It’s Better with Butter

My Favorite Fat

Butter had been removed from the list of Worst Dietary Offenders some time ago. I’d certainly done my time in the Low Fat Prison System. But much research since then indicates the benefits of fat (and yes, your body needs fat) as part of healthy diet. But as much as I love a good olive oil, it doesn’t hold a candle to my favorite fat—good, delicious butter! That’s great, because I certainly missed it!

When I talk of butter, though, I DON’T talk of mass-produced varieties, the kind sold in your supermarkets and trumpeted as a loss leader during holiday baking season (which, by the way, is rapidly approaching!) No, I’m talking about creamy, high butterfat varieties, preferably cultured. Indeed, favorites of mine include Organic Valley’s Cultured Butter or their Pasture Butter, though the latter isn’t cultured. Well yesterday I made an acquaintance with Tulip Tree Creamery’s Cultured Butter with Sea Salt. Suffice to say, I am in major Flyover Foodie crush mode!

Because Everybody Needs a Little Culture!

So, what exactly IS cultured butter? No, it doesn’t mean that the tub has a subscription to the symphony and reads literary classics. Rather, it’s butter to which some cultures (like the cultures one finds in yogurt) have been added, either naturally from the bacteria present or from an external source. Cultured butter, common in parts of Europe but not in the United States, has a slight tang to it, courtesy of those flavor-enhancing cultures. Your standard supermarket butter isn’t going to have this.

A most delicious buttery experience awaits the person who removes this lid!
A most delicious buttery experience awaits the person who removes this lid!

Enter Tulip Tree Creamery’s Butter

Tulip Tree Creamery, located in Indianapolis, is a relative newcomer to Indiana’s cheese landscape, having been established in 2014. But don’t assume that this “baby” is a baby! Tulip Tree Creamery is the brainchild of Fons Smits, whose cheese pedigree includes Cowgirl Creamery (Point Reyes Station, CA), Trader’s Point (Zionsville, IN), and Ludwig Creamery (Fithian, IL). The charming Mr. Smits, whom I was fortunate enough to meet, took time to answer my questions. At some point in the future, I’ll write a full blog post about Tulip Tree, though given my current schedule, I can’t say when that will be!

So, the butter. Tulip Tree is not a farm, but they source their milk (and the attendant cream) from a family farm located about 50 or so miles south in Seymour, Indiana. This farm refrains from using antibiotics or growth hormones. The butter produced by Tulip Tree is an artisanal product, traditionally crafted. The butter, besides being marvelously delicious, is truly a seasonal product, an exceptional expression of the cows’ diets. During the milder seasons, the milk reflects a diet of pasture greens. The cream in this luscious product is enhanced by the addition of sea salt, generating butter that is especially addictive. Yes, I can eat this plain!

And Eating the Butter?

Well, I haven’t gotten beyond eating the bread on butter (plain or with a slice of Tulip Tree’s beer cheese). Okay, I lied—I have also licked it off the knife! Anyway, I think this is a butter that is best enjoyed simply, with bread or perhaps garnishing some steamed broccoli or asparagus. I think it would be a shame to use this in a way that would mask the rich flavor of this butter.

Readers, you owe it to yourself to try Tulip Tree Creamery’s Cultured Butter!

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Down on Main Street (with apologies to Flyoverian Bob Seger)

Diner Culture

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Okay, diners aren’t unique to the Midwest and Plains. Indeed, diners were a staple eating destination when I lived on the East Coast. Additionally, some famous diners can be found on the West Coast (e.g. Rae’s Restaurant). So it appears that The Diner is an integral part of American culinary culture.

What Is It About Diners Anyway?

Simply stated, it’s the food. Honest, unpretentious, leveling-of-the-playing-field food. Eggs, bacon, biscuits, sausage, pancakes, coffee—the great equalizers. There isn’t any need to impress or up the ante with fermented artichoke reductions or hand-crafted miniature watercress-and-olive latkes, to say nothing of the odd foams found on the menus of molecular gastronomy eateries. No, the diner—which clearly has a solid foothold in the hearts of Americans—may well be one of the most endearing (and enduring) landmarks on the American gastronomic landscape. People from all walks of life can find themselves seated in the booths or counter stools at a beloved local diner.

Maybe the “Local” is the Key?

To me (and I’m the arbiter of Midwestern culinary geography on this blog!), a good diner needs to be part of a local community. And to me (again!) it needs to be independent. Yes, IHOP has its place—I eat their Harvest Grain and Nut pancakes, loaded with syrup but no butter, the night before running a half-marathon almost as a religious rite, a conjuring of the gods so that I can finish the race. But IHOP still has the chain restaurant feel. It may be IN a community, but it is not OF the community. The profits go to wherever IHOP (or Denny’s or Waffle House) is headquartered. But the money generated by a beloved local place? Well, that STAYS local!

Main Street Diner in Richmond Indiana

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I recently had a late breakfast at the Main Street Diner in Richmond, Indiana, the county seat of Wayne County. This charming restaurant is small in size and big in delight. There’s a definite retro vibe, with old-fashioned counter stools and comfortable booths. Exposed brick walls and a fifties-look clock (Coffee!) add to the nostalgic feel. In short, I had landed in True Dinerland. I felt welcome in this independent eatery from the time I stepped inside.

