Make your own version of Sacramento’s Bridge Dinner

In a preview of the 2015 Farm-to-Fork Gala Dinner, platters of the featured courses are lined up on a banquet table at the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento.
In a preview of the 2015 Farm-to-Fork Gala Dinner, platters of the featured courses are lined up on a banquet table at the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento.

Missed out on a ticket for the Bridge Dinner? You still can sample the same flavors of the Sacramento region if you’re willing to do your own kitchen work.

At Sept. 27’s third annual Farm-to-Fork Gala Dinner on the roadway of the Tower Bridge, 740 guests will dine on the bounty of the Valley, prepared by a dozen top restaurant chefs and their crews. Tickets, priced at $175 each, sold out in seconds for this culmination of Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Festival.

The evening’s menu includes twists on familiar favorites such as beef ragu and mesquite grilled chicken. But every course features a special touch, “something that makes you go, ‘Wow!’ ” said Oliver Ridgeway of The Grange.

Ridgeway and chef Ravin Patel of Selland Family Restaurants lead the gala’s culinary all-star team, which will man six “hot” stations atop the bridge. As much as possible, ingredients will be prepped in advance, then the dishes will be finished on site.

“You’re basically cooking on a freeway suspended above water,” Ridgeway said. “It’s not going to be easy.”

The home cook doesn’t face that same challenge while trying to approximate some of these dishes.

“Overall, this is family-style food that you might do for your family at home,” Ridgeway said. “The difference is in technique and method, and you’re cooking for 740 people.”

Don’t expect to totally replicate the Bridge Dinner in your kitchen.

“Some things, such as the charcuterie by Brock MacDonald, were started three months ago,” Patel said. “We’ve been working on this meal for quite a while.”

To serve so many people in such an unusual setting, the Bridge Dinner crew will pull from their culinary toolboxes an assortment of tricks that home cooks rarely use in their own kitchens.

“That’s what separates the home cook from the professional – technique and method,” Patel said. “We know the techniques to bring out the best.”

For example, the mesquite grilled chicken will arrive at the bridge fully cooked, a la sous vide. Vacuum-packed in airtight plastic bags, the chicken is precooked in water, sealing in juices and moisture.

“That gives us security that every piece will be moist,” Ridgeway said. “On the bridge, the chicken will be grilled just long enough to get a nice charred flavor, then served over fresh succotash.”

But that’s not the way Ridgeway cooks chicken at home.

“In the home environment, I personally barbecue,” he said.

This is his favorite method: “Get your grill hot but not too hot; clean the grate. Rub the chicken’s skin with (olive) oil, salt and pepper. Grill it until you get nice grate marks on it, then flip it. Reduce the heat a little bit, close the lid and let it slow cook. It comes out so moist, not dry.”

If using a gas grill, use indirect heat, moving the chicken away from direct flame.

“If doing a half-chicken, leave it on 30 minutes; one hour for a whole chicken or a little more, depending on the size of the bird,” Ridgeway said. “You can also add fresh lemon and garlic to the seasoning, but I like to keep it simple. Personally, I’m loving a combination of lime juice, olive oil and honey with a little salt and pepper; that’s what I do at home.”

Remember to let it rest, Patel added. “That’s another 10 minutes, but it makes a huge difference. It keeps the chicken moist.”

The Bridge Dinner team has been working since spring with local farmers and producers to create this meal.

“To start, we looked at the history of whatever has already been on the menu for the Bridge Dinner,” Ridgeway explained. “We didn’t want to repeat anything.

“Then, we looked at what farmers in our area would have in season,” he added. “We started this process four months ago, way before these crops are ready for harvest, but we had to identify what would be at its best.”

“Seasonality is very important,” Patel said. “If we did this dinner in mid-July, it would be easy – corn and tomatoes. But late September is a shoulder season; it’s not quite fall but it’s in the air. There are still some summer vegetables but they may not be at their best, and the fall produce may not be quite ready. It was a big challenge to overcome.”

For the biggest “wow” dish, Ridgeway and Patel decided early on to make “sturgeon pastrami,” a brined and smoked fish course that undoubtedly will be the talk of the bridge’s elongated tables. It will be served with crunchy chicharrones made from the sturgeon skin, along with pickled heirloom beets and red endive.

