Eat Local Challenge Days 16 & 17: Going big



Look at the size of the blueberry basket!

For the month of June, I will be chronicling my participation in the Third Annual New Orleans Eat Local Challenge. Every day, I will post about all the meals I had the day before and the ups and downs of trying to eat only locally-sourced or grown food. Because this is my first foray into being a "locavore", I will be doing the second-strictest level of the challenge.

Days: 16 & 17
Total meals eaten today: 5
Non-local items eaten: 2
Vices: Beer, coffee, bread

Unlike the last time I went more than a day without posting, I have no confessions to make about all the ways I failed to be a locavore. It certainly helps that I'm no longer completely stressing out about every meal and whether it's 100% local (as opposed to 50 to 70 percent). But I found that accepting it's pretty much impossible, in a practical sense, to eat only foods prepared or sourced within 200 miles gave me a lot of freedom to do more with what I could get locally.

A quick trip to the Crescent City Farmer's Market right before it closed scored me some a $5 box of blueberries and a cantaloupe, among other produce. Still concerned with the fact that I didn't have any real meat at home, I went over to Cleaver & Co. to see what would inspire me. Walking in, I was quickly greeted by one of the butchers, Brandon Blackwell. I told him I was doing the Challenge (incidentally, he also said being 100% locavore was practically impossible) and was looking for something that would feed me for the week.

A few minutes later, I found myself walking out of the store with a whole duck.

One of the unexpected side-effects of the Eat Local Challenge was not so much the food I was limited to, but the amount of different foods I was exposed to. I've never cooked spring squash, made my own sauce or prepared any kind of poultry that wasn't already cut up for me. Between trips to Hollygrove and the Farmer's Market I had enough to prepare food for the whole weekend and the duck would top it all off Sunday night.

Roasted duck, sweet potato stuffing and sauteed vegetables with homemade chimichurri,
  • Roasted duck, sweet potato stuffing and sauteed vegetables with homemade chimichurri,

Even though I never worked with most of the ingredients I've cooked in the last two weeks, I decide that it wouldn't make me afraid of them. Tomatillos, something I didn't really ever eat, let alone cook, became a custom chimichurri that turned orange with a spicy red pepper and a creole tomato. About-to-turn-stale bread was toasted up, crumbled and mixed with onions (cooled in butter), shredded sweet potatoes, salt, pepper and sage to make stuffing for my duck.

As for the bird, which I managed to handle and season despite my apprehension to raw poultry, I found that the simplest preparation was the easiest. In talking about the duck, Blackwell said that he often does a slow roast of the animal while he's away on long work days. All I had to do was season it with salt and peper and whatever herbs were to my liking and it would roast well over an extended period. I wanted to push my limits a little bit and texted a few chefs who know there way around a bird. Dan Esses from Three Muses said I should be mindful that the legs sometimes take longer to cook than the breast and told me the trick to know if the meat was fully cooked (if you cut into it and the juice is red, it's not ready). Nathaniel Zimet from Boucherie said I should do a brine but, after looking up that process it seemed I should just stick with the stuffing and move onto fancier preparations later.

Now, despite using a slew of non-local ingredients (butter, sage, black pepper, and olive oil), there's no denying my whole weekend qualified for the Eat Local Challenge and the only vice I had that wasn't from a local company was the Heineken I drank at the Perfect Gentlemen Second line on Sunday. But none of that was going through my head this weekend. Whereas in days past I would've fretted over the fact that the secondary, but essential, ingredients to my dishes weren't locally produced, suddenly this was no longer an Eat Local Challenge but a fun experience into cooking foods I've never worked with before.

The duck turn out to be less time consuming than I imagined and much less stressful to cook. As Blackwell had said, 250 for at least six hours and had a delicious bird to eat for dinner. There are a few things you have to keep in mind (for one, the duck should rest on a rack as opposed to flat in a pan because of how much fat is rendered during cooking) but it was a relatively passive process that I could see myself repeating for a house party. After the bird is cooked, you need only to take out the stuffing and carve it. No one has ever confused me for a butcher, but I think I did well enough and, just to be sure I wasn't wasting any of it, made duck stock out of the bones that remained (I also gather much of the rendered sauce from the bottom of the pan to use for cooking later).

A healthy breakfast to counteract all the delicious, fatty duck

It's clear that the mission of the Eat Local Challenge, to make participants really think about the food they're eating and its origins, as well as exposing them to the vast array of local produced available, has hit home with me. I never would have gone to Hollygrove Market and Farm if not for the challenge and I know that the $25 produce box will be a hard habit to break. Aside from the nightmare of trying to become a 100% locavore in a practical manner and how much cleanup is involved after roasting a whole bird, it's hard not to consider this experience a net positive for all the new food knowledge I've gained.

Not to mention that now that I've settled into the Challenge as an enjoyable experience, I have two weeks left to have fun with local food.

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