When I think back on the last few weeks of eating, there are three meals that stand out. Three little respites amidst all of the holiday parties, gatherings, and feasts. And to think I was actually a bit skeptical as to how I would fit these particular meals into our hectic December schedule. I’m so glad I managed. These noteworthy delights were our weekly, Dark Days Challenge, 50-mile radius, local meals.
And in fact, the first of these three meals – Curried Root Vegetable Stew with Dumplings – wasn’t only a standout in recent memory, but one I’d claim as a top runner for all of 2010. It will certainly make the rounds at our table again. The recipe is from Molly O’Neill via the Essential New York Times Cookbook and originally appeared in the Times in 1994. It has that perfect blend of sweet and savory, light and hearty. My one conundrum was making the dumplings using my local flour, which is 100% whole wheat. They worked, but they were definitely on the sturdy side and not the most attractive dumpling I’ve ever had bobbing in my stew. It made me ponder how the cooks of my great-grandmother’s era managed to pull off lighter flour based goods. Maybe they didn’t. Or maybe they hand separated the wheat bran and germ to yield a lighter flour. I wasn’t that ambitious.
I also baked a rustic and flavor filled Olive Oil and Apple Cider Cake from the same cookbook to accompany the stew. It was a welcome departure from the overly sweet treats that December typically offers up. Again, I used all whole wheat flour, but in this particular cake, I think it worked well. The whole wheat added structure and a nuttiness that I appreciated. I also substituted honey for the white sugar the recipe called for.
Our fourth meal of the Challenge celebrated the much anticipated arrival of our local bacon. We get a pork share each winter from Hermit Creek Farm in Highbridge, WI. In addition to the most incredible tasting bacon I have ever had, the share includes a wonderful assortment of chops, roasts, sausages, fresh ham, and pork steaks. The thick, meaty bacon arrives a few weeks after everything else to allow for a good, slow cure in the smoker. So the afternoon we picked up our bacon, dinner was a no brainer – bacon sandwiches. Quick, easy, and hard to beat. They featured dried tomatoes from the summer garden, a homemade garlic aioli, and spicy micro greens on local cracked wheat bread.
Rounding out the trifecta was our last meal of the year. We had several tentative options for New Year’s Eve, but in the end we chose what I would almost always pick – we stayed in. Which felt like an especially fine choice once we heard the sound of freezing sleet beating against the windows. Earlier in the day I had ditched my fancy menu ideas in search of something more simple and grounded. Going local felt like the right thing to do. I settled on a crisp, clean, subtly sweet, parsnip soup to ring in the New Year. And it was the perfect choice. I based the soup on a recipe I bookmarked ages ago from the passionate cook’s blog. I dressed it up for the holiday with a bit of milk and cream and I topped it off with a hearty squeeze of fresh lemon juice (my non-local vice) and slivered roasted chestnuts (local via my mom in Lake City, MN).
We got the night started with some local chev topped with friend Linda’s homemade plum-delicious chutney and we closed out just past midnight with a dish of honey-nutmeg ice cream that I had made earlier in the day. Oh, and I guess I should mention the very fine bottle of bubbly that made its way to our table all the way from France. Not the least bit local, but we appreciated it for what it was – a true and rare treat.
Creamy Parsnip Soup
3 cups peeled and chopped parsnips (about 1/2 inch dice)
2 cloves crushed garlic
2 tablespoons butter
2 – 3 teaspoons honey
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups milk or cream (or a combination)
fresh squeezed lemon
roasted, slivered chestnuts
Melt the butter in a heavy soup pan, add the garlic and parsnips and cook for about 10 minutes until they both start turning a nice caramely brown. Add the honey and the stock, and continue to cook for about another 10 minutes or until the parsnips are tender. Purée the soup (either using a blender or immersion blender) and add the milk and/or cream. Heat through gently and taste for sweetness, adding a touch more honey if necessary (the lemon balances the sweetness perfectly). Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To roast chestnuts:
Score an “x” in each nut with a sharp knife. Roast the nuts on a baking sheet in a 350º F oven for about 30 – 45 minutes. Nuts should be fragrant, soft, and a bit chewy. Let cool slightly and peel away the outer shell. Slice thin.
Top the soup with a healthy squeeze of lemon juice and a scattering of chestnuts. Serves 4 as a first course, 2-3 as a main.
Dark Days m.3
Curried Root Vegetable Stew
Onions, garlic, carrots, parsnips, butternut squash – a substitute for sweet potatoes (our garden), celery root from Hermit Creek Farm (29 miles), chicken stock (homemade with garden vegetables and a local chicken), butter – homemade with Tetzner’s Dairy cream (15 miles), whole wheat flour from Maple Hill Farm (14 miles), curry powder (spices from a far, but handmade at our annual local curry making party), salt and pepper.
Whole wheat flour from Maple Hill Farm (14 miles), milk from Tetzner’s Dairy (15 miles) baking powder, salt, and mace.
Olive Oil and Apple Cider Cake
Apples from Bayfield Apple Company (4 miles), apple cider (pressed an preserved from our apple trees), whole wheat flour from Maple Hill Farm (14 miles), honey (my bees), eggs from a farm near Delta, WI (50 miles), olive oil, baking powder, and salt.
Dark Days m.4
Bacon from Hermit Creek Farm (29 miles), re-hydrated dried tomatoes (our garden) spicy micro greens from Paradise Meadows (12 miles), garlic aioli (homemade from our garlic, a local egg, and olive oil), whole wheat bread made using 100% Spring Hill Farm wheat from Coco’s Bakery (12 miles)
Dark Days m.5
Chev Crisps with Plum Chutney
Herbed goat cheese from South Shore Chev (30 miles), plum chutney (homemade by my friend Linda with her plums), lavash flat bread from Coco’s Bakery – not really local ingredients, but a local business nonetheless. Homemade crackers are my next endeavor! (12 miles)
Creamy Parsnip Soup
Parsnips and garlic (our garden), butter – homemade with cream from Tetzner’s Dairy (15 miles), chicken stock (homemade with garden vegetables and a local chicken), milk and cream from Tetzner’s (15 miles)
Honey-Nutmeg Ice Cream
Milk and cream from Tetzner’s (15 miles), honey (my bees), salt and a dash of nutmeg
Curried Root Vegetable Stew with Dumplings
Adapted from The Essential New York Times Cookbook
2 teaspoons butter
1 onion, chopped
3 or more cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons curry powder
4 cups vegetable broth
2 medium carrots, chunked
2 large parsnips, peeled and chunked
1 small celeriac root, trimmed and chunked
1 1/2 – 2 cups winter squash, peeled and chunked
3 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons salt
Melt the butter in large stew pot. Add onions, cook for a few minutes. Stir in garlic and curry powder and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in broth, carrots, parsnips, and squash and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook for 15 minutes. Stir in the celery root and cook about 10 more minutes.
While the stew simmers, prepare the dumplings. Combine 1 cup flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, 3/4 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon ground mace in a mixing bowl. Work in 2 tablespoons cold butter until a coarse meal forms. Mix in 1/4 cup dried currants. Stir in 6 tablespoons milk and mix until everything is just combined. On a lightly floured surface, shape the dumplings into 1-inch balls.
Back to the stew…remove 1/4 cup of the simmering stew liquid and mix in 3 tablespoons flour to make a smooth paste, then stir back into the stew. Add salt and pepper to taste. Place the dumplings in the simmering strew, cover, and cook for 15 minutes.