Entertaining: Farm to Table Dinner


Given the sheer abundance of fresh, locally produced food available in the Sacramento region, why would you serve your guests anything but? That’s the philosophy of chefs Dionisio Esperas and Terese Hollander Esperas of A Healthy Kitchen, a local business that specializes in culinary instruction, interactive dinner parties, private classes and specialty catering. They are big believers in the farm-to-table philosophy, which emphasizes the importance of eating seasonal food from local sources. Recently, they teamed up with interior designer Karen Calija to create an easy-to-replicate dinner party that celebrates the bounty of the region’s small farms.

The Scene

Where better to hold your farm-to-table dinner than in your garden? If you’ve got a pretty vegetable plot, position the table next to it—your guests will enjoy its sweet, earthy perfume. Assemble a collection of chairs (they don’t have to match; in fact, it’s better if they don’t) including metal bistro chairs, wicker armchairs and wood-slatted French park chairs. For comfort, place a cushion on each seat.

To set the mood with music, here are some CD suggestions, courtesy of Tom Gillies at the independent music store The Beat in midtown Sacramento: During cocktails, play Cowboy Junkies’ fun and funky The Trinity Session. Later, during dinner, segue to Yo-Yo Ma’s American harvest CDs, Appalachia Waltz and Appalachian Journey, which blend classical, jazz, bluegrass and Celtic music.

The Table

Designer Karen Calija suggests a rustic, natural look to complement the farm menu. Drape a wooden table with coarse burlap or sheer cheesecloth—or simply leave it bare. Decorate the table with “found” objects such as antique toys or garden statuary. “Go through your cupboards and find sweet old things that you love,” Calija advises.

For an earthy centerpiece, she clusters terra-cotta pots filled with fragrant fresh herbs such as chives, mint, sage and rosemary around a cement rooster statue that normally sits on her kitchen counter. (For whimsy, she drapes an herb wreath around the rooster’s neck.) To vary the herb containers’ heights, she places some on top of overturned pots, others atop old bricks. Then she scatters the table with white votive candles for a soft, flickering glow. 

Calija, who loves to recycle and reuse, fills small glass Spega yogurt containers (available at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op) with colorful ranunculuses and puts one at each place setting. (Rather than purchase flowers, use whatever’s growing in your garden.) Later, guests can bring them home as party favors.
Calija advises setting the table with rustic tableware, such as earthenware dishes atop rattan chargers. For inexpensive napkin rings, wrap a sprig of fresh rosemary or lavender around each cloth napkin.

The Food

The Esperases devised a menu that they call “American classic with an organic twist.” “It’s a great entertaining menu,” says Hollander Esperas. “It’s easy to prepare and calls for few ingredients. The flavors speak for themselves.”

The couple based the menu on what’s in season and available now, purchasing everything at the co-op. All the ingredients, from the honey that flavors the honey-lemonade mint coolers to the organic eggs used to make the lemon-rose cupcakes, come from regional organic and family farms, including Full Belly Farm in Guinda, Terra Firma Farm in Winters, T & D Willey Farms in Madera and Petaluma Poultry in Petaluma. Much (but not all) of the menu’s produce is organic.

The Drinks

When your guests arrive, greet them with honey-lemonade mint coolers—a jazzy lemonade cocktail spiked with vodka. For a bit of farm fun, serve the drink in Mason jars. (You can find them at garage sales or buy them new at your supermarket during the summer canning season.)

With dinner, serve regional wines that complement the food. Wine educator Elaine Smith of Wine Savvy Consulting suggested the pairings, which feature wines from nearby Amador County. 

Do Ahead

You can prepare much of the menu ahead of time, leaving you free to enjoy your party and your guests. Bake the cupcakes days or even weeks in advance and freeze them. Make the salad dressing two days before the party and refrigerate. The day before, blanch the asparagus and toast the bread for the crostini, and make the filling for the stuffed chicken breasts.

Honey-Lemonade Mint Coolers

This drink is made with honey from
Lienert’s Quality Honey of Sacramento.

1/4    cup honey
4    cups lemonade
(homemade or store-bought)
1    cup vodka
Fresh mint sprigs
1    lemon, sliced into rounds

Warm the honey in the microwave for 20–30 seconds, then place in a glass pitcher. Add the lemonade to the honey and stir to combine. Stir in the vodka. Add a few sprigs of mint and slices of lemon. Serve chilled over ice with extra mint sprigs and lemon slices for garnish.  Serves 4–6.

Asparagus and Goat Cheese Crostini

This appetizer features organic asparagus from Full Belly Farm in Guinda; goat cheese from Laura Chenel’s Chèvre in Sonoma; organic olive oil from Apollo Olive Oil in Oregon House; and bread from Bella Bru
Baking Co. in Sacramento.

1    French baguette
1/2    cup olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1    pound asparagus
10    ounces goat cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the bread on the diagonal into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Brush both sides of each slice with olive oil. Place on a baking sheet and sprinkle tops with salt and pepper. Toast in the oven for 10–12 minutes until golden brown.

