Cummer Farm-to-Table Moonlight Dinner

by Katie Gile
The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens opened its doors for its first-ever Farm-to-Table Moonlight Dinner. The evening was organized as a highlighted event for Garden Month 2013, a celebration of the Cummer’s nationally recognized and historic gardens, which featured tours, activities, classes and lectures for all ages.
Featuring only locally raised/grown and seasonal foods from North Florida farms and fisheries (KYV Farm, Black Hog Farm and White Harvest Farm), the dinner drew a varied crowd of Jacksonville art lovers, foodies, merchants and a few lucky journalists to enjoy the local flavor.
As dinner guests walked through the familiar halls of the Cummer, the dulcet sound of an acoustic guitarist beckoned them to its scenic gardens. Out on the sun-warmed patio, there waited Intuition Ale Works beer or a Grape and Grain Exchange cocktail for guests to enjoy. The Grape and Grain cocktail, concocted by Anthony Norton, consisted of carrot juice, orange juice, ginger, silver tequila, honey, tiki bitters, fresh lime zest and was served in a petite mason jar. The cocktail perfectly complemented its Spring-ready surroundings, with all the different flavors peeking through like new buds and without the overwhelming flavors of summer. The subtle bite of the ginger, earthy sweetness of the carrot juice and warming tequila combined for a fresh, cool treat to sip as the evening sun danced on the St. John’s River.
Within 45 minutes, the patio filled with mingling dinner guests sampling the drinks and delectable hors d’ oeuvres. The hors d’ oeuvres offered were raw Apalachicola oysters, served with shaved fennel on a half-shell, prepared by Chef Jamey Evoniuk with the Chef’s Garden and garden vegetable pizzettes, prepared by Chef Shawn Sigmon with Dig Foods. The pizzettes went quickly, guests eagerly snagging them before servers could get them to a serving table.
When the sun finally set, the March air chilled and guests huddled around the few available patio heaters. Soon, they quit the moonlight for the warmer, more hospitable candlelight in the Joan Wellhouse and Martin Stein, Sr. Gallery.
Once inside, two rows of long white tables waited, with sweet sunflowers in mason jars, bread loaves cut to resemble vines and at each place setting, a two-inch-thick log cut acting as a plate charger.
Surrounded by the nature-inspired work of Florida artist Jim Draper, dinner organizers made their introductions and welcomed the purveyors of the four-course feast to come as sharp-dressed servers poured wine provided by The Grotto.
The first course was a tasty beginning. From Chef Matt Blinkhorn with Ashley Street Catering was a clever spin on the classic Italian Wedding Soup in “Southern Wedding Soup.” A completely vegan dish, its vegetable stock, White Harvest Farm collard greens, black-eyed peas and cornbread “dumpling” made for a warm welcome to the table. The stock was flavorful and the soup was enjoyable overall, though the cornbread dumpling was a little soggy from sitting in the broth too long.
The next course, from Chef Steve Gaynor with Biscotti’s, was arguably the best. It featured risotto primavera with seared sea scallops, arugula, black garlic and lemon. The risotto, served family style, was a big favorite. The normally overwhelming creamy heaviness of the risotto was well-balanced by the pleasing crunch and sweetness of its spring vegetables. The accompanying scallops were perfectly cooked, the slightly brown outside sealing in the just-caught-it-this-morning freshness inside. A dish to be savored slowly, every delicious bite tasted like the ocean.
The third course, Black Hog Farm chicken supreme & poached egg with butternut squash bread pudding, shredded Brussels sprouts, lardon and preserved lemon, was created by Chef Jamey Evoniuk with the Chef’s Garden. Meant to be the biggest part of the meal, this dish had a lot going on. The chicken supreme with poached egg was a delicious combination. The chicken, which Chef Evionuk announced would be various parts, was well seasoned and cooked to tender perfection. Its accompanying egg provided a savory balance to the spices and its creamy center an interesting change in texture. The butternut squash bread pudding tasted almost exactly like Thanksgiving stuffing, which was delicious but a little confusing in the company of the chicken supreme. All in one bite, this course was a bundle of big, comfort-food moments. But somewhere in the midst of these flavors was a tremendous amount of salt, presumably from the lardon, that would surprise at inopportune savory moments.
Dessert, which was a collaborative between the Chef’s Garden, Dig Food and Biscotti’s, was an interesting experience. Served a sampler plate for the three unusual dishes, it consisted of an Intuition Ale Works beer float with Bold Bean coffee ice cream, a goat cheese panna cotta with crystallized beets and rum cake with coconut. The beer float received mixed reactions. The coffee ice cream inside was delicious, and the beer was also enjoyable. But together, the combination was bitter and slightly unpleasant. The panna cotta tasted like a tangy flan, its smooth and creamy texture making for a dish to taste slowly. From the beets and beet juice reduction, the mellow dessert received a little sweet and chewy kick. The rum cake, though quite dry and crumbly, was flavorful and spicy. Despite the peculiar combination in the beer float, dessert was well-received by dinner guests.
As the evening came to a close, guests said good night to new friends, took a last walk through the gallery to view Draper’s work, and headed home with a new respect for Jacksonville local cuisine.