Introducing My Dark Days Challenge

In case you haven’t noticed, it’s still winter here in Virginia and much of the northern hemisphere. And, not having the same climate that California does, it goes without saying that local produce is just not as plentiful as it is during the summer months. Well, I take that back. It’s plentiful, there’s just not as much variety: the hearty flesh of winter squashes waiting patiently encased in thick skins, the tough green leaves of kale and chard braving the frost, potatoes and apples huddled together bumping shoulders…aaaand that’s about it. Winter’s variety show: winter squash, dark greens, potatoes, and some apples. Repeat. Repeat all. It’s the dark days.

Had I been wiser this summer, I might have spent more time purchasing local fruits when they were in season and doing things like making jam or canning tomatoes or freezing – putting up for the winter. (This is one of my goals in the future). Sure there’s berries and other warm weather veggies available in the grocery store but they either taste like they’re not at their prime (because they’re not) or they’re shipped in from places where the weather is warmer and therefore far away from here.

In any case, cooking creatively and locally in the winter can be challenging. It looks like I’m too late to sign up for the official Dark Days Challenge which runs from October to April, but I decided that I will create my own challenge – and I encourage you to join me! (rules explained at end of this post) The basic concept is each week from now through the end of March (i.e., winter), I will cook at least one meal comprised of only local ingredients*. I will document the meal here on My Life in Food, give you the recipe I used, and identify where each ingredient came from.

And it just so happens that today was the first day! Alex suggested that I take the photo in the dark or with just some candlelight flickering in the background. This was a very clever wordplay from him (seriously, it cracked me up), but unfortunately by the time he mentioned this I was already three-quarters of the way through eating. I didn’t think you’d want to see a dark photo of a mostly-eaten meal, so instead I decided to edit one that I took before eating to black and white (chuckle chuckle):

Sausage and Apples (adapted from Simply in Season by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert)

– 4 sausage links (from: Babes in the Wood)
– 1 red onion, sliced (from: Meadow Run Farms)
– 2 apples (local/vintage varieties: Idared and Goldrush)
– 1/2 cup apple juice (juiced from local apples); could also use apple cider or even water
– 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard*
– 1/4 cup White Peach Hibiscus jam (from a local guy: Jam According to Daniel); you could also use apple jelly, hot pepper jelly, peach jelly…i’d probably shy away from strawberry, raspberry or grape, but that’s just me
– 1 sprig rosemary, leaves stripped and chopped (from: my backyard – 20 feet)

1. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Pierce the sausages with a fork and cook until brown on all sides (5-10 minutes). Remove from pan and set aside.

2. Add the onion to the pan and stir around to coat with the sausage drippings. Add a little bit of oil* if necessary. Once they start to go soft and are beginning to color, add the apple slices.

3. While those brown up, mix together the apple juice (or cider or water), mustard, and jam. Add the rosemary. Pour this dressing over the apples and onions and turn down the heat to low.

4. Add the sausages back to the pan and let the whole thing cook for about 10 minutes. If you’ve got a lid for the skillet, put it on. If not, simmer over medium-low heat for 10-15 minutes.

Voila! Not hard at all! Think you can do it too? Just one meal each week? C’mon, we’ll help each other out! Read below to find out how you can participate with me.

Dark Days Challenge Rules (inspired by the actual Dark Days Challenge)

1. Find…local ingredients. You are permitted 2 non-local ingredients, so long as they are not the star of the meal. For example, today my two non-local ingredients were the Dijon mustard and the tiny bit of oil I used to help the onions along (despite my recent used book purchases, I have not yet learned how to churn my own butter. Local lard though? Maaaybe I’d consider it in place of oil…). Use this part of the challenge to explore the farms that might be near you, the local farmer’s markets that might be near you, or the smaller grocery stores in your town. Don’t have any of those? Try this website to help you locate local foods near you. Still no luck? When the cashier at the grocery store asks you if you found everything you were looking for today say “no, actually, I was looking for some local produce.” Oh, and oil and salt are freebies.

2. Cook…at least one meal per week using the local ingredients you found.  Could be breakfast or lunch or dinner or even a midnight snack. Need some inspiration? Flip through your recipe books to see if you’ve got any that are organized by season or that contain sample “winter” menus. Also try any of the following helpful sites: Barbara Kingsolver’s winter menu; the official Dark Days Challenge lists participants by geographic region (so if you click on their blogs, you’ll stumble across some of their recipes); What Can I Make with It? is a good resource if you’re not totally confident in the kitchen or your geographic region means you have some more unusual seasonal ingredients available; The Local Cook cooks from Simply in Season and shares her findings. This is just a start. Use the power of the internet to find others. Let me know if you have any other recommendations!

3. Document…make a note of the recipe you used – whether it’s your own or someone else’s (just be sure to give them credit!) and snap a photo!

4. Share…two ways to share:
More publicly – email me at itstartedwithyum[at] gmail {dot}com with the photo of your food and the recipe you used (and if possible, the estimated distance between where the main ingredients were grown and your plate) and I’ll post it each week along with my own recipe. (Alternatively, if you have your own blog, just post it on there). It’s also helpful if you tell us what geographic region you’re in so that we can approximate what’s in season where you are.
Less publicly – when I post my dark days meal each week, add a comment telling us what you made that week.

Simple enough, right? And dare I say, maybe even…fun?! I’m so excited to stretch my creativity and I can’t wait to see what you come up with! So, who’s with me? Are you up for the challenge? Try it for one week, or all twelve weeks. Let’s see what we can come up with. Cast aside your doubts and fears; post your commitment (or your questions) in a comment below. And may the dark days begin!

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10 thoughts on “Introducing My Dark Days Challenge

  1. Jenni says:

    This sounds fun! I’m up for a challenge 🙂

  2. […] 2 of my Dark Days Challenge, and I already have to make a clarification. Last week when I announced the challenge, I said that […]

  3. […] post-workout meal today will also serve as the Dark Days Challenge that my friend Jess has set up. It involves using all local food for one meal a week, with the […]

  4. […] What did you make this week using local ingredients? Remember there are two ways to share: post a comment describing what you made and how far away the ingredients traveled, or email a photo of what you made to jkelliottinfood [at] gmail{dot}com and I will share it in a post. If you’ve got your own blog on which you are documenting your creations, remember to post a link with your comment. Forgot to make something this week? Join me next week or any week from now through March (review the guidelines here)! […]

  5. […] you made a local winter meal yet? Won’t you share what you’ve been up to? Or read here to see how you can step up to the Dark Days Challenge. I’d love to feel connected to you, […]

  6. […] completely locally sourced meal each week. Previous meals have been full plated dinners (such as this one-pot wonder, this lovely salad, a different part of the chicken here, and this simple idea), but breakfast is […]

  7. […] Posted on February 27, 2011 by Jessalyn| Leave a comment Admittedly, I’m kind of breaking my own rules with this meal. But because it’s a friend’s family business, and I really wanted to […]

  8. […] I’ve written before about pork chops and mustard, cornmeal-encrusted pork chops, and even pork sausages with apples, all of which are excellent ways to enjoy pork. Tonight, however, we enjoyed pork and apples in a […]

  9. […] a common theme. In the past, I’ve shared projects such as making a plate look better, and challenging myself to eat local during the winter, and even a cookie war with Alex. It helps give some routine and structure to my blogging week and […]

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