LITTLE FALLS-Combining yucca root, papaya and prickly pear into a judge-pleasing entree would be difficult in any instance, but try doing it in 30 minutes.
Hundreds watched and cheered as three chefs battled it out to win praises from judges Tuesday, May 15, in a competition styled after the Food Network's "Chopped" at Sprout in Little Falls. Sprout's "Minced" pitted Fred Stumbo of Sage on Laurel in Brainerd, Paul Ruszat of St. Cloud Hospital and CentraCare Health and Scotty Stocco of Iron Range Eatery in Crosby against one another in three rounds of frenzied dish preparation.
Testing the skills of the chefs further was the required inclusion of three mystery ingredients into the timed appetizer, entree and dessert rounds-ingredients sourced from Mi Pueblito Market and Restaurant in Long Prairie as part of the event's celebration of Latin cuisine. In the end, Stocco came out on top in the final dessert round with his winning combination of dragon fruit custard and purple hominy brittle topped with toasted coconut and pork crackling.
Following declaration of his victory, Stocco said his heart was pounding and he couldn't believe it.
"It's an awesome victory for someone, I mean, I've been cooking for only 10 years, and for me to really bring what I think is my best to something like this and walk away with an award, I think is incredible," Stocco said. "The other chefs I went up against were very talented. We all cooked our hearts out. It was just an incredible experience overall."
But Tuesday's competition accomplished more than crowning a Minced champion. Every dollar from the event's admission fee and a raffle encouraging viewers to vote for their favorite chef (also won by Stocco) will support Sprout's mobile market project. The project is six years in the making, Sprout founder Arlene Jones told the crowd, and will seek to increase access to fresh, local foods by taking them on the road.
"I cannot tell you how long this idea has been in our heads and how important is to building our local food economy for our local growers," Jones said, "but also how important it is to provide access to fresh locally grown foods for those who otherwise would not have access."
Jones said the mobile market will travel to senior citizen centers, day care centers and areas where residents have limited access to a grocery store. Referred to as a food desert, areas in which no stores carry fresh foods are prevalent in the five-county region, Jones said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service reports most measures of food deserts include indicators of access to sources of healthy food measured by distances to stores selling them; family income or vehicle availability; neighborhood income; and availability of public transportation. The service developed a map of the United States showing which census tracts are challenged by low income and low access. Data collected in 2015 shows a number of those tracts lie within the borders of Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Wadena and Todd counties-particularly Todd, nearly all of which is considered a food desert by federal measures.
Although the truck, two years of labor and inventory are covered by grant funding, the crowdfunding effort kicked off by the Minced cooking competition will support the addition of a trailer, which Sprout and Region Five Development Commission leaders hope will serve as a "teaching machine." Jones said she envisions the mobile market as not only providing access to fresh, local foods, but also teaching consumers cooking skills and nutrition. Profits from the mobile market will go to the area's six food cooperatives to support memberships for low-income community members.
"The No. 1 reason we're doing this is for healthy outcomes for people who live in our region," Jones said. "No. 2 is to support our small family farms."
The Sprout organization is a purveyor of a multi-pronged approach to these goals: offering a regular grower's market at its Little Falls facility, a community-supported agriculture endeavor, cooking classes and access to professional-grade kitchens for product development. It also serves as a distribution hub for the produce of dozens of local farms to schools, hospitals, restaurants and more.
The organization's most recent foray into community-building was spurred in part by a $440,000 grant awarded Region Five in December 2016 from ArtPlace America. The grant supports engagement efforts bringing together art, culture and food-including a variety of market events combining the traditional foods and music of immigrant communities represented in Region Five and Tuesday's Minced event.
'Minced'-The finer version of 'Chopped'
• Mystery ingredients, appetizer round: Chayote squash, tamarind and dried peppers.
• Mystery ingredients, entree round: Yucca root, papaya and prickly pear.
• Mystery ingredients, dessert round: Pork cracklings, purple hominy and dragon fruit.
• Chefs: Fred Stumbo of Sage on Laurel in Brainerd, Paul Ruszat of St. Cloud Hospital and CentraCare Health and Scotty Stocco of Iron Range Eatery in Crosby.
• Judges: Mark Hendrickson, freelance writer, entrepreneur and business owner, who once worked with local foods pioneer Alice Waters; Rocio Fernandez Lugo, Little Falls native and school Hispanic liaison at Long Prairie-Grey Eagle Elementary School; and Beth Dooley, author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including James Beard-winning "The Sioux Chef's Indigenous Kitchen," written with Sean Sherman.
• Emcee: Matt Annand of 3 Cheers Hospitality and Prairie Bay.
• Organizers: Dawn Espe, regional development planner at Region Five Development Commission, and Natalie Keane, facility utilization director at Sprout.
The Mitts take the 'Minced' challenge
In next week's "Puttin' on The Mitts" food column, watch for recipes incorporating mystery ingredients used by chef's in Sprout's "Minced" competition. The column will appear in the Dispatch's Entertainment section Thursday, May 24.