Say (mac and) cheese

Everyone loves mac and cheese. Well, everyone I know, anyway… It’s one of those time-tested, kid-friendly comfort foods that work for any occasion.

To celebrate the holy marriage of pasta and cheese, Return of the Mac part III took over Noblesville’s Federal Hill Commons on Saturday afternoon for several hours of feasting (the first two events took place earlier this year in Indianapolis and Bloomington). Entrance times were staggered at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., although the line already snaking down the block when I arrived around 1:45. Fortunately, things moved quickly along once they started letting folks in. A gal who was directing traffic and seemed to be in the know said 1,600 attendees were expected.

I’d brought my 9-year-old son along as my plus one, which was probably not the best idea in retrospect. He does like mac and cheese (mostly in the form of Velveeta shells), but didn’t seem to grasp the concept that this was a festival dedicated solely to the aforementioned food group. While waiting in line to get in, he kept asking me if there would be burgers, fries or ice cream. However, he did seem happy to take advantage of a photo op with the coveted “Golden Noodle” trophy.

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Once through the gate, we grabbed paper plates and forks, then it. Was. On. With more than two dozen participating restaurants vying for bragging rights, the amount of tasting to be done was somewhat intimidating. Booths lined up in one long row and the competition was fierce. Most of the vendors toward the entrance boasted longer lines — thinking we’d be smart, my kiddo and I hightailed it to the opposite end to work our way backwards. We also had the foresight to snag a pink lemonade Nicey Treat pop for my son from the cart’s strategically stationed perch on the far side.

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Mac and cheese entrants ranged from newer spots like Joella’s Hot Chicken (which I’d sampled and enjoyed at the Indianapolis Monthly Best Restaurants party a month or so ago), LouVino and Four Day Ray Brewing to beloved Hoosier haunts like MCL, Clancy’s and Arni’s. You simply approach any booth you want in any order you want and grab a little 2-oz. cup of what each has to offer. About two bites worth per sample. Recipes ranged from traditional classic to newfangled modern interpretations garnished with yummy add-ons.

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I’d purposely skipped lunch, and was glad I did. I managed to work my way through a half dozen or so samples in short shift. Note to event organizers — some sort of scoring card or passport-style brochure detailing who’s serving what would have been nice to help patrons plan their attack and keep track of what they’ve tasted. I saw quite a few folks walking by with their plates loaded up with 7, 8 or 9 samples. After a couple bites, everything started to blur together for me and I had a hard time remembering exactly what I ate and where it came from. I did NOT envy the judges for having to sample every single offering to select a winner. Great googly moogly.

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The DJed 80s music was fun (and right in my wheelhouse). The kiddo beelined straight for the giant inflatable human hamster balls. After 15 minutes or so, I reminded him that we needed to get back to the mac and cheese.

In spite of the staggered admission, the whole scene was very crowded. And, it being a hot day with temps pushing 90, my little man started whining after 30 minutes or so. The line for water and soft drinks was long, and while I would have very much enjoyed a cold Sun King beer, it wouldn’t have helped my son’s thirst situation. I wished there would have been more beverage stations and drink options on hand.

I didn’t end up being able to taste as many of the mac and cheese offerings as I would have liked, but after the fact, was excited to see that two I specifically remembered enjoying had snagged top honors — The Local Eatery’s Creole mac and cheese with blue cheese, cheddar and mozzarella topped with a couple of Cajun-spiced shrimp was the judges’ top pick, while new-kid-on-the-block LouVino won People’s Choice with a Louisville Hot Brown-inspired recipe with creamy Mornay sauce, smoked chicken, tomato relish and bacon (and as a bonus, handed out $5 coupon to visit the restaurant for brunch). District Tap’s buffalo chicken mac and cheese was on point as well…

The heat and the kiddo’s complaining got the best of us both 45 minutes in. I must mention a note on the parking situation. We’d parked in the Kroger lot across the street — as the event organizers had said we could do, but while walking back to our car, a guy driving by made a snide comment to me about taking a spot away from paying Kroger customers. I wasn’t sure how to respond nicely, so I didn’t. But I seethed about it halfway home.

I’m not sure a hot summer day provides the best conditions to load up on this kind of decadent fare. Then again, there’s never a bad time to eat mac and cheese IMO.

I will be shocked if Return of the Mac doesn’t return next year. For more information, head on over to returnofthemacfest.com.

