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Deconstructing the Dark Days Challenge

Okay, so Dark Days been my Sunday post since Thanksgiving…but what the heck was it?

Well,  I first heard about the challenge accidentally—a friend of a friend mentioned it on her blog, and I decided to check it out over at Urban Hennery.

The task: cook at least one 90+% locally-grown meal a week from November through March.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard someone snark that local is the new organic.  First, let me say this: your food consumption should not be determined by fads.  For the love of all that’s holy, eat healthy food you like that doesn’t have huge collateral costs (environmental, human/labor, whatever) and hang the fads!  (Related: the next foodie that tells me that chipotle is “soooo over” is liable to get a chipotle stuffed up said foodie’s nose.)   Secondly, I believe in promoting local agriculture, like many of my readers probably do.  If you want to know what exactly that means to me, read on.

I was drawn to the challenge because it seemed like a good way to connect with some like-minded people.  Besides that, the bar was set achievably low.  Just one local meal a week?  Ha!  A cinch, I thought.  I was all over this one, not least because November through March aren’t terrible growing months for us in a lot of Arizona.  You want harsh?  Talk to me in July and August when it’s 115 and higher for weeks on end here in Phoenix. That’s when the pickins get slim.  I was in, even though I knew I had an unfair advantage thanks to my geographic location.

Yes, I was cocky going into the challenge.  However, sitting here on the other side of it, I sure can tell you a few things.

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The End of the Darkest Days: Breakfast Tacos

Belatedly, due to the constant rush around here these days, I present our featured Dark Days dish: breakfast tacos.

Oh, wait.  Those are kumquats.  We had some of those for breakfast, too.  Seeing as how this was the last day of the Dark Days 08-09 Challenge, we decided to hit the nearby Sunday farmers’ market and see what goodies were for grabs.  I couldn’t pass up these beautiful, sweet, tangy little citrus fruits.  Nor could I stop eating them.  A day later, they were all gone.  As was the bag of blood oranges, which we turned into a delicious and dramatically-hued juice.  But anyway—breakfast tacos.  I know I have that picture here somewhere…  Ah-ha!

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Dark Days Challenge: Creamy Parsnip Soup

When the Unicyclist and I have special events to celebrate, our restaurant of choice is Tarbell’s here in Phoenix.  The food is superb–the ingredients are painstakingly sourced (mostly organic and local), the dishes prepared with care, and the presentation is beautiful.  Last year, probably around this time, we had an amazing parsnip soup there, which inspired this attempt for the Dark Days Challenge.  Although it wasn’t quite as good as Tarbell’s (I haven’t found any place yet that is, not even my kitchen), it was quite good.  Best of all, it’s simple, with only a few ingredients.  Give this a try before parsnips are out of season!

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Dark Days Challenge: Fresh-Baked Bread

Last week, we were fortunate enough to get more wheat berries at our CSA pickup.  As you can see in the photo, we get two different varieties mixed together.  I haven’t the foggiest idea what specific types they are, but I decided to try a bit of alchemy and see if they could be made into a loaf of bread for this week’s Dark Days Challenge meal.

As you can see, the first essential step is separating bits of chaff and plant matter from the wheat berries, since we get little baggies of wheat that’s a bit rough around the edges.  It’s a pretty fast sort on a countertop.  Once everything was sorted, I put the wheat in my mighty Vitamix blender.  Using the dry blade, I ground it into flour in about a minute.  (I love me some Vitamix.)  After digging up a new recipe in Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible, I was ready to go.

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Dark Days Challenge: Perfect Pinto Beans

One of the most essential skills for anyone interested in making a delicious, low-cost meal is knowing how to make a tasty pot of beans.  Since I’ve decided to focus on basics here for a while, that means I’m about to tell you everything I know about them thar legumes.  Pull up a chair, people.  Get comfy.  Grab some guacamole.