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Well, the service was friendly. Our waiter took our drink orders and gave us time and space to peruse the menu which, while not extensive, covers all the basics one knows and loves about breakfast; they serve lunch as well (the place is open from 7:00 AM to 2:00 PM), but since my dining companion and I were there at 10:00, it was breakfast food for us. The service was pleasant and attentive, without being overly solicitous or hovering. We placed our orders and waited for it to be prepared (and yes, you might wait a little because this is fresh, not from some SYSCO cartons in a freezer).

I’d read some reviews online and, being a pancakes person, ordered the sweet potato pancakes with a side order of bacon (crispy!) My dining companion ordered the special—eggs, hash browns, biscuit and gravy, and bacon. When the food arrived, I was first surprised by how substantial the portions were! The bacon arrived crispy, just as I’d requested. The sweet potato pancakes—a stack of three—were flecked with actual, identifiable bits of sweet potatoes. The pancakes were also quite thick, almost double the thickness of the ones I’d get at IHOP. Because pancakes need syrup (and I sometimes refer to them as syrup reservoirs) , the Main Street Diner supplied the syrup in a small ceramic pitcher set alongside the plate with the pancakes and bacon. I found it to be a really nice touch. The pancakes were subtly spiced, which complemented the sweet potato while not masking its flavor. The bacon was a deliciously salty, fatty counterpart to the carbohydrate-rich hotcakes. I was certainly satisfied with my meal and I will definitely be making a return trip (btw, Muncie, where I live, is about an hour’s drive north of Richmond).

Sorry about the blurriness of the picture--I thought I took a couple of shots,but apparently I did not. Suffice it to say that I am not the best photographer, at least not when using my phone! But the breakfast was divine!
Sorry about the blurriness of the picture–I thought I took a couple of shots,but apparently I did not. Suffice it to say that I am not the best photographer, at least not when using my phone! But the breakfast was divine!

Coming Full Circle

I do love diners (and one of these days I’ll write a blog post about the Bluebird Diner in Iowa City, a place where I’ve enjoyed eating breakfast as well.) Truly independent, locally owned and operated places have a special place in my heart. They add to the fabric of a community in a way that your IHOPs and Cracker Barrels and Denny’s(s) don’t (and because of the corporate structure, CAN’T). I’ll end this blog post with a plea: If you find a local place that you love (and yeah, it can be a type of restaurant other than a diner), please support it. These eateries can’t compete with the economies of scale that the corporate giants do, but they take pride in what they make and serve, with the end result being markedly better tasting and fresher food than the industrial behemoths. So yes, Support Your Local Diner!

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And The Rains Continue

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I had a delightful visit from my parents, so this week’s post is short. But they witnessed what may well be one of the wettest Junes I’ve experienced since moving to Indiana. These images sum up what they saw of Indiana this time around.

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The Vagaries of Weather and the Farmer

Water, Water Everywhere

The sunflowers (first of the season purchased at the farmers market Saturday morning) sit brightly on my kitchen island, reminding me of that orb so little seen lately. Yes, the sun has been peeking out a bit today, but solar radiation has certainly been in short supply this past month. For me, the lack of sun affects me more psychically—too much of the same make Petra an irritated (and perhaps irritating) girl. It isn’t that I dislike rain; in fact, I enjoy hearing thunder or listening to a steady soaking rain falling on my roof. But not for days at a time. That said, my complaints are just that, silly complaints. For a farmer, whose livelihood depends on the weather, days of rain can make or break one’s year financially.

I write this on the first day of summer, 2015. The solstice officially occurred at 12:39 PM EDT (16:39 UTC). Earlier today, I drove down to Indianapolis and was struck—almost stunned—by the amount of standing water I saw in the fields. Traveling the interstate in Indiana means traveling alongside farm fields (and, being Indiana, those would be fields of corn, soybeans, and maybe winter wheat). Every field was partly covered with water. In March or April or even the first half of May, it is not unusual to see field with vernal ponds, those temporary mini-lakes occurring where the water table is high. But by the start of (astronomical) summer, they are usually gone. The longer days and warmer temperatures allow for a greater ability for evaporation (or transpiration, which is the process of water returned to the atmosphere in vapor form via plants). What’s different now is that the ponding is occurring to a greater extent than even that of the spring. I know—I have a field behind my house and can see the water in spots. And what else is different is how many fields have NOT been planted.

The Planting

It’s June 21. By now, the farmers should have planted their fields. But conditions this month have been so wet that many fields haven’t even been touched. Acres that should have corn or soybeans growing haven’t been touched and still have last year’s harvest detritus littering the ground. Planting was already behind schedule back at the beginning of May (which was, in retrospect, a fairly dry month); Now this soggy, sodden June has rendered planting even farther behind. And once the summer begins, it may be too late. It’s not just planting, either. Conventional farmers may find conditions too wet to apply fertilizer. Agricultural experts at Purdue University suggest that Hoosier farmers prepare for crop losses due to the flooding.

