Rodale Catering recently hosted their first pop-up dinner at the picturesque Working Tree Center, a venue owned and operated by the Rodale company. We were invited along for the ride.
This was not a dinner that was off-the-walls creative by any means, but that certainly didn’t detract from it. Rodale’s team created dishes that were (generally) simplistic in nature and allowed the individual flavors of fresh, organic produce and ingredients to shine through. The evening began in the garden, outside of the historical home of J.I. Rodale. The same garden where, many years before, organic gardening as it is known today first began.
A more perfect evening could not have been wished for. A not-too-warm but not-too-cool temperature greeted guests and lingered until the last minutes of the dinner. Prior to the main courses guests enjoyed Bluecoat gin cucumber gimlets as well as passed hors d’oeuvres. Chilled tomato water, fried squash blossoms with a lavender ricotta gougeres, and crawfish deviled eggs. The squash blossoms were a favorite, coming out light and airy and delivering a big hit of fresh lavender. A watermelon lemonade being served was perhaps as seasonally relevant and tasty as you can fit in a glass.
Prior to the main dinner Maria Rodale, the CEO and Chairman of Rodale, said a few words about the dinner, Chef Leah Nichols, and organic gardening. She noted that for years the Rodale family has enjoyed the food created by Nichols and finally decided they wanted the rest of the Lehigh Valley to experience her culinary talents, and thus Rodale Catering was born.
The first course was a light one with house cured wild Sockeye salmon from Alaska piled with pickled sweet corn and fava bean tendrils. The salmon was immense in flavor and velvety in texture, which played well with the little bite from the pickled corn. Next up was the most inventive and experimental dish of the night, a chilled cucumber soup with candied fennel and a lemon gelee drop.
The soup, a yogurt-based concoction, wouldn’t have been very interesting by itself. First the fennel and lemon gelee were added to a bowl and the cucumber soup was poured over the two. The soup took a supporting role, with the pungent and sweet fennel countering the tart citrus from the lemon. When the fennel and lemon gelee were all gone, all that was left was the delicate soup to neutralize and clean the palate for the next courses.
The main dinner was a communal experience, with tables passing around entrees family-style. The tables soon filled up with a variety of dishes that were fresh takes on things you’d find in home cooked meals. Roasted beets with mint reminded me of the canned beets my mom would try to pair with damn near anything. The difference was these were bright, both in color and taste, and the accent of mint gave the beets a soothing summery vibe. Much better (and fresher; the beets came from Echo Valley Organics in Oxford) than mom’s beets, indeed.
A white bean and collard green gratin was reminiscent of something you might find while dining at a mom and pop restaurant in the South. Rows of sea scallops sandwiched a smattering of sugar snap peas and carrots. There was grilled poussin, doused in rosemary and garlic. The garlic didn’t some through so much as the rosemary, whose evergreen qualities always evoke thoughts of fall, Christmas, and winter memories to come which seemed like a distant future from the beautiful weather Rodale lucked out with.
An interesting pairing occurred with mint-sprinkled watermelon atop a juicy skirt steak. The rich flavor of that particular cut of steak melded with the mild flavors of a red onion relish and the watermelon. The best, though, was saved for last.
The desserts were spectacular in every way. They showcased the fresh ingredients used in them and ended the evening with a bevy of clear, uncomplicated flavors that was refreshing. Strawberry cheesecake with balsamic-roasted strawberries seemed aerated and unlike the heavy New York version most think of when they hear “cheesecake.” A chocolat pot de crème came off as very bare, but displayed an odd spiciness to it. Was that cayenne pepper? No, it was fresh ginger, according to Chef Nichols. Quite the interesting twist on a French classic. The blueberry granita that was served made things like Rita’s look like a joke. And finally, pistachio lime cookies delivered the last punch of flavor. The lime taste was so intense it was like Joe Frazier was wearing lime boxing gloves and knocked you right in the tongue.
It was quite a relaxed, fun meal at Rodale. The outdoor dining patio was spacious and surprisingly devoid of bugs throughout the night. The grounds of the Working Tree Center are very pretty and the crew says they’re working towards having a few more events there as the public hasn’t had many opportunities to see the grounds. A tour of J.I. Rodale’s house offered a rare peak into the beautifully kept house where organics were born. Check out some of the photos below, you can see some amazing NYC-inspired wallpaper that looks like it should be in the upcoming Gatsby movie and Rodale’s original library and study.
If this all sounds interesting to you and you happened to miss the pop-up dinner at the Working Tree Center, fret not. Rodale Catering is planning on hosting an al fresco pop-up brunch on September 16th. We’ll keep you updated as more info becomes available.
Place settings prior to the dinner
Fresh veggie platter
Crawfish deviled eggs
Sea scallops in the kitchen
What appeared to be a beet spread and hummus
Watermelon lemonade and black tea
Maria Rodale speaking to guests prior to the dinner
House-cured wild Sockeye salmon with pickled sweet corn and fava bean salad
Chilled cucumber-yogurt soup with candied fennel and lemon gelee
Chef Leah Nichols speaking with guests between courses
Marinated roasted beets with mint
Sea scallops with sugar snap peas and tendrils
Green bean salad with mustard seed an taragon
Skirt steak with watermelon
A plate full of the entrees
Grilled poussin with rosemary and garlic
Diners during the event
Pistachio Lime Cookies
Chocolat put de creme
Finishing out the evening
Inside the J.I. Rodale house
J.I. Rodale’s study
The room with the awesome wallpaper
Disclosure: We were guests of Rodale Catering for this event and the meal was complimentary.