Cranes! Cranes! Cranes!

Maybe I am a four-year-old boy at heart, but nothing made me more excited than seeing a giant crane pull up outside the new Dirt Candy to lower our two massive air conditioning units into the back courtyard.

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"Boom down!," they kept screaming every time it moved.

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This guy reading the newspaper needs to pay attention and respect my crane!

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One of the workers wrestling it into position.

I love causing chaos and disruption, so this was deeply satisfying.

Parsley, the salt of the vegetable kingdom

I do a lot of interviews and that means press people are always asking me to state preferences that I would never think about in real life: what’s your favorite soup? Where’s your favorite toast? What’s your favorite kitchen implement? And the one question to rule them all, the one question that pops up in every single interview: what’s your favorite ingredient? I’ve never sat around arranging and re-arranging ingredients in a complicated but graphically appealing personal preference chart, but after getting this “What’s your favorite ingredient?” question five million times I’ve finally realized the answer. My favorite ingredient? The one I use more than any other? The one I use in almost every single dish? The one I find myself buying by the case every week? Parsley.

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Before I opened Dirt Candy, I’d never thought much about parsley. It was those little dried-up green bits sprinkled around a plate, the curly stalks stuck on top of terrible dishes of Italian food you used to eat when you flew on airplanes. It’s a non-entity, an un-vegetable, the least exciting herb in the Kingdom of Herbs and Spices. But it has become my go-to ingredient at Dirt Candy.

I love greens, and I love that herbaceous, green, springtime flavor that a lot of vegetables have. But sometimes, especially in winter, they don’t have it. They lack that green punch that I want to squeeze out of them. They’re not as green as I want them to be. The vegetables taste less, well, vegetabley. Enter parsley. Just as a spritz of citrus brightens flavors in a dish without overwhelming them, flat leaf parsley (not the curly kind) brightens that green flavor without overpowering the vegetable’s original taste. It’s the citrus of the herb world, a flavor enhancer that truly enhances, not replaces.

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I throw it into my stocks, stem and all, to add freshness. I blend it into oils all the time and I throw it on top of dishes, chopped up and sprinkled over them like confetti, sometimes hidden by sexier looking microgreens, but always adding its own unbeatable herbaceous brightness. I even throw it into a pan with some olive oil, along with garlic and onions, at the start of a dish, before getting down to serious cooking.

As long as it’s properly cleaned (because it’s an herb that often shows up looking like it’s been rolling around in the mud like a dog) parsley is the most versatile ingredient in my kitchen. Chefs often “finish” a dish with a dash of salt or one last bit of butter to tweak the flavor before it goes out to a table, sort of like that final blast of hairspray for a pageant competitor. To that arsenal, I’ve now added a last fistful of parsley, an herb that I never really thought about before, but that has become the underwear of my kitchen: I wouldn't dream of going anywhere without it.

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What I Did on My Summer Vacation Part 1: Mexico

This summer, I went south of the border.

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No, not that South of the Border...

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...Mexico!

What did I learn in Mexico? I learned that the Maquech Beetle is a bug that has gems and gold glued to it and is worn as living jewelry. WHAT?!?! GTFO! Nope, it's a real thing.

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I couldn't find my favorite earrings because they crawled away...

Mexico, everybody!

I've actually been home for a while, but it takes me forever to get my act together and get photos up online so imagine it's early June, 2014. I went down south at the invitation of Cook it Raw, a food conference that brings together modern and traditional chefs and lets everyone play in each other's sandbox. It's the brainchild of Alessandro Porcelli and past chefs have gone to Poland, Japan, Copenhagen, and Charleston. This year's event was in Yucatan and it was such an honor to be invited that I couldn't say no, even though I was terrified that I would be eaten by snakes, bitten by spiders, or forced to have a strange roommate.

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I had to kill time at the airport waiting for the other folks to arrive, so my first stop in Mexico was...

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The first big dinner was at a hotel where we stayed before heading out to the villa in the middle of nowhere that would be Cook it Raw HQ for the five days we were there. With me were, Gioconda Scott (Spain, currently traveling, just got back from Argentina where she was working with Francis Mallman, specialty: cooking with fire). Jeremy Charles (Newfoundland, Raymonds restaurant, specialty: fish). Joy Hought (Arizona, seed specialist and researcher). Mara Jernigan (Belize, chef at Belcampo Lodge, specialty: ultra-locavore). Steve Laycock and Josh Mazza (Ilegal Mezcal distillery, specialty: booze)

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This is everyone on the first night, having dinner like you do.

Right before that dinner we'd spent the day in the country where we hit up a turkey farm that specialized in turkey jerky. Below is a picture of the outdoor kitchen where the turkey jerky magic happens.

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These women are making tortillas that were the most amazing tortillas I've ever had. I now know: fresh tortillas make a difference.