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Digging the scene

Quick. Complete this sentence. “Life’s a…”

My standard answer is “Life’s a garden. Dig it.” But after my inaugural visit to Indiana’s premiere food festival yesterday at White River State Park, I’m changing my answer to “Life’s a garden. Dig IN.”

The roots for Dig IN date back to 2008, when an Alice Waters event at the IMA inspired local Ivy Tech instructor Thom England and local celebri-chef Neal Brown (Libertine, Pizzology, L’Explorateur) to dream up the Taste of Indiana farm-to-fork festival to promote Indiana’s Slow Food scene and its constituents. The name transitioned to Dig IN in 2009, and the rest is history.

The 2012 roster yesterday took in some 30 chefs, several dozen producers, a handful of food trucks, microbreweries, wineries, artisan vendors and live entertainment. This was one big par-TAY for foodies.

Dig In at White River State Park in full swing, Aug. 26, 2012

My pal Laura and I met up in White River State Park about an hour after go time, and I’m glad we didn’t wait any longer than that to arrive. The place was PACKED, which was awesome. So great to see so many Hoosiers embracing the local/regional food industry in all its varied forms. (Plus, I hear some vendors actually ran out of samples even before the halfway point.)

Here’s how it works: when you enter, you get a food “passport” that basically gives you the lay of the land — who’s in what tent, what they’re serving, where to find the beer and wine, food truck row, Indiana food artisans, etc. You figure out what you want to taste based on the item descriptions, or the chef’s reputation, and hop in line to score your sample. The lines were a little intimidating at first, but we were reassured to see them moving quickly, and I don’t think we had to stand anywhere for longer than a few minutes waiting for food.

Between the two of us, we made our way through nearly a dozen lines. Overall impressions, there was a lot of corn to be had here, and a lot of pork. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but made for some overlap among the offerings. Also, although there were several fruit-based soups, I didn’t see a whole lot of dessert options. Would have loved a tiny bite of cake, brownie, pie, whatever to finish things off. I suppose in retrospect I could have just stocked up on 240Sweet marshmallows and Frittle’s Candy.

Laura and I ran into quite a few people we knew wandering around, and it was fun to compare notes on what we’d tried. Got a few great recommendations that way. So here’s what we ate:

mini bison brat from 18 on the Square, Shelbyville

First up, we jumped in the 18 on the Square line for a mini bison bratwurst with handcrafted mustard and a pickled corn/squash relish. It was a nice-sized sample and a great way to kick things off. The brat had good flavor, and the relish was a tangy vinegary counterpoint to cut the richness. I don’t know anything about Chef Joseph Martin, but I’m going to put this restaurant on my radar if I’m ever down around Shelbyville.

ricotta with peach corn puree and popcorn from Zest! and Just Pop In!

A line or two over, we tried the housemade ricotta with peach and white corn puree topped with Twisted Sistaz Popcorn. This one was a team effort between Zest! Exciting Food Creations and Just Pop In!, (perhaps they joined forces because both feature exclamation marks in their names?) It pains me to say this, because I love Zest and the eatery is one of my brunch go-tos, but I did not like this dish. I’ve been wanting to try my hand at making ricotta at home, and was hoping to get some indication of how it might turn out, but I couldn’t taste it at all underneath the puree. There was also a little splash of something green (arugula?) that just didn’t do anything for me. The popcorn was good, but seemed a strange garnish, and with all the other flavors going on, I couldn’t discern the spices and curry in it.

Sun King Sunlight Cream Ale. Ahhhhh….

It being a near-90-degree day and all, we decided a cold beer was definitely in order. Options abound; you can load up on small free samples, or purchase a take-home pint glass for $6 that includes one fill (additional refills are $5 a pop). $6 for a souvenir glass and a beer is a good deal in my book. I suppose I could have tried something new, but I decided to support my buddies Clay and Dave and beelined straight to the Sun King line for a pint of Sunlight Cream Ale. You really can’t go wrong with this beer on a hot summer day.

R Bistro’s peach soup with smoked duck

Thirst quenched and ready for more food, Laura snagged a taste of chilled peach soup with a scattering of shredded duck and a radish slice on top from R Bistro and pronounced it tangy, fresh and delicious.

corn salad with pancetta from Late Harvest Kitchen

Combining the themes-of-the-day corn and pork, and doing it extremely well, Ryan Nelson and Late Harvest Kitchen offered a corn, walnut, goat cheese and pancetta salad. Fresh, crispy, creamy and flavorful. The pancetta really made this dish. Then again, bacon makes everything better if you ask me. Still can’t believe I haven’t been to eat at Late Harvest Kitchen yet. MUST get there. Soon.

