Smile Politely

Farm to Fork dinner benefits the University YMCA

The University YMCA is an institution in and around the University of Illinois campus — it’s been in existence for 141 years. That’s no chump change. In recent times, it’s held an auction and dinner as a fundraiser for Y student programs that focus on social justice, environmental protection, faith in action, and global engagement. This year my husband and I attended the auction and dinner, and had a lovely time in support of a good cause.

The fundraiser was held at CityView at the Illinois Terminal, a banquet and meeting hall on the fourth floor of the Illinois Terminal. After getting off the elevator and checking in (programs, name badges in hand), I grabbed our name cards and we headed to our table. The set up was much like that of a wedding: unless you purchased an entire table for the fundraiser, you were placed at a table with people you may or may not know. Off to table 10 we went, and we joined two other couples for dinner. The view was really incredible and available from all sides of the banquet hall. Friday night was gorgeous, and downtown Champaign looks great in the light of the setting sun.

Minneci’s catered this event, with ingredients from the Arthur Food Coop, Blue Moon Farms, Kilgus Farm, and Spence Farm. Appetizers were on all of the tables, which made for an easy way of mingling and talking with the people I’d be spending most of the evening with, instead of awkwardly hovering over a buffet table and shoving bites into my mouth. The appetizers consisted of pickled vegetables, deviled eggs, cheese, and crackers. The pickled veggies included beans, beets, thinly sliced zucchini, okra, mushrooms, and peppers. They were all lightly pickled, retaining the inherent flavors of each vegetable while still tickling the taste buds with vinegary goodness. With a bit of thinly sliced cheese and a water cracker or two, this made for a light, bright way to start the evening.

Between nibbles on the appetizers, I went over to the bar to get a glass of the highly anticipated (by me, at least) Honey Basil Blonde, specially made for the event by Triptych Brewing from Campbell Apiaries honey and Green Pantry Nursery basil. It was wonderful. The brew was smooth and sweet, with a basil finish. The folks at Triptych described it as having a “spicy, earthy, herbal nose, [and] full, malty flavor with toasty notes punctuated with a dry, basil finish.” It was incredibly drinkable, and paired well with the meal, as it picked up on the earthiness of the soup and entrées as well as the sweetness of the dessert. The Triptych cream and rye pale ales were also available (and they are also delicious).

The first course was soup: fresh watercress, potato, and onion. This richly green, warm, pureed soup was topped with a water cracker and piped sour cream. At first taste it was salty and bitter, but then revealed a gritty potato texture and earthy flavor. The onion was pretty mild; the dominant flavor was definitely that of the watercress.

Following the wrap up of several of the silent auction items, the entrées were brought out to the tables. The entrée was vegetable or lamb ragout over pappardelle pasta. (Upon reserving tickets, guests were given a choice of meat or vegetarian; I chose vegetarian, and my husband chose meat, so I was able to try both options.) In both cases, the pasta was placed on the plate and topped with the ragout, and both meat and vegetarian portions were extremely generous.

The vegetable ragout was tomato based and from what I could tell from the small dice on the vegetables, contained carrots, parsnips, and mushrooms. The sauce was salty, but mild in most other flavors. The amount of root vegetables in the ragout made it pretty earthy. The pasta was perfectly cooked and as a whole the dish was quite tasty. There was a little bit of cheese on top—it was a salty semi-hard cheese like ricotta salata—and I wanted more of it. The portion was huge, and it felt like a considered vegetarian option, not just a few pieces of lettuce and a sliver of mushroom.

The lamb ragout atop the pappardelle was a heaping portion; they were not messing around with the portion sizes. The ragout was moist, but not soupy. There were veggies mixed in and it seemed as if the lamb had been cooked separately from the vegetable ragout and then mixed together to create the meat entrée. The lamb wasn’t gamey, and if I didn’t know it was lamb, I wouldn’t have necessarily known or guessed it. Both entrées could have used a bit more salt, particularly in the pasta, but that didn’t seem to stop me or other people from clearing our plates.

The dessert course was my favorite. (I’m predictable, I know.) The honey cake was a moist layer cake with a whipped cream frosting; finely chopped almonds dusted the top and side of the cake. It was also served with a thick cherry sauce on the side, but it was artificial in taste and unnecessary, as the cake was awesome on its own. The cake was not only incredibly moist but also delightfully sweet. It was as if the cake has been soaked in a honey syrup prior to frosting. Even though it was undeniably sweet, it wasn’t in any way artificial or super saccharine. The almonds contributed a nice richness, and with the light, creamy whipped cream, the cake was well balanced in dessert flavors and simply awesome. I wanted to eat more than one piece.

In between courses, there were opportunities to purchase raffle tickets, make bids on the silent auction items, and once dinner was underway, different people took to the podium to celebrate the YMCA and its programs, and the work of Betty Earle, Director of Operations who will retire from the YMCA after more than two decades. Everyone I encountered, from the youthful to the seasoned, was having a good time. Bellies were filled and wallets were emptied, and it seemed that everyone benefited on Friday night.

Visit the University YMCA website for more information about its programs. 

All photos by the author. 

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