Friday, February 18, 2011

Dark Days Challenge - things get exciting

Our Dark Days Dinner for (and by) 4

What do you do when the head of the College of Sustainability is coming to dinner? Ask his wife for help of course!

It all started innocently enough. We asked Steve and Laureen over for a little wine and maybe pizza so we could continue to fine tune our plans for a trip to Spain. Casual. You know. Low pressure. Just pizza and wine. Beer maybe. Just beer and pizza. Low key. Simple.“How about Sunday, Febraury 13th?” we asked.

Turns out February 13th was not just the day before the International Commercial Day of Love. It was a “Dark Days Challenge” day. Eat local food only. In February. Laureen was generous. She offered to move our date a week ahead if we felt we couldn’t meet the “Dark Days Challenge”. As you can tell, she is also dedicated; she wasn’t about to forgo the “Dark Days Challenge”. She is a powerful partner to Steve Sustainability. (Laureen's comment - we call him Captain Sustainable)

We have been witnessing Steve and Laureen’s commitment to local eating for at least 3 years now. It is inspiring, although so far mostly in the way you pick up an amazing cookbook and leaf through admiring the colours, the plating, frowning quizzically at the words “frizze” and “flambĂ©” all the while thinking “someday”…maybe...

But, this was a “Challenge” and our competitive spirit flickered. Scott and I both like a challenge because it means we have an opportunity to win. Winning is fun.

(From this point on I must point out that when I say “we” I am really being very generous because in the world of cooking “we” are really “me”. Scott’s cooking skills were exhausted in 1997-98 when he lived on his own in Ontario studying for his fellowship in Forensic Psychiatry. We now have a deal…he earns the money for the food and I cook it.

My brain scrambled for ideas for local deliciousness…in February. Umm…turnip (yuck)…parsnips (may-be)…potatoes (so predictable)…sweet potatoes (predictable but at least sweet)…brussel sprouts (seriously?)If you ask your competition for help and you win is it still a win worth celebrating? Of course!

So a call to Ms. Sustainability. Laureen generously shared a few ideas and a menu was developed with wiggle room galore to accommodate culinary experimentation. Uh oh. Most of my successes/wins have been with the above-mentioned cookbooks. Laureen shared a recipe for barley stuffed peppers. But she cleverly eliminated the peppers and then she declined to mention measured amounts of any of the remaining ingredients. And then she and Steve said they’d bring chicken.

I believe Laureen has mentioned, casually, several times, that Steve is a fabulous cook. So at least the chicken will be yum. But I still want to win. Off to the Seaport Market with Scott on a Saturday morning. I brace myself as I am not a fan of crowds.

I like, no LOVE, the idea of the market. I love the idea of being part of a community that eats fresh local food and supports our farmers. But I also love whirling up and down aisles with a cart knowing where everything is located and using my credit card at the checkout. My first “Dark Days Challenge” would be embracing the idea of exploration and discovery in a lively and CROWDED environment. Without a cart.

Snow gently falling. And inside we are greeted by -crowds, yes- but not as overwhelming as I had expected. And there were fiddles! And we found double-smoked bacon and red juicy sirloin and it was wrapped in pink paper by a lovely young woman who obviously loved that bacon and sirloin. And we found mushrooms (in cardboard, compostable containers) and carrots and onions. And we found red, pesticide free Cortland apples and cider. We found dried blueberries. We found a former schoolmate who would sell the chicken to Steve. We bought yummy chewy bread. We found friends who told us about delectable gingery hot chocolate and then we found them again, drinking the hot chocolate, and then we found the hot chocolate! We took baby steps. I carried a large spaghetti squash like a baby. We had a great time.

So now to dinner. And the deal was we would prep some parts and construct the rest together in our little kitchen.

I cooked some Speervile barley. Local. I sautĂ©ed shallots (now, these were not local BUT as I had done a Beef Bourguignon the night before using the local beef and bacon and mushrooms and carrots and onion, I decided to cut myself wee bit o’slack…) and ginger with a bit of celery seed (instead of celery leaves) and a grated sweet potato. Then I added a cup or two of cooked barley. I put this mixture in a casserole dish and, since I forgot to add a few roasted pine nuts and some of the dried blueberries, I sprinkled and mashed these in. A bit of grated Dutchman’s smoked gouda grated on top. This would be heated up just prior to eating.

Laureen (again, cleverly) didn’t look up any squash recipes. So I did. I halved my spaghetti squash, dobbed it with butter and roasted it in oven. This was scraped out, mashed up and a bit of minced garlic, olive oil and red pepper flakes were added just before serving. I cored Cortland apples. A bit of brown sugar (1/2 cup) mixed with walnuts and currants and freshly grated nutmeg (from Guyana but considered local because Scott brought them back with him) stuffed in the apples. Topped with a dob of Tatamagouche butter. Baked to yummy goodness. Mmm!

Steve and Laureen arrived with the fixin for chicken. I leave it to Laureen (or Steve) to fully describe but I know there were Speerville oats and buttermilk and this coated the chicken after it was browned in butter. Baked while the barley casserole heated up it was all ready in about 40 minutes. It was a bit heartening to hear Steve say that he struggled just a bit with the challenge of a different kitchen. But like any accomplished chef, he announced what he needed and like a good little sous chef, I placed it in his hands.

The meal was delicious. The music was local as well (Tanya Davis, Rose Cousins and a little Old Man Ludeke to keep banjo-loving Steve happy). And though we opened non-local white wine for the meal, dessert was accompanied by Grand Pres' Apple Dessert wine. And fair-trade coffee.Pizza and beer would have been so simple and low-key. So casual. But SO predictable.

And now to the important part…who won the Dark Days Challenge? Well we did of course! And by “we” I mean all four of us. Steve and Laureen won us over to the joys of local food offerings available even in February (and let’s face it, if you can do this in February there are no real excuses for not trying a bit harder all year long!) And Scott and I were awarded an opportunity to explore all the goodness local has to offer.

Our Dark Days Challenge introduced us to a purposeful approach to the market. It led to consideration of flavours and experimentation in preparation. It led to cooperation and lively conversation. There was deserved anticipation. And appreciative consumption. And we even managed to talk about our trip to Spain. Where Laureen has big plans to buy local!

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