement and stress followed by stretches of routine and boredom, and the quarters are close. I mean, you’re all up in everyone else’s stuff whether you like it or not. And, like working on a submarine, Dirt Candy has its own advantages and disadvantages.

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“Hush Puppies dead ahead!”

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The demands of my food are also hard on people. Every dish at Dirt Candy uses a ton of techniques. Something as simple as the Hush Puppies requires a chef to pay more time and attention to their deep-frying than they probably ever have before in their lives. The batter has to be exactly right or it’ll cook wrong, and there is a five-second window when the puppies are cooked perfectly, without being overdone, when you have to pull them out. It’s something that takes everyone a few weeks to develop a feel for and when you’re juggling a couple of dishes on the stove and something else in the other fryer, and orders coming in, it requires a lot of attention.

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That said, working here has its rewards. I remember being thrown on lines when I started out and either being ignored or screamed at. No one was teaching me, no one was showing me how to do anything, they just assumed I’d figure it out and they’d gleefully tear into me when I got it wrong. Ever since then I’ve realized that you have to teach if you’re going to be a chef. There’s not a day that goes by when I’m not showing someone how to do something for the first time, or pushing them further than they thought they’d go, or helping them figure out a new and easier way to make something. I remember how hard it was to be anonymous nugget #12 and I do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen here.

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But it’s not easy. Working in a kitchen is one of the toughest jobs in the world that you can get without going to medical school. It takes all your focus, all your strength, and all your attention. Which is probably why so many chefs guzzle booze when their shift is over: you need help to wind down after service sometimes because running a good service is like going to war. Or, as I put it in the cookbook:

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So if you know anyone who wants a place on the toughest line in town, drop me an email: info@dirtcandynyc.com!

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menu


Menu

Snack

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Jalapeno Hush Puppies $6
served with maple butter
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Appetizers

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Mushroom $13
portobello mousse, truffled toast
pear & fennel compote

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Cucumber $12
roasted cucumber hot and sour soup,
black sesame, garlic chili oil, wood ear
mushroom, cucumber jelly

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Spinach $13
spinach & grapefruit mille-feuille,
with smoked pistachios and ricotta

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Potato $12
warm potato salad, crispy Japanese
yams, grilled sweet potato, olives,
bitter greens, apples

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Entrees

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Beets $20
salt-roasted beets, thai green curry,
beet gnocchi, whipped coconut galangal cream

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Pepper $18
fennel & pepper tofu,
parsley spaetzle, grilled
yellow pepper broth,
mustard crumbs

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Broccoli $21
smoked broccoli dogs,
broccoli kraut, salt &
vinegar broccoli rabe

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Corn $19
stone ground grits, corn cream,
pickled shiitakes, huitlacoche,
tempura poached egg

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- everything on the menu can be made vegan on request.

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Dessert

Rosemary Eggplant Tiramisu $12
grilled eggplant, rosemary cotton
candy, mascarpone

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Ice Cream Nanaimo Bar$11
sweet pea, mint, chocolate

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Popcorn Pudding$11
salted caramel corn

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Celery Cheesecake Roll $10
celeriac ice cream, peanut filling,

& candied grapes

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- vegan dessert selection changes regularly, please ask your server.

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Our wine list (and other beverages)

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Gift Certificates

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