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This is a suspicious-looking but actually delicious atole, which is a hot corn drink. It was warm and very smooth and while that sounds completely gross it was actually good. There's no corn flavor to it at all, in fact the taste is closer to thickened milk. On top are toasted and ground pumpkin seeds that gave it a nutty flavor and cut the creaminess.

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The next day we headed out into the middle of nowhere to go to a milpa. These are cooperative farms that have been around forever and they're complicated and beyond my abilities to describe. You can read about them here. What I can describe is that after walking up into one of the hottest fields I've ever been into in my life, I was given a sack of seeds...

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My sack of seeds.

...then sent into this field. With a stick. For hours, I poked holes in the ground with my stick and then dropped in seeds. Each hole gets a combination of three seeds (corn, beans, squash) which grow together in a complicated co-dependent relationship where each plant supplies nutrients the other two need. The farmers on the milpa are practical by necessity and they know that 2/3 of their crop might fail, so they plant three seeds at a time to ensure that at least one of them grows. It was hot, it took forever, and we all kept getting yelled at because we couldn't plant in straight lines.

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Lunch! It's like a tamale burrito, with beans, wrapped incorn dough, wrapped in a leaf.

Afterwards we drove through the middle of the night, heading for the mysterious "villa" where we'd be staying. I had images of some terrible, dilapidated ranch full of scorpions. Where we wound up was this palace...

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Pool!

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Hammocks!

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Chapel!

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This is the outdoor area where we grilled most nights. Gioconda was in charge of the fire and here she is staring so deeply into the lens of my iPhone that she can see into your soul.

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Because I wasn't eating turkey jerky or any of the giant slabs of meat that everyone kept roasting, I got fun dishes just for me. Like this mango, dragonfruit, and chaya salad (chaya is a Mayan superfood - think kale, only with more flavor). Say what you want about Mexico, but the produce is amazing.

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Dragonfruit!

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Chayotes and squash!

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Peppers!

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Less than 25% of the produce we bought for the final dinner.

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Then there's Tecate, the best vegetable of all. You show me an alcoholic beverage made of meat and I'll respect meat more.

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On the final day we had to cook a meal based on everything we'd learned. I didn't realize that our prep kitchen would reach 140 degrees during the day as we cooked (that's what the thermometer on the wall read, at least). At a certain point I just stopped sweating because I had no more moisture left in my body.

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This is the fancier kitchen where we actually served dinner.

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Selfie!

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And here's service going out.

Apparently Yucatan Cook It Raw was the toughest and most barebones Cook it Raw yet, but despite not being all fancy it was a total blast. Our beans and maize (and maybe squash, too?) are going to grow and there's another Cook it Raw trip to the Yucatan scheduled for November because this one went so well. The Yucatan trip already has a reputation so all kinds of super-famous chefs are rumored to be going next time around, like Tom Colicchio. Even though I'm going to be opening big Dirt Candy then, I think I'm going down again because there is no way anyone else is touching my corn. I planted that damn corn and I'm going to harvest it. You hear that, Tom Colicchio? Keep your hands off MY CORN!!!!!

 

Meet Our Wine Zoo: Edelzwicker!!!

Dirt Candy doesn'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 all the rest of the usual suspects I thought I'd make up a wine list of the strangest and most unusual wines I could find, sort of like a wine zoo for exotic animals.

Big Table Farm's Edelzwicker is the newest addition to the DC wine list, which is getting more and more funky and biodynamic by the second. What can I say about this Edelswicker? Easy. This is the Voltron of wines

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Just like the Red Lion, the Black Lion, the Green Lion, Blue Lion, and Yellow Lion combine to form Voltron, defender of the universe, Edelzwicker happens when four of the noble grapes — Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Sylvaner — combine to form a natural white wine that also defends the universe. From sobriety.

A traditional Alsatian blend, this particular bottle comes from Big Table Farms, a tiny husband-and-wife patch of land out in Oregon. They're building their own vineyard and it's not quite ready yet, but for now they work with the nearby Wirtz Vineyard which is where they get the grapes for this all-natural Edelzwicker. They only made 255 cases of it, which is too bad because it's much more complex and sophisticated than you'd expect from what appears to be a simple, drinkable, summer white wine.

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If you go back and look at the description of the Neumeister Gemischter Satz, another Austrian blend I served, you can apply all the adjectives I used there to this Edelzwicker, only more so. It has that fruitiness on the nose that smells like stone fruit and apricots, but there's also a funkiness that comes from the fact that it's a natural wine, so you're smelling this heady blend of fruits, only they're all slightly fermented. Despite that complex smell, it still tastes light and crisp but every sip increases in complexity as a subtle minerality creeps out of the wine and causes a savory flavor to bloom in your glass.

I know that sounds like the worst kind of melodramatic wine writing imaginable, but you have to taste it to believe it. There's a reason this is on our list and will probably make the jump to the new restaurant — it's a wine where four simple grapes combine to form one giant robot wine that can smack the sadness right out of your mouth.