Alfresco Italian Garden Dinner fundraiser highlights local fare

| Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

It makes sense that a dinner celebrating the traditional family vegetable garden will take place outdoors in an open field on the grounds of Fern Hollow Nature Center.

Up to 100 guests will sit down to a homemade meal featuring fresh fruits, vegetables, pasta and meats donated by local farmers and food purveyors at the fourth annual Alfresco Italian Garden Dinner on Aug. 22 in Sewickley Heights.

The event is a fundraiser for the nature center's education activities, which include summer camps, nature walks, a family naturalist program, a native-tree walk and community events. Fern Hollow is the site of the first certified Natural Outdoor Classroom in Pennsylvania.

“We also use this dinner as a thank-you for our volunteers, who help with such projects as our apiary at our nature center and a family fishing trip,” says Marisa Tobias, organizer of the dinner and past president of Fern Hollow's board of directors. “We couldn't do it without the generous support of our donors.”

Clarion River Organics grower's cooperative near Sligo is one of several farms that have booths at St. James Farmers Market in Sewickley and donates potatoes, kale and watermelon for the dinner.

“It's a wonderful event, and Fern Hollow is a great nature center,” says Nathan Holmes, Clarion spokesman. “It takes a certain level of dedication for organizers to go all out and make this a special dinner using ingredients from farms all around the community. It helps people to appreciate food and where it comes from, and it adds to the magic.”

Another contributor, Mediterra Bakehouse in Parkway West Industrial Park, Robinson, will donate 55 loaves of freshly baked farm bread, a French-style wheat and sourdough mixture; French baguettes to be used for bruschetta with gorgonzola and Fern Hollow's honey, and ciabatta bread for pressed caprese, muffuletta and seafood sandwiches.

Mediterra manager Nicole Ambeliotis says the bakehouse has been helping with the fundraiser for three years, when Tobias first contacted her at the farmers market.

“We liked their philosophy of using farm-to-table and local vendors,” she says. “It's how we run our business, too.”

Other dishes on the menu at the Italian picnic dinner, to be served buffet-style, include zucchini fritters, arancini with meat and fresh tomato sauce, oven-fried chicken, fresh handmade pasta with a light lemon sauce, farmers market pasta salad, caponata, green beans and potatoes, kale salad with figs and crispy prosciutto and fresh green salad.

Dessert will feature ice cream and homemade toppings, watermelon and homemade cookies, served with espresso granita and homemade limoncello.

Long before guests take their places at a long table with mismatched tablecloths and centerpieces of hand-picked wildflowers in Mason jars, Tobias and a handful of friends will gather in her kitchen to prepare the food. Thursday and Friday are food preparation and cooking days. Some items, such as homemade bread crumbs, can be made in advance.

Among those helping with food preparation will be Rhonda Schuldt, a co-sponsor and founder of Local Goodness, which connects consumers to farmers. She says the event is a labor of love.

“It's a lot of work, but it doesn't feel that way,” she says. “It's a magical evening. By the time the evening's over, the sun goes down and the candles are lit, it's like one big family.”

Because of the contributions of local farmers and food purveyors, Tobias says 90 percent of the ticket price will benefit Fern Hollow Nature Center's environmental and nature education programs. Last year, more than 6,000 students from 10 schools participated in some 60 hands-on science programs focusing on local wildlife and habitat, geology, watersheds and more.

Contributors to the dinner include Dilner Family Farm, Mediterra Bakehouse, Brenckle's Vegetable Farm, Piscarcik's, McElhaney Family Beef Farm, Clarion River Organics, Enon Valley Garlic, Parma Sausage, Fede Pasta, Ann Gilligan's Sorbet, Wholey's Seafood, Post Office Catering and The Sewickley Confectionary.

Candy Williams is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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