BRINGING THE PARTY HOME
An Attempt at La Vida Locavore
Photography by Lauren McClure
Somewhere between the dorm parties of my youth, the overcrowded bars of my single years and the chic bistros of my present, I decided it was time to bring the party home. Don’t get me wrong—I still love to dine out. From taco stands to the swankiest of spots, I’m an equal opportunity lover of all eateries. I’m also a twenty-something freelancer with a svelte bank account.
In an effort to rein in my restaurant adventures, I decided that the cozy Oak Cliff bungalow I share with my husband Russell and dog, Della Bea, was the ideal spot for dinner with friends. !e meals have become a monthly ritual: a time to catch up without having to yell over loud music or blow all of our rent money.
In the midst of one of these dinners several months ago, my friends and I began making plans for our first locally sourced meal. Inspired by “!e 100-mile Diet” (a blog and two books), a challenge was born, and a date was set. !e premise was simple. First rule: !e majority of our food items had to be grown or produced within 150 miles of the DFW Metroplex. Second rule: !e party would begin in the kitchen. !e guests would bring their ingredients, and we’d cook side by side.
As hosts, Russell and I planned the main entrée, and each guest was responsible for bringing the goods for a side dish. While I know that Texas is a bountiful state, I secretly wondered whether our region could meet the challenge. After a quick flip through Edible Dallas & Fort Worth, I began to feel confident that boundless options existed for North Texas locavores. DFW farmers, farmers markets and retailers gave us more than enough options to create a substantial meal.
Russell and I headed to the Dallas Farmers Market while my friend Allison visited White Rock Local Market, which was closer to her house. Valerie and Paulo, adventuresome and eager to revisit the place we had picked pumpkins in October, ventured straight to the source, picking up onions, garlic and squash from Gnismer Farm in Arlington. Jonathan, a bartender obsessed with fine spirits, brought wine from a recent trip to Brennan Vineyards in Comanche and a bottle of Balcones Baby Blue, a blue corn whisky distilled in Waco and available at several DFW locations. Milk from Texas Daily Harvest was obtained during a Saturday visit to Eden’s Garden CSA Farm. A quick pick from our own backyards yielded rosemary, lemon thyme, dill and flat-leaf parsley. Also from our yards were pecans and some green onions that had been stored from a fall harvest.
We came extremely close to locavore perfection, but on a few items gave in to the “Marco Polo Exception.” !is term was coined by author and environmentalist Bill McKibben—“Anything your average 13th century explorer might have brought back from distant lands.” So, pepper, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and sugar are not locally produced, nor were our raisins or balsamic vinegar. We came close with salt and pepper. !anks to Beach Street Local Market, we found salt and pepper from the Smokehouse Salt Company of Southlake. Our olive oil was from the Texas Olive Ranch (in Carrizo Springs), further than 150 miles, yet still from Texas.
Around 5 p.m. on the evening of our dinner, guests began filtering into our home with their satchels filled. We proudly emptied our knapsacks onto the table and beamed as we surveyed the loot. Large heads of cauliflowers rolled aimlessly around the table. Butternut squash, turnips, rutabagas and handfuls of carrots still dusted with soil, waited to be peeled, chopped and doused in olive oil. !ere were large leaves of collard greens and a beautiful plump chicken, straight from Windy Meadows Family Farm (found in Shed 2 at Dallas Farmers Market), sitting beside shallots, garlic and bunches of herbs. After opening our Brennan Vineyards Syrah (2007), we tied on our aprons, distributed the knives and got to work. Our tiny kitchen is fine for a couple of people, but not great for a crowd of hungry, inexperienced cooks eager to wield a knife.
So, we converted the dining table into a workstation, leaving everyone with plenty of room to peel, chop and chat. Never ones to cook without noshing, we started with a simple mushroom bruschetta, made fresh with bread from Empire Baking Company and mushrooms from Kitchen Pride Mushrooms. Townes Van Zandt and Midlake (even our music was local) filled the house, complimenting the sounds of wine glasses clinking and knives being sharpened. Some of us concentrated on trying to chop with the effortless zeal of Julia Child.
After two hours—it could have been much sooner, but you move at a different pace when cooking with friends—we were finally ready to eat, setting the table with burlap that had been re-purposed as a tablecloth and linen dishtowels for napkins.
Our meal began with cauliflower soup sprinkled with bacon and dill, simple to make, yet rich in flavor. For our main course, we roasted our free-range chicken, which had been seasoned with salt and pepper and dotted with olive oil and sprigs of thyme, rosemary and parsley plucked from my windowsill garden. Everyone relished the fresh smell of herbs as we lifted each forkful of chicken to our mouths. !e bird was accompanied by roasted root vegetables and sautéed collard greens: simple recipes recalled from memory or retrieved by a quick phone call to Mom. All the roasted vegetables were fantastic (especially the burnt pieces), but it was the sweet butternut squash that was the star. !e collard greens were a surprise hit since I’d always believed that good greens were only possible when slow-cooked. Turns out that great greens can happen in 15 minutes, but don’t tell my grandmother I said it!
As we enjoyed dinner, the bread pudding baked in the oven. Wafts of cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar filled the dining room, the fragrance reminiscent of my grandmother’s holiday kitchen. A bourbon-soaked dessert stuffed with pecans and raisins was the perfect finale.
Eventually the plates and roasting pans were empty. We all had seconds (and in some cases thirds). We were shamelessly gluttonous in our eating and the praise we gave ourselves for attempting the challenge. Yes, we were imperfect (we just couldn’t let go of that balsamic vinegar), but we learned a lot about our regional agriculture and the locavore lifestyle that at one point seemed unrealistic. What we hadn’t anticipated was just how much better the food would taste. Everyone agreed that the difference in flavor was astounding. Perhaps it was the simple recipes that allowed the freshness of each ingredient to shine. Maybe it was because we had invested ourselves completely in the entire process, from picking to eating. !ere was certainly a joy in the hunt and becoming familiar with the faces of the farmer. We realized that eating all local vegetables, meats, dairy and wine is within reach even for the laziest of twenty-somethings (me) with the slimmest of wallets (me again). I know I’ll forever love those taco stands and swanky bistros; but nothing beats a night at home, huddled around a table of good food with dear friends.
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LAUREN MCCLURE loves food, as evidenced by her ever-expanding palate and waistline. In between meals, she has the great pleasure of being a freelance photographer and writer. She takes pictures of everything from blissful brides to Texas ghost towns, and blogs about her adventures at laurenmcclure.blogspot.com. In her leisure time she enjoys cooking brunch for dinner, perusing her vintage issues of Gourmet magazine and eating peanut butter by the spoonful.