Invite Neighborhood Gardeners to Share Their Harvest at the Dinner Table

Looking for an easy way to entertain and get to know your neighbors better? There is one approach that takes little work or expense, is enjoyable for everyone, and keeps the party moving all night — a progressive dinner party.

At a progressive dinner a group of friends plan a meal together where successive courses are prepared and served at a different host’s home. The dinner party literally moves from place to place throughout the evening and works best for friends who live close to one another in a neighborhood, an apartment building or a condo complex. It’s a great way to entertain a group without taking on the entire planning for a multicourse dinner party.

A unifying theme can help in planning the cocktails and appetizers, main entrée and dessert courses. If you and your neighbors are avid gardeners, a sustainability theme can help make best use of fresh, seasonal produce from your own backyard.

At its core, sustainable food relies on farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, communities and animal welfare, with a focus on keeping food production and consumption as local as possible. Home gardeners often avoid using chemical pesticides and fertilizers to grow plants as organically as possible. With the distance from “soil to table” as short as the walk from backyard to kitchen, the organic home gardener can easily contribute sustainable food, especially when the garden’s bounty is shared. Stress the use of compostable disposable table ware such as bamboo plates to cut down on cleanup time, and your progressive dinner can be both enjoyable and sustainable.

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Planning tips for your sustainable progressive dinner can make certain everyone will have a memorable experience.

Here are 10 tips to get you started.

1. The closer the hosts live to one another, the better to keep travel time down.

2. Appoint designated drivers if you’ll be driving between homes.

3. Plan on three courses spread across three changes of locale for a three- to four-hour dining experience. Each course will last about 45 minutes, plus travel time to the next destination.

4. Choose recipes that can be made ahead and reheated, kept warm or served safely at room temperature once guests arrive.

5. If you are a host, set your table before leaving your home for the first course.

6. Set a time for each course and stick to the schedule as much as possible. Hosts can then plan on when to leave in order to prepare the food for the next course.

7. Include in the invitation the dinner’s theme, the time each course is expected to begin, the name and address of the host for each course and cell numbers for each host in case someone gets lost.

8. Be sure to ask guests about any dietary restrictions and/or food allergies.

9. No matter what course you’re hosting, keep a few empty containers handy so storing leftovers can be done quickly.

10. If several guests have younger children, consider sharing the cost of a baby sitter for all children at the final house on the dinner route for both happy children and happy diners!

First course: Cocktails and appetizers
A few moderately priced bottles of wine and a pitcher filled with a signature drink should make for a festive first course. Using fresh ingredients from the garden helps reinforce the sustainability theme and gives cocktails and nonalcoholic drinks vibrant color and flavor.

Sangria is simple to make for a crowd. Mix a bottle of red wine with one cup Grand Marnier or brandy, two cups orange juice, one cup fresh lime juice and four tablespoons sugar. Add about one cup of sliced citrus such as lemons, limes and oranges and chopped or sliced seasonal fruit such as strawberries, melons or peaches. Be sure to make the sangria ahead of time so the flavors can blend. Serve in a tall glass with ice and a slice of fruit as a garnish.

A nonalcoholic punch can include herbs from the garden for refreshing flavor. Make a simple syrup the night before by boiling equal amounts of water and white sugar until the sugar is dissolved, then add a handful of fresh herbs (organic, please) to the syrup so it steeps as it cools. Basil, mint or lemon balm will add different herbal flavors to the simple syrup. With new varieties of herbs now available, a lemon basil or chocolate mint will result in syrup that can add an interesting twist to your favorite punch recipe. Strawberries, lemonade and basil are a pretty and refreshing combination for a punch.

Appetizers should feature seasonal produce. Check online resources to see what is in season if dinner hosts do not have a garden to draw upon for produce, or visit the local farmers market for ingredients. Simple and fresh is always a foolproof way to get the dinner party started. A platter of sliced vegetables with a prepared dip (such as a locally made yogurt from the farmers market flavored with herbs and seasonings), along with crackers or toasted bread and perhaps some olives or a bowl of extra-virgin olive oil and herbs for dipping, should be plentiful for the first course.

Second Course: Entrée
With so much fresh produce available, dinner can be as easy as prepping different vegetables for roasting on a large sheet pan in the oven at 350 F. For even cooking, be sure to chop or slice washed vegetables into similar sizes. Toss baby carrots, zucchini, eggplant, various types of peppers, onions and/or baby potatoes on the large sheet pan with some extra-virgin olive oil, perhaps a little seasoned vinegar and your favorite seasonings and herbs. The vegetables will be done in about an hour or just as guests are arriving after the appetizer course.

For proteins, consider roasting a couple of chickens or a couple of smaller pork roasts at the same time as the vegetables. The key will be to roast several smaller pieces of protein rather than one large portion that will take more than an hour to cook. If you preheat the oven to 450 F. and roast a 3-pound chicken for 15 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350, you can then add the vegetables to cook at the same time as the chicken. After the initial blast of heat, a 3-pound chicken will be cooked in one hour at 350 or at 20 minutes per pound. At 350 F., a 3-pound pork loin roast will need one hour of roasting time, or 20 minutes per pound.

Braised meats or stews with vegetables, an eggplant lasagna, pasta casseroles that can be kept warm at low temperatures, even slow cooker chili can provide good options for an entrée that can be made ahead and accommodate the addition of garden-fresh produce that is in season. If a vegetarian option is needed, frittatas or quiches are both delicious and a good protein-laden entrée that can be made with spinach, mushrooms, Swiss chard or sun-ripened tomatoes.

Third and Final Course: Dessert
For a sustainable progressive dinner, focus on incorporating seasonal fruit in a dessert than can be made ahead. Fresh figs, peaches or late berries can be added to a classic clafouti batter you whip up in a blender. This easy yet classic French dessert is made with eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla and just enough flour to create a thick batter that is poured over fruit in a baking dish for a warm sliceable dessert after an hour of baking. (Check out this easy recipe below.)

If you’re not a baker, there’s always fresh fruit such as sliced peaches that can be served over ice cream. Pre-scoop the ice cream into individual portions and freeze on a tray for faster serving. If you’re up for theatrics, try your hand at flambéed peaches. To save time, pre-slice the peaches, then add to a large sauté pan where you have already cooked melted butter, brown sugar and a bit of your favorite apricot jam. Once the sugar dissolves into the melted butter, add some of your favorite brandy and take the pan off the stovetop. Aiming the pan away from yourself and others, light the liquid and watch the alcohol burn off before spooning the warm fruit and sauce on top of ice cream.

The planning for your next sustainable progressive dinner can start in earnest after the last spoonful of dessert is finished.

Web Resources:
Sparkling basil strawberry punch recipe:
www.bhg.com/recipe/sparkling-basil-lemonade/.

To check for produce that is in season: www.gotexan.org.

Make ahead entrée ideas: blog.foodnetwork.com/fndish/2016/07/8-make-ahead-summer-dinners-that-will-satisfy-all-yourcravings/.

Story and Photos by Iris Gonzalez