For the Dark Days Challenge, which spans four and a half months, participants cook a meal a week based on Sustainable, Organic, Local and Ethical ingredients and processes. I decided to join in this year to test my assumptions and stretch my resources and resourcefulness. We eat according to “SOLE” principles throughout the local growing season by relying on the organic practices of our amazing CSA, attending farmers’ markets and growing a small crop in our in-town “lawn-to-food” garden and in pots. Local ingredients dwindle by December and we rely on our stash and our pantry during the dark days of winter.
I am curious to see what’s really local in Central New Jersey and nearby Eastern Pennsylvania during this period. I would like to get ideas of what I’d like to grow myself next year (dried beans, for example) and how to be more deliberate about what we preserve. This is going to be a learning experience! I can’t wait to find new wintry sources for local food and prospect my pantry at the same time.
For purposes of this challenge, “local” means grown within a 100-mile radius and we’re allowed to declare a few exceptions. For me, the exceptions are oil, vinegar, salt and spices (which includes pepper and various seeds) and, to the extent that I decide to use flour, I will rely on the organic flour from a local mill, although I know they source from a hundred + miles beyond. I might also use something – sparingly – from my pantry that already contains sugar or citrus, but for anything cooked fresh, I’ll use a local ingredient.
For the first Dark Days meal, I returned to an old tradition that we don’t practice much anymore: the Sunday roast. There’s a great farm about 12 miles away that makes wonderful pork products “in the right way” so I bought a small loin that I marinated in an herb rub of rosemary and thyme from my garden, crushed with garlic and salt. I served the roast and its juices alongside a simple gratin of organic red potatoes, rutabagas and carrots from a local farm and our CSA (I dug the rutabagas myself), made with a broth from our SOLE Thanksgiving turkey, and strips of the wrapper leaves from a huge Savoy cabbage that I bought from a responsible farmer. All this was accompanied by the tangy counterpoint of a thick and flavorful applesauce made from a variety of apples purchased from a local orchard.
I’m personally not much of a meat eater, and not a great meat cook, so I have to give credit to the Simply Grazin’ Farm for the flavorful roast. We had enough for a second dinner for a bunch of us, another SOLE success, which featured roasted acorn squash and a sauté of cabbage and Portobello mushrooms with an abundance of the last dill harvested before the freeze.
Roasted Pork Loin
2-3 lb pork loin roast, tied
2-3 sprigs each of thyme and rosemary, leaves stripped from the stems and chopped
1 large or 2 small cloves garlic
Olive oil (optional)
Remove the pork loin from the refrigerator and place it in a roasting pan, fat side up. Pound the herbs with the garlic and salt to make a paste. Add olive oil if using. Spread the paste over the roast and work it into the flesh. Let it sit for an hour or so. This has the advantage of bringing the meat closer to room temperature and allows the herb mixture to infuse the meat.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the roast in the oven for about 10 minutes, turn down the heat to 300 and cook for 10 minutes per pound or until a thermometer inserted into the center of the roast reads 150-160 degrees, depending on how well done you want it. Remember that it will continue to cook while sitting for 10 minutes before carving. Serve with the natural juices.
Potato and Root Vegetable Gratin
This is called a gratin in our household because of its format. If made with milk, or with added grated cheese (gratin and grated are related etymologically), it would have a golden crust. This version was made with turkey broth since it had to be dairy-free. The trick, with either milk or broth, is to warm the sliced vegetables in the liquid before arranging them in the baking dish. This not only helps start the cooking but it also diminishes the tendency of these vegetables to brown when cut, and creates a browned surface You can mix and match just about any root vegetables, or intersperse them with some greens. Onions and garlic can be added, but I was aiming for the simplicity of these early winter roots.
2 medium potatoes
1 small rutabaga
1 c chicken or turkey broth
Grated cheese or butter (optional)
Herbs such as thyme, savory, rosemary (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heat the broth in a saucepan. Peel the vegetables and slice them thinly, adding them to the broth as you go. Simmer for a few minutes, and then arrange them in a shallow baking dish. Dot with butter or sprinkle with cheese, if using.
Bake for about 35-40 minutes, or until soft when pierced with a knife and browned on top.
About 6 apples, various types
Peel all but two of the apples and cut them into chunks, removing the seeds and cores. Place in a saucepan with a small amount of water and cook, covered, for about 20 minutes, or until tender. You can now mash the apples or leave them chunky, add a few spices like cinnamon or ginger, or leave them plain as we did.