“When we were putting together this menu, we called up Michael (Passmore of Passmore Ranch) and ordered 160 pounds of fresh sturgeon right away,” Patel said.

Sturgeon pastrami has been a favorite of Passmore as well as the chefs. It showcases a firm white fish native to the Sacramento River that flows under the Tower Bridge, but these sturgeon were produced sustainably at his Sloughhouse farm.

“About two years ago, we hosted an informal sturgeon pastrami competition with a group of local (chefs),” Passmore recalled. “Each put their individual spin on it. The results were amazing. The difference in texture, seasoning, aging and smoking; that was fascinating to me. They used the same basic process and ingredients, but came up with much different results.”

“This is the kind of food we love to eat,” Patel said. “We brined the sturgeon for three to four days in the refrigerator, gave it a dry rub, then cold-smoked it for three hours; just enough to get the flavor but not manipulate the texture of the fish.”

Ridgeway and Patel encouraged their chef team to blend the flavors of fall into their creations. The autumn squash panzanella salad does that perfectly.

In addition to bread sourced from local bakeries, this twist on the Italian bread salad uses hand-made tortellini by Hook & Ladder pasta maker Vinny Lazzaretto, who recently launched Lazzaretto Pasta Co. As a nod to autumn, the whole-grain tortellini will be stuffed with apple and Camembert cheese.

“The tortellini acts as bread as well,” Ridgeway said. “Like the whole menu, it’s a play on a classic with a twist. The salad also reflects the changing season. There’s apple in the tortellini and apple cider in the vinaigrette. The acorn squash is simple; it’s roasted with maple syrup. Maple syrup is also in the vinaigrette. It’s really a fall dish, and delicious.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

2015 Farm-to-Fork Gala Dinner

Here’s the menu that will be served family style on the Tower Bridge on Sunday, Sept. 27.

Pre-set course: Charcuterie and cheese, served with fruit, walnuts, preserves, house mustard and olives

First course: Autumn squash panzanella, featuring apple and Camembert-stuffed whole-grain tortellini, bacon and maple-roasted acorn squash served over bitter greens with maple cider vinaigrette

Second course: Sturgeon pastrami, served with heirloom pickled beets, endive, potatoes, rye berries, pickles and sturgeon skin chicharrones

Third course: Mesquite grilled chicken, served with sweet corn succotash, summer beans, duck confit and corn shoots

Third course: Grass-fed beef ragu, served over crispy polenta with cherry tomatoes, shaved fennel salad and fresh herbs; served concurrently with the chicken.

Dessert: An array of spectacular treats from several local pastry makers and bakeries, served at dessert stations.

Autumn squash panzanella

For the Bridge Dinner, this Italian bread salad gets an autumn twist with the use of maple-roasted acorn squash and whole-grain tortellini stuffed with apple and Camembert cheese. For this home-style version, substitute pre-made cheese tortellini.

1 acorn squash, halved and seeded

4 tablespoons maple syrup

One 9-ounce package cheese-stuffed tortellini

1/4 pound slab bacon, cut into lardons or small cubes

2 cups French bread, cut into 1-inch cubes

1/2 red onion, thinly sliced

3 cups mixed bitter greens (arugula, baby kale, beet tops, baby chard, rapini, malabar spinach, frisee, baby mustard, etc.)

For the vinaigrette:

3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup good olive oil

2 tablespoons maple syrup

2 tablespoons whole-grain mustard

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place acorn squash halves, cut side up, on a baking dish. Put 2 tablespoons maple syrup in each half. Roast for 45 minutes or until fork-tender. Remove from oven and let cool. If desired, remove skin. Cut squash into chunks. Set aside.

Prepare tortellini according to package instructions. Set aside to cool.

In a large sauté pan, fry bacon until browned and slightly crispy, but not overdone; set aside while reserving the fat.

In the same pan with the rendered bacon fat, add bread cubes and cook over low to medium heat, tossing occasionally, until nicely browned. Remove from heat.

For the vinaigrette, whisk together all ingredients.

