A closer look at the Wild Food Challenge winning dishes

— File photo by Ralph Stewart

Billy and Sarah Manson are the creative (and organizational) forces behind the Local Wild Food Challenges, which they have hosted in New Zealand, Finland, and for three years running, on the Vineyard. The Mansons, who split their time between Martha’s Vineyard and Eastbourne, New Zealand, are currently scoping out locations to host a challenge in Hawaii and in France.

In 2010, Dan Sauer of 7a Foods won for his confited wild goose leg and sous vide breast, chicken-of-the-woods risotto, stinging nettle purée and Russian olive gastrique, all of which was seasoned with salt that Mr. Sauer cultivated himself.

Last year, Détente sous chef Hal Ryerson won for his Edgartown bay scallops on a parsnip purée, salad of wild arugula, sea beans and local apples alongside dolmas made from wild grape leaves stuffed with rice, homemade lemon confit, wild oregano and locally made pancetta.

The 2012 Martha’s Vineyard Local Wild Food Challenge was held at the Rod and Gun Club in Edgartown on October 8, and it turned out to be the biggest one yet. Judges Hal Ryerson, Albert Lattanzi, and Billy Manson tasted 47 dishes with wild ingredients such as squirrel, black bear, acorns, and seaweed.

After fulfilling his duty as a judge last year, Mr. Sauer was back in the competition. He took home a “Best Effort” award for his “Pho Inspired by MV Ingredients”.

One of the more jaw-dropping dishes was Chris Fischer’s braised squirrel stuffed with puffball mushrooms, chestnuts and fennel, which earned him the “Wildest Ingredient” award. Jay Brescia of Oak Bluffs also used squirrel and made tasty squirrel pies.

Meg Athearn had entertained thoughts of possibly winning a bottle of wine or a gift certificate to dinner somewhere, but actually winning the entire competition was not something she was prepared for. It was loud in the Rod and Gun Club and Jan Buhrman, the evening’s MC, was barely audible as she listed off the ingredients from the winning dish.

“When I heard her say sedge grass nut, I just kind of slowly looked over at Dan,” says Ms. Athearn referring to her husband and challenge partner, Dan Athearn. “I thought, ‘oh my god, we used that!'”

Sure enough, it was their dish that Ms. Buhrman announced as the grand prize winner: wild watercress salad with Katama grassland wild onions, steamed Jerusalem artichokes, and candied sedge grass nuts with autumn olive reduction; sedge grass nut encrusted venison sirloin on caramelized wild onions, with beach plum reduction, Jerusalem artichoke purée; Menemsha lobster and Quitsa scallops. To wash it all down, the Athearns served sassafras and local honey iced tea with Russian olive ice cubes.

Putting the dish together was a family affair. On a hike at Peaked Hill with their two children, Clara and Zeb, they gathered sassafras root, which six-year old Clara has a knack for. They got their scallop license that Friday and went together to check their lobster pot on Saturday. Often only conch turns up, but as luck will have it they had a lobster and it was a keeper.

Dan Athearn, whose family owns Morning Glory Farm, took four-year old Zeb for a tractor ride in one of the farm’s fields in Katama where they spotted a patch of wild onions and dug up Jerusalem artichokes.

After recovering from the initial shock of winning, Ms. Athearn admits that it was pretty satisfying, especially considering all the professional chefs who competed. “We’re about to have our third kid, so that made it extra fun to win something together, as a couple.”

In addition to welcoming the new baby, this winter the Athearns will work on compiling a guest list to share the grand prize with — a fully catered trip to Nantucket aboard a 90-foot yacht for up to eight guests.

First runner-up Michael Winkelman is pretty excited about his gift certificate to Edgartown Seafood, dinner at the Harbor View Hotel, and a fishing charter.

The pastry chef at the Outermost Inn, Mr. Winkelman incorporated two things that are popular in Holland, where his dad is from: smoked eel and croquettes. He served his smoked eel croquette with beach plum aioli, dandelion greens, homemade bacon, and curried seawater foam. He served his dish on a rock that he scoured Moshup Beach for, which he smoothed with coarse grit sand paper. “I was like a caveman,” he said and laughed.

On one of those rock-hunting trips to Aquinnah, Mr. Winkelman stumbled upon beach plums and figured one way or another he would incorporate them into his dish.

With the Outermost closed for the season, Mr. Winkelman will spend some time doing his favorite activities, which include crab fishing, brewing beer, and up next — competing in Jan Buhrman’s BLT Bonanza at the Harbor View Hotel on November 17.

Competitions like the Wild Food Challenge and the BLT Bonanza are some of the reasons Mr. Winkelman loves the Vineyard so much. “There’s a real do-it-yourself attitude here, and I dig that,” he says.

Mr. Winkelman will definitely participate in the 2013 Wild Food Challenge though he hasn’t given much thought to what he might make. But if his “Eat Bugs at Cricket Delights” tee-shirt and fond recollection of a winter spent in Oaxaca, Mexico eating “mole and bugs” is any indication, next year’s judges might anticipate some entomophagy (the eating of bugs).

Shaun Sells and the rest of the Harbor View Hotel cooking team took the second runner up title for their “Local Wild Surf and Turf Charcuterie.”

“I love seeing people enjoy food,” says Mr. Sells. When deciding what to make for the Challenge he thought, “There is so much beautiful food on this island, how do you showcase it all?”

For Mr. Sells the answer was cured and smoked striped bass, scallop mousse, bass roe, rabbit rillettes, venison sausage with fennel, venison loin with figs, goose pastrami, wild sun chokes, and pickled sea beans.

For more information about the challenge, visit localwildfoodchallenge.com.