Blanch asparagus spears in salted boiling water for 1 minute. Remove and cool in ice water. Drain well and dry. Trim ends of spears to match length of crostini and split in half lengthwise.

Spread a generous amount of goat cheese on each crostini and top with two pieces of asparagus. Place crostini on a baking sheet and bake in 400-degree oven for 5–8 minutes to warm the cheese. Serve immediately. Serves 4–6.

Baby Organic Spinach and Strawberry Salad With Poppy-Seed Vinaigrette

This salad features organic spinach and organic strawberries from Terra Firma Farm in Winters and organic almonds from Lagier Ranches in Escalon.

Poppy-Seed Vinaigrette:
2    tablespoons sugar
11/2    teaspoons sesame seeds
3/4    teaspoon poppy seeds
1    small shallot, finely minced
1/4    teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/8    teaspoon paprika
3    tablespoons apple-cider vinegar
3    tablespoons grape-seed or canola oil

1    pound baby spinach, washed and dried
1    pint strawberries, sliced
1/4    cup almonds, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste 

In a large salad bowl, combine first seven ingredients and whisk to combine. Slowly add the oil, whisking all the while to emulsify. Toss the spinach and strawberries with enough dressing to coat each leaf, and top with the almonds. Serves 4 –6.

Warm New-Potato Salad

This recipe uses fingerling and red creamer new
potatoes from Riverdog Farm in Guinda.

1    pound new potatoes (a combi-
nation of fingerlings and red
creamers, or your favorite varieties),
scrubbed and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/2    red onion, thinly sliced
1/2    cup olive oil
4    tablespoons champagne vinegar
2    tablespoons whole-grain mustard
Sea salt and freshly ground
black pepper to taste
2    tablespoons chopped chives
3    tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Boil the potatoes in salted water until just tender. Drain and set aside. In a large saucepan, sauté the red onion in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil until softened. Add the boiled potatoes to the pan and toss with the remaining olive oil, vinegar, mustard, chives and parsley. Season to taste with sea salt and pepper. Serve warm. Serves 4.

Pan-Roasted Organic Chicken Breast Stuffed With Roasted Red Peppers, Olives and Farmer’s Cheese

This recipe features Rosie certified organic chicken from Petaluma Poultry in Petaluma, farmer’s cheese from Belfiore Cheese Company in Berkeley, olives from Apollo Olive Oil in Oregon House and organic basil from Soil Born Farm in Sacramento.
1/4    cup diced roasted red bell peppers
1/4    cup green olives, pitted and chopped
2    ounces farmer’s cheese, crumbled  
1    tablespoon flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
2    teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
2    tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
Zest of one lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4    skinless, boneless half chicken breasts (each about 6 ounces)
2    tablespoons olive oil

In a small bowl, combine peppers, olives, cheese, herbs and zest, mixing well. Season with sea salt and pepper. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Trim any excess fat and connective tissue from the chicken breasts. Using a thin, sharp knife, cut into the side of the chicken breast, creating a large pocket inside the thick end of the breast and leaving a small opening. (Be careful not to cut through the flesh.) Season the chicken with salt and pepper on the inside of the pocket as well as the outside.  Divide the filling between the chicken breasts and stuff the breasts.

In a large, ovenproof skillet, heat the olive oil and brown the chicken for 3 to 4 minutes on one side. Carefully turn over the breasts, then place the pan in the oven and roast for 15–18 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer registers 160 degrees in the thickest part of the breast. Serve immediately or at room temperature. Serves 4.

Sautéed Baby Carrots and Freshly Shelled Peas

This recipe features baby carrots from T & D Willey Farms in Madera and English shelling peas from Riverdog Farm in Guinda.

2    bunches baby carrots, peeled and trimmed of all but 1/2 inch of stem
3    pounds English peas in the pod, shelled
2    tablespoons olive oil
1    tablespoon butter
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Blanch the whole carrots in salted water for 2 minutes, then remove from the water. Blanch the shelled peas for about 1 minute.

In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil and butter until warm. Toss in the carrots and the peas and sauté 1–2 minutes until heated through. Season with sea salt and pepper. Serves 4.

More Tips

Prepare the stuffed chicken breasts in an old-fashioned cast-iron skillet. It conducts heats well and goes from
stovetop to oven to table.

To save time and effort, have your butcher cut a pocket in the chicken breasts for stuffing.

For a pretty (and edible) decoration, fill a farm basket to overflowing with organic produce: baby radishes, fingerling potatoes, asparagus, sweet peas, baby carrots, spring onions, a bunch of baby spinach and several
heads of garlic. Punctuate the arrangement with a half-dozen organic brown eggs.

A farm-to-table dinner without the work

The Esperases will hold a farm-to-table dinner at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 19, at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op’s Community Learning Center, 1914 Alhambra Blvd., Sacramento. The multicourse meal will feature organic produce and meats, artisanal cheeses and local wines. The cost is $40 with wine, $30 without. For more information or to register, call (916) 455-2667.