Fermenti Artisan’s garden kraut with Capriole Farms cheese

Laura wanted to say hi to her friend Mark Cox at Fermenti Artisan, who served a small scoop of fermented garden kraut with Capriole Farms Old Kentucky Tomme cheese. Laura loves her some sauerkraut, and said this was an especially good one.

Oakley’s lamb adobo lettuce wrap

My personal favorite dish of the day came from Oakley’s Bistro – a lamb adobo lettuce wrap. O.M.G. was it good. The tender spicy, braised lamb with a little creamy grain underneath (still trying to figure out what this was – polenta? Cous cous?) and the fresh, crunchy lettuce was a perfect flavor/texture combination. I could have eaten several of these and called it a day. I’m ashamed to say I have never been to Oakley’s Bistro for a meal despite several strong word-of-mouth recommendations, and I must rectify this wrong. A ridiculous lapse of attention on my part.

Neal Brown rocking the scene

At this point, Laura and I took a little breather to sit down and drink some water, which brings me to another cool feature of Dig IN. The organizers and volunteers kept the free bottles of water coming the entire afternoon, dropping off cases to the entertainment tents and passing them out via golf carts. We even spied Neal Brown himself playing water boy, cruising through the crowds on his golf cart like a rock star. I’m surprised people didn’t stop him to get his autograph.

Scratchtruck’s corn panna cotta with dulce de leche

Refreshed, we took a wander up to food truck row on the bridge over the White River. I wanted to try the sweet corn panna cotta with dulce de leche from Scratchtruck. Sadly, this one let me down. It could have been much better if it had been really icy cold and much firmer in texture. As it was, the temperature was on the warmish side, and the consistency was way too loose, almost like yogurt. I didn’t care for this at all, but I’m more than willing to give Scratchtruck another shot for a burger sometime, which I hear is stellar.

My Dad’s sweet corn chowder from Circle City Soups

Husband and wife Roger and Cindy Hawkins operated their respective Circle City Soups and Circle City Sweets booths side by side, just as they do their stands in City Market. (All together now…. awwwwww.) I love these folks. I actually had the pleasure of working with Roger when I was doing some temp catering several years ago at Puck’s at the IMA, and I recently interviewed Cindy for an article in the current issue of Edible Indy, so I’m thrilled to see them both doing well. Roger is the soup master; for Dig IN, he ladled up his signature My Dad’s Sweet Corn Chowder. I don’t even want to know how much cream and butter go into this recipe, but if you’re looking for an insanely rich, delicious soup, Roger’s the man. I could take a bath in this stuff. It’s that good. If you happen to be in City Market, or catch him at a farmer’s market, do yourself a favor and pick up a pint or two.

candy trio from Circle City Sweets

Likewise, Cindy’s sweets and pastries are top shelf. For Dig IN, she served a very interesting, and perfect for the occasion, trio of candies — a peach pate de fruit that was like a melt-in-your-mouth gumdrop, a creamy French nougat studded with nuts and dried fruit, and a soft caramel so good it nearly made our eyes roll back in our heads. I’ve decided I want to take a weeklong culinary vacation at Roger and Cindy’s house, and wonder what I might need to do to get invited to their next dinner party…

cantaloupe cucumber soup with creme fraiche from Meridian

Laura wanted to keep going, but I was really hitting the wall and had to call it quits. She went on to try the cantaloupe cucumber soup with basil crème fraiche and watercress pistou from Meridian, and said it was like a light, refreshing sweet/savory smoothie; and the signature Reuben from Black Swan Brewpub, which she loved. With full tummies and happy hearts, we decided to call it a day and head home.

My only suggestion on how to improve on Dig IN would be to extend it to two days, or even a full day. I don’t know if that’s even logistically possible, but there was just too much to see and sample here to cram into a couple hours without going into total gustatory overload. I really would have liked to eat more, but after so many samples, a pint of beer and a bottle of water, my belly felt like it was going to bust. In a good way.

I loved, loved, fricking LOVED this event, and I’m already looking forward to coming back next year. I suggest you do the same.

For more information,
www.digindiana.org