This week for the Dark Days of Winter Challenge, the Unicyclist and I decided on tacos.  We’d scored local pinto beans through our CSA as well as at the Guadalupe Farmers’ Market, and we do so love a good taco.  Typically, we build ours with soft corn tortillas, black or pinto beans, salsa, guacamole, and a hearty handful of lettuce or spring greens.  I’ll give you the Unicyclist’s guacamole recipe later this week (your knees will melt), but let’s stick with the beans for now, ¿qué no?

I learned how to make a good pot of beans from one Afra Llamas, a woman with whom I worked for several years.  She was newly a U.S. citizen, originally from Mexico, and, baby, could that woman cook.  Silky arroz con leche, salsa so fresh and delicious that people would smuggle it out of parties in disposable cups, and pinto beans cooked to perfection.  I’d fussed and bothered over making good beans for quite some time, adding and removing onion, peppers, garlic, cumin, and all sorts of other goodies in order to make something drool-worthy.  Finally, in a stroke of inspiration triggered by a morning potluck catered by Afra Llamas, I had the brilliant idea of just asking her.  It turns out that making perfect beans is less about ingredients than it is about technique.  Remember that, people.  Play with the ingredients if you want, but if you fuss with the technique, I make no promises.
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Dark Days Challenge Week 13: As Local As It Gets

I wish I had some tantalizing pictures and wonderful recipes for this week’s Dark Days Challenge, but the truth is that it’s been a bit busy this week.  As a result, we wound up keeping it as local as it gets: we ate a lot of leftovers.  Black bean enchiladas from last week, black bean soup from the extra beans I made, several salads from our leftover CSA greens, an omelette to use up leftover greens…you get the idea.  Tasty, filling, but not very exciting.  Perhaps next week?

In the meantime, stay tuned for a continuation of out interview with Mangochild, as well as some more garden photos.


Dark Days Challenge: Enchilada Sauce Recipe

Several weeks ago, the Unicyclist and I splurged at the Guadalupe Farmer’s Market.  We decided it was time to decorate our place while stockpiling some good food.  That’s how we wound up with a massive jar of mesquite honey and a cheerful ristra of red peppers, one of those beautiful strings of chiles you often see adorning kitchens or doorways in the Southwest.  Both of them are on display in our kitchen, but the honey has definitely been getting more use than the peppers.  You see, I’ve been something of a pepper collector the last couple years.

The Unicyclist and I both like food with bite.  That’s the first problem.  The second problem is that we live in some pretty good chile country.  The third problem is that I have frequented both Native Seed SEARCH and the Santa Cruz Chili and Spice Company in the Tucson area a couple times when entertaining out-of-town guests.  Both places have fantastic assortments of chiles, and it’s nigh to impossible to turn any of them down once you give them a whiff.  As a result, I have nearly a dozen unique kinds of chiles commiserating in my cabinets.  There’s morita negro, chiltepín, chile japonés, pasilla Oaxaca, pasilla negra, guajillo, and Santa Cruz hot.  In addition, we have cayenne, paprika, whole mystery ristra chiles, and fresh serranos.  As you might guess, my cupboards smell amazing.

All of which is great.  However, it also means that I’m not giving said enormous ristra as much attention as I ought.  To compound the problem, we’ve received a hearty helping of dried chiles in our CSA share the last two weeks running.  As the chiles piled up on the counter, it became clear that it was time to take action.  It was time to figure out a chile-intensive dish that could help cull some of my burgeoning chile population; thin the herd, as it were.

It was time to make enchilada sauce.

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Dark Days Challenge: Darn Good Hummus, Grilled Focaccia, and a New Broccoli Waldorf

For several years, I was something of an anomaly in the vegetarian world.

I hated hummus.  For those of you unfamiliar with hummus, it’s a staple in Middle Eastern and Greek restaurants, as well as in many vegetarian kitchens.  A savory spread of garbanzo beans puréed with garlic, lemon, garlic, and tahini (a sesame seed paste), it’s a healthy and convenient dip for vegetables or for use as a protein-rich sandwich spread.  I loved the concept of hummus.  I just hadn’t had the opportunity to understand what all the fuss was about.  Frankly, whenever I tried to make hummus, it just wasn’t…well…good.

