All art by Ryan Dunlavey
Although I’ve only eaten at Dirt Candy twice, I feel a real affection for the restaurant. I fell in love with their stone ground grits on my first visit, and I have kept up with all of the doings related to the restaurant. After we wrote about the restaurant in 2009 we got an email from Chef/Owner Amanda Cohen, and we wrote back and forth a few times. All these years later I got an email from Cohen asking if I wanted an advance copy of their new cookbook, due out this week from Clarkson Potter. I knew the cookbook was coming, and I knew that it was in graphic novel form with art by Ryan Dunlavey (illustrator of The Comic Book History of Comics and others), and of course I gratefully accepted my free advance copy.
I should point out here that I don’t like cookbooks. I don’t use them, and I don’t want them. I own a few, either because I thought the pictures were real purty, or because I was intrigued by the idea but would never use it to cook from (A Day at ElBulli, I’m looking at you). I very firmly believe in technique over recipe, even when baking. It was a relief to see that Dirt Candy: A Cookbook doesn’t just rush into recipes. It introduces the members of Amanda’s loyal staff in a Scott Pilgrim-esque panel, and walks the reader through a day-in-the-life of the restaurant. It’s so fun and refreshing that it’s almost a disappointment when the recipes do start.
Not that the recipes look hard. The cookbook lays them out in very strategic way, first by showing you the techniques you will need, and then by showing some of the recipes you’ll need to continue. The dishes at Dirt Candy, Cohen explains, are made up of “a lot of little recipes.” So the Smoked Cauliflower and Waffles (page 158) uses the Smoking Technique (page 78) and is garnished with the Maple Arugula Salad (page 88) and Pickled Cauliflower (page 38). It’s a pretty clever conceit.
But my heart really lies with the illustrated adventures of Cohen and her crew. There’s the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up story of getting stuck on an elevator after losing on Iron Chef America:
And my favorite bit, when a disheartened Cohen is visited by the kindly spirit of Julia Child:
But I just couldn’t get enough of the travails of Cohen trying to open (and then trying to make a success of) her restaurant. Dishonest contractors and skyrocketing costs were part of it, but Cohen doesn’t shirk her own share of the blame. She acknowledges her “unpredictable rage” as well as her stubborn nature — such as in the chapter about how she “Fell in Love With the Wrong Dish!” The candor involved alone makes the book an engaging read. And it makes the successes all the more sweet:
Speaking of sweet, I was happy to see that Cohen has the same philosophy about dessert that I have:
The fact is that a cookbook cannot be judged solely on how much fun it is to read, the recipes actually have to deliver. So of course I made Broccoli Ice Cream (page 216). The recipe has six ingredients and four steps, one of which is freezing the mix of broccoli, dairy, and sugar in an ice cream maker. It’s been so hot out that ice cream was a natural for me to make — I’ve made ice cream several times before. And if I saw something as intriguing as broccoli ice cream on a menu I would feel compelled to order it. Plus, I have an ice cream maker.
The recipe is pretty straightforward, and I stayed as true to it as my kitchen allowed. You blanch, shock, and chop the broccoli. Blend it. Add sugar, sour cream, milk, and softened cream cheese. Blend that. Fold in heavy cream. Strain it. Pour it into your ice cream maker.
First of all I don’t have a regular blender, but I do have a stick blender. (Is that weird?) Does it matter that the heavy cream be folded into the mix using a spatula? I don’t know, but that’s what the recipe calls for so that’s what I did. I don’t have a chinois, but I do have a fine mesh strainer and a rice paddle, so that’s what I used. The recipe didn’t say anything about chilling the final mixture, so I didn’t. The strained mix was a pale green color, and tasted strongly of broccoli. Into the ice cream machine in went for 35 minutes.
The recipe yielded about 23 ounces of ice cream. The texture was great, it didn’t matter that I didn’t chill the mixture first. Because of the sour cream, the cream cheese, and the relatively small amount of sugar, the ice cream was actually not sweet at all. It tasted like frozen, creamed broccoli, if you see what I mean. Not something I’d eat every day, but an interesting way to eat broccoli.
So I don’t think I’ll be using the recipes too much, though it was good to know that I don’t need to make a custard every time I want to make ice cream. What really sticks with me, what makes me recommend this book without hesitation, is the story of Cohen and her staff, and how much time, money and work go into opening a restaurant. Even a tiny, nine table, vegetarian one.