In a large salad bowl, mix greens, onion, tortellini, squash and bread cubes. Add vinaigrette and toss. Salad can be served immediately or allowed to sit 30 minutes to blend flavors.

Serves 6 to 8

Sacramento succotash

This fall favorite traces back centuries to American Indian tribes. But for the Bridge Dinner, it gets a fresh California twist.

3 tablespoons butter

1 clove garlic, chopped

1/2 onion, diced

1 sweet red pepper, seeded and diced

3 ears of fresh sweet corn; remove kernels from cobs

1 cup fresh shelling beans (such as baby limas), shelled

1 cup fresh runner beans, stringed and cut into 1-inch lengths

2 tomatoes, cored and chopped

1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped

1 teaspoon fresh oregano, chopped

Salt and black pepper to taste

In a large skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion, garlic and red pepper and sauté for about 2 minutes, until onion softens. Stir in corn and beans; sauté 2 minutes more. Stir in tomatoes. Cover, turn heat down to simmer, and let cook about 3 or 4 more minutes, or until beans are tender. Add basil and oregano, then salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.

Serves 6 to 8

Beef ragu

For the Bridge Dinner, both beef brisket and shoulder roast will be used, with different cooking techniques for each. At home, stick with the flavorful shoulder roast. On the bridge, the ragu will be served over wedges of crispy firm polenta and topped with shaved fennel salad.

1 shoulder beef roast, about 3 pounds

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 medium onion, chopped

1 large carrot, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 cups red wine

2 sprigs fresh rosemary

2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

Rub roast all over with salt and pepper. In a large Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add roast and brown on all sides, about 6 minutes.

Remove roast from pot and set aside. Add celery, onion, carrot and garlic to pot; add more oil if necessary. Over medium heat, sauté vegetables until softened, about 5 minutes. Add wine. Cook 2 minutes, stirring to pick up browned bits at bottom of pot.

Return roast to the pot. Add rosemary. Cover and let simmer until meat is very tender, about 3 hours.

Remove meat to cutting board. Skim and discard fat from cooking liquid. Stir in tomatoes and parsley. Cook for a few minutes more, but not so much that the tomatoes start to fall apart. Cut meat into chunks, discarding any chunks of fat. Return meat to liquid. Adjust seasoning.

Serve over wedges of crispy firm polenta. Top with shaved fennel salad.

Serves 6 to 8

Firm polenta

The key to good polenta is patience. This part of the dinner can be made ahead.

2 cups water

1 cup milk (whole preferred)

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup polenta (medium to coarse cornmeal)


In a medium heavy saucepan, bring water and milk to boil. Add salt. Slowly add polenta, stirring with a whisk or wooden spoon. Keep stirring for 2 to 3 minutes as the mixture starts to thicken.

Turn down the heat to very low and let the polenta simmer, stirring every 10 minutes, until the cornmeal is fully cooked; this can take 45 minutes. Add a little more water if necessary to keep polenta soft enough to stir. Taste the polenta; it should taste like sweet cooked corn, not raw.

Lightly butter (or line with parchment paper) a shallow 9-by-9-inch dish or baking sheet. Carefully pour polenta into prepared dish. With a spatula, spread the polenta so it forms a single layer about 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick. Cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight. (It will keep in the refrigerator for up to three days.)

When ready to serve, heat oven to 500 degrees. Cut polenta into triangles or thick fingers. Place on lightly greased baking sheet. Bake in oven until lightly browned, about 6 minutes. Or for a crispier crust, fry wedges in butter or olive oil until lightly browned.

Serves 6 to 8

Shaved fennel salad

1 fennel bulb (about 8 ounces)

3 shallots, finely sliced

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

Salt and black pepper to taste

Cut the fennel lengthwise in half. Remove stalks and leaves. Trim the base. Discard the tough center core. With a mandolin slicer, shave the fennel very thin. (Or use a sharp knife to make very thin slices.) Soak shaved fennel in cold water for about 5 minutes.

Drain the fennel and place in a bowl. Add shallots. Whisk together lime juice, olive oil, red pepper flakes, parsley, salt and pepper. Add to fennel and shallots; toss and chill before serving.

Serves 6 to 8

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