I tried to make it at home.  I even stepped out of character and followed several recipes to a T in my attempts to make something palatable.

I failed.

Then one day, I discovered cumin, and the world was reborn.

Now, we almost always have some hummus in the fridge.  As I mentioned, it’s great for both sandwiches and high-protein snacks, it keeps well, and it’s full of garlicky goodness.  This week, I decided it was time to share my love of hummus with you, so that you all can enjoy it as well.

Although I’m posting my basic hummus recipe, I actually switched this one up today and used tepary beans instead of garbanzos to keep it local for the Dark Days Challenge.  I served it with herbed, grilled focaccia (which I made using our CSA wheatberries and garden herbs) based on the recipe in Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible and a fantastic, mostly local, reinvented Waldorf salad.  I’ll be posting the Waldorf recipe later this week.  Lunch was very satisfying: both light and hearty, sweet and salty, chewy and creamy and crunchy.  It was also healthy.

I love when that all comes together.


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Dark Days Challenge, Starring Orange Cauliflower

The Unicyclist and I didn’t get much in the way of fresh produce last week from our CSA share with Crooked Sky Farms.  The farm is not to blame, however.  The Unicyclist was on veggie pickup duty, and he managed to barter and swap our citrus and one set of greens for an important storage items for us: wheat berries!  The Unicyclist knows what’s up, which is why we now have three small baggies of wheat berries to make into flour and expand our local cooking possibilities.

I love the Unicyclist.  Not just for his bartering skillz, but those don’t hurt.

In any case, since he managed to barter some of our fresher goods for other people’s wheat berries, we decided we’d better make a stop by Crooked Sky’s booth at the Ahwatukee farmers’ market this morning to ensure we’d have enough produce to see us through until the coming Thursday.  I am awfully glad we went, because that’s where we discovered this beauty.

That, gentle readers, is Orange Cauliflower.

(I thought it merited the caps.  Don’t you?)

Isn’t it stunning?  Apparently, commercial Orange Cauliflower is a hybrid between a non-engineered mutant orange cauliflower and the standard whites.  It’s also a bit sweeter, a lot higher in beta carotene, and much more striking than its pallid (but also delicious) cousin.

I had to have it.

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Dark Days Challenge Recipe: Herbed Sunchokes and Red Potatoes with Yogurt Sauce

If you recall, last week’s challenge meal involved sunchokes as well.  As many of you are undoubtedly aware, eating locally means that when things are in season, you wind up consuming a fair few of them because the harvest dictates what’s for dinner.

It seems that our farm planted enough sunchokes to have them for at least two consecutive weeks, because they were out for the weekly pick-up again.  We actually managed to score a double batch this week by trading in our allotment of dried peppers (of which we already have an entire string) for a basket of sunchokes from someone who apparently felt creatively challenged by the tubers.

After much agonizing over recipe options, I settled on a lighter, herbier version of a traditional au gratin dish for these sunchokes.  I’m not a huge fan of creamy sauces, see, and I get pretty turned off by dishes like scalloped potatoes or fettuccini Alfredo.  To complicate things, I wanted a simpler dish than a multi-ingredient soup.  Basically, I wanted something to let the character of the sunchokes shine instead of drowning it in pools of heavy cream or pureeing it into a liquid.  Me and sunchokes, we’re still getting acquainted.  I may very well make them into a soup if we get them again, but I want to have a better sense of what they are and how they work first, dig?

Care to meet some of the cast of characters?  Sliced sunchokes, red potatoes from the farmer’s market, and a magic herby yogurty sauce, pictured below.  Not pictured: Spinach.  Pecorino Romano.  Fresh yogurt herb sauce for garnish.

This was very much a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants sort of recipe, so forgive the lack of specifics in the following post.  To be honest, I’ve come to realize that very few of my Dark Days recipes make it to publication with any significant specificity.  When that dawned on me this weekend, I was initially horrified.

“Oh, my!” I lamented. “Whatever was I thinking?  However will anyone manage to make this again?”

Then I realized: I don’t want you to make this.

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