What’s the Problem with Standing Water?

Plant survival, that’s the problem. Roots cannot survive in saturated soils for very long. Crops planted earlier have (by now) developed stronger and deeper root systems; they will be likelier to survive this flood onslaught. But recently planted corn and soy may be more vulnerable. That comes with the risk, then, of nothing to harvest. And, come fall, no crops means no money.

Nearby field. This one is actually in pretty good shape.
Nearby field. This one is actually in pretty good shape compared to some I’ve seen.

Whither California?

Yes, pun intended. California’s exception drought is getting most of the attention these days. And it rightly should be of concern to us, not just Californians, but the rest of the United States. California does serves as the fruit and vegetable and nut basket—no pun intended—of the country. The recent climatology, coupled with social and political decisions, has culminated in a mess. A big mess.

But, as the case of Indiana shows, too much rain can also be detrimental. I talked with a lamb farmer at the market on Saturday and she told me that her soybean fields were underwater; the lamb pasture is full of water, too,. Another farmer, one who grows organic fruits and vegetables, was bemoaning the plethora of storms that just keep coming and coming and coming. Farmers, as my great-uncle was fond of saying, are the greatest gamblers on the earth. They gamble with the weather.

Counting Blessings and Counting Luck

I’m grateful that my livelihood isn’t so dependent on the chaotic nature of the atmosphere. And hopefully yours isn’t either. In that case (if you are religious), count your blessings; if not religious, count your luck. Maybe I pay for this with some higher prices at the market or with some down moods because I haven’t seen the sun in some time or the occasional flooded roads in my subdivision. But overall, I’m grateful that my concerns with the weather are so small. Farmers aren’t nearly so lucky.

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A Memorial Day Grill Fest: Grilled Lamb Kebabs with Turkish Spices

The Unofficial Start to Summer

Across the country, not just the Flyover States, Memorial Day serves as the unofficial start to the summer season. Pools open and cookouts beckon. The grills get fired up (and yes, I too plan to partake of this). In that spirit, I am sharing with you a recipe I’ll be grilling today: Lamb Kebabs with Turkish Spices. But before I do that, I want to take a look at Memorial Day, the holiday, the one without the potato salad and 40%-off sales

From Whence It Came: Decoration Day

Memorial Day got its start as Decoration Day back in the mid-1800s (May 30, 1868, to be exact). It was designed to commemorate the war dead—people were asked to decorate the graves of soldiers who’d perished in the Civil War, which ended in 1865. Approximately 20 years later, the name changed to Memorial Day, but the commemoration remained the same.

In the ensuing years, Memorial Day, which was once celebrated on May 30 but is now the last Monday in May, became associated more with the start of summer fun than a way to honor those who lost their lives in conflict. While I see nothing wrong with enjoying friends and family, I do believe it is important to remember the real reason for the holiday—a way to recall those who made the ultimate sacrifice. So, sometime this weekend, think of them, whether at a service or just a silent pause.

Grilling—The Warm-Weather Cooking Technique Returns

Okay, I haven’t fired up the grill since October, but with warm, summertime temperatures having arrived, it’s time to break out the charcoal (yes, I’m a purist—no gas for this girl!) and start generating that live-fire mojo. One of my favorite things to grill is local lamb, in this case lamb from Russell Sheep Company of Eaton, Indiana. Diane Russell’s smiling face is one of my favorite sights on my weekly trip to Minnetrista Farmer’s Market Saturday mornings. Her lamb is delicious and it’s local! I’ll write about Russell Sheep Company some other time, so you’ll learn all about it. But one form of lamb she sells is kebab meat, which I use for the kebabs (and I’ve also used it for stews and curries). And to round out my menu today, I’ll grill some local asparagus as an accompaniment.

Lamb Kebabs with Turkish Spices

Serves 4

What You’ll Need

  • measuring spoons
  • cutting board
  • sharp knife
  • bowl
  • garlic press (optional)
  • plastic wrap
  • skewers

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. lamb leg or shoulder meat, cut into 1-in pieces
  • 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tsp dried thyme (or 1 Tbsp fresh)
  • ¼ tsp sweet paprika
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper (omit if you don’t like spicy food)
  • 1/8 tsp ground allspice
  • 1/8 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/8 tsp ground cumin
  • 1-2 tsp ground sumac
  • 1-2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Pepper to taste

How To Make the Kebabs

Sorry, no pictures this time! I’ll add one after I grill them!

  1. In a bowl combine all ingredients except lamb. Taste for salt/pepper (add more if necessary)
  2. Pat lamb cubes dry and add to mixture in bowl. Toss to combine. Cover and place in refrigerator for about 4 hours
  3. Start a hot charcoal fire (direct high fire)—I said I was a charcoal purist!
  4. After coals have been started but before they are ready for grilling, remove lamb and thread onto 4 skewers (the flatter kind are best). When grill is ready, place skewers on grill and cook until a little charred (about 5-10 minutes). Turn occasionally to make sure that all sides get cooked
  5. Serve immediately.

And They Were Delicious!

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Edited this post to show everyone my Memorial Day dinner!
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