Local students credit some unlikely sources with their recent victory

A Cordon Bleu–trained chef and a local fisherman helped guarantee the high school group’s win at the Local Wild Food Challenge.

From left, Clancy Conlin, Olin Gannon (top), Lily Tilton (top), Zale Narkiewicz, Ryan O'Malley, Autumn Richards, Mary McCarthy, Natalija Lakis, Astrid Tilton and Kelsey Head (Program Leader) at Thimble Farm. – Photo courtesy Kelsey Head

Earlier this month Island teenagers mixed an unlikely array of Island-grown food, and with the help of an improbable native gourmand, ran away with top honors at the sixth annual Local Wild Food Challenge (LWFC). Among more than 18 competitors, which included professional chefs and experienced home cooks, the students’ entry was judged to be the best overall.

The winning dish was a Summer Bounty Salad made up of 100 percent Island-grown and -gathered ingredients, and even presented in an Island-grown salad bowl, made from a slab of driftwood from Chappaquiddick that the winning team sanded and finished. The dish boasted local chestnuts, eggs, beets, green beans, seaweed, watercress, dandelion greens, purslane, potatoes, pickled beach plums and peppers, fried crickets and grasshoppers, and fried white baitfish served with a nasturtium stem and an autumn olive vinaigrette. The group also wowed the judges with their submission of a sourcing video on how the dish came together (the video is available here).

The students with the ingenuity to pull it off were part of the Island Grown Schools’ (IGS) Farm Project, a teen farm-to-school leadership program made up of both Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School and Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. The team included Astrid Tilton, Lily Tilton, Zale Narkiewicz, and Clancy Conlin. Their win was made possible by their mentors from the IGS project, including Christina Napolitan, Cordon Bleu–trained chef and former “food lady” at the Charter School, and Kelsey Head, Island Grown Schools coordinator for the Island’s two high schools. The team also credited their tour de force performance to the help provided by Cooper Gilkes, proprietor of Coop’s Bait and Tackle in Edgartown.

Ms. Head explained Mr. Gilkes’ role in the wild food adventure. “Christina is a proponent of baitfish as a food source. The recipe the kids created included silversides, a baitfish, but we couldn’t get them, had about three on the day before the judging. Someone told me to go see Coop,” the recently transplanted Vermonter said.

“So I found his bait shop, and asked the guy behind the counter if he was Coop — he was — and I explained my problem. He just stared at me for awhile.” Ms. Head paused to laugh, and said, “Then he stood up, said ‘Wait here,’ and disappeared in the back for what seemed like forever. He came back out with a seine net and said, ‘Get in the truck.’ Get in the truck? I looked at the other guy who worked there, and he nodded. So I got in Coop’s truck, and off we went to Edgartown Marine. In three casts he caught all the silversides we could ever need. He was terrific about the whole thing,” Ms. Head said.

She also stressed the role that Ms. Napolitan played in creating the salad: “All the credit belongs to Cristina. She reached out to work with us; the recipe really came from what we could gather. The group came up with the idea for the video. It was a logistics problem. We couldn’t all get together at the same time, so the kids took video on their smartphones [individually], and I put it together,” said Ms. Head.

So did the team know they had a guaranteed victory on their hands? “I think we knew we could walk away with something, whether we won or not; it was a chance to really explore the Island, to learn what ancestors ate and how they gathered food. That’s knowledge we can bring to our families. It was magical. For example, one kid hiked with her dad, looking for watercress. They were doubtful they would find any, but they found an untouched bed in an out-of-the-way place,” Ms. Head said.

The Local Wild Food Challenge encourages the use of as many wild and locally grown ingredients as can be obtained, and the team really went above and beyond, scoring a worthy win. Once the ingredients were gathered, Ms. Napolitan helped provide additional menu inspiration, while still keeping ownership in the hands of the students. “We designed a plate based on what they wanted and gathered. Really, it was a fabulous project that all the kids embraced,” Ms. Napolitan recalled last week.

“The kids really researched the foods we used, made sure they were safe to harvest, and not endangered. They spent a lot of time in the woods,“ she said. “I helped the kids with details on cooking and food prep, but I wanted them to own the dishes — but without Coop we would have had three fish and a lot of crickets and grasshoppers,” she laughed.

For readers with a yen for the unusual, here is Ms. Napolitan’s recipe for preparing silversides.

Fried Whitebait (Silversides)

Catch your fish, or get an old salt to take pity on you. You will need about ⅓ lb. per person.

Keep the fish in icy-cold seawater or over ice until you are ready to cook, no more than 24 hours.

Heat about 1 inch of oil in a heavy skillet (grapeseed, peanut, or vegetable oils are good choices).

When the oil is hot (350°F), quickly rinse the fish under cold running water to remove any sand or grit, lightly dredge in flour, shaking off any excess, and fry in a single layer in the hot oil until crispy, about 1 minute. Drain on paper towels. Continue frying in batches until all the fish are fried; enjoy with lemon wedges or over a bed of greens with autumn olive vinaigrette.