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

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One hot Mama

I was recently asked for the 18th time, “ Have you been to the new Mama Carolla’s breakfast place yet?” And up until this morning, the answer had always been no. By a happy accident, I have now been initiated.

My friend Katie and I had planned to meet at Zest at 9:30 this morning to partake of the signature crème brulee French toast and copious amounts of coffee, but when I pulled into the suspiciously empty parking lot, I knew something had gone awry. The sign on the door said it didn’t open until 10 a.m. Huh? A breakfast/lunch/brunch café? Seems to me they’re missing out on some primetime morning traffic, but whatever.

With two small daughters in tow, I knew Katie wouldn’t be able to wait out another half an hour before getting food, so a change of plan steered us in the direction of Taste instead. Until I remembered Good Morning Mama’s as I passed it on 54th St. going west.

An offshoot of the ever-popular Mama Carolla’s Italian restaurant just half a block away, Good Morning Mama’s opened last November and has been enjoying a steady word-of-mouth buzz ever since.

To say this place is shiny and happy is an understatement. It’s sort of a cross between a kitschy 1950s-style diner (complete with jukebox) and Oz, painted in cheery yellow with blue trim. It’s almost too cheery. Like, if you were hungover, headachy and nauseated, it might be a little more than you could handle. Bluebirds appear to be the Good Morning Mama’s mascot; they’re painted on the exterior and flying across banners hanging from the ceiling. I half-expected Snow White to float out of the kitchen to take our order. (No disrespect to our server Barb, who was very friendly and efficient.)

This is not to say the owners don’t have a sense of humor – there is a poster of Michelangelo’s David sculpture on one wall, advertising “sausage sandwiches” by way of a very strategically placed ribbon. Another tongue-in-cheek poster promotes meatballs with two very ample specimens on a platter directly in front of a woman’s bosom.

I ordered a cup of coffee while I waited for Katie to arrive, which proved to be a minor disappointment. To be fair, Mama isn’t a café or coffee shop per se, but I really expected a better cup of Joe from an Italian-themed establishment. Can’t knock them for serving mimosas, but a latte or cappuccino would have been a nice option. And, here’s one of my biggest breakfast joint pet peeves — I HATE it when restaurants expect you to serve yourself creamer from those horrid little half and half packets on the table instead of bringing a little tiny pitcher of something cold and fresh. God knows how long those things sit out every day, and I’m always suspicious of “dairy” products that don’t require refrigeration.

Katie soon rolled in with her adorable entourage of her two-year-old Olivia and infant Audrey, looking the very picture of competent motherhood. After some chair/booster seat arranging, we were settled in and ready to get down to the business of ordering.

Mama’s menu is fairly straightforward – eggs, toast, sausage, pancakes and other traditional breakfast fare, but with an Italian flair. Several items intrigued me, particularly the “eggs in purgatory” simmered in pomodoro sauce with fresh basil, and the “pasta mama” – whole-wheat pasta with scrambled eggs, Parmesan Reggiano and pancetta. Hm. I had a hard time deciding.

I make a ton of omelets and scrambled eggs at home, so I try to order something different when I go out for breakfast or brunch. The java French toast caught my eye; Kahlua-spiked batter and toasted pecans sounded particularly yummy. Realizing I hadn’t eaten biscuits and gravy in God knows how long, that’s what I opted for in the end, with a side of breakfast potatoes and an orange juice. Katie got the plain ol’ French toast (not slagging – that’s what it’s actually called on the menu!), and talked me into sharing an order of the Italian fried biscuits, although to be fair, she didn’t have to do much convincing.

The four golf ball-sized biscuits arrived first, comfortingly warm. If you’ve ever been to one of the speedway suites during the Indy 500 and enjoyed the fried biscuits that Jugg’s Catering serves there, these were very nearly the same thing except rolled in cinnamon sugar. There’s even apple butter in one of the plastic jam/jelly jars on each table for dipping. In short, they were a hit, especially with Olivia, who kept requesting more after every bite.

Our meals followed soon after. My choice was a hearty serving of two fluffy buttermilk biscuits split and drenched with the heavily sausage-studded creamy gravy. It was tasty, but so filling, I couldn’t finish it all. The potatoes were sliced thin and fried crisp with, dare I say it, a hint of onion. Katie and Olivia both seemed to enjoy the French toast.

The place never got crowded while we were there, but there was a steady trickle of customers the entire time. I can imagine it fills up pretty fast on the weekends. The girls were good as gold, and Katie and I were able to enjoy a fairly relaxed and leisurely hour chatting about the joys and perils of mommyhood.

My total bill was a very reasonable $10.90, good value for the amount and quality of food I received. I’ll definitely be back to give it another whirl, and to try that java French toast.

A good morning for mamas, indeed.

Good Morning Mama's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Happy new year!

New year, a new resolution – 2009 finds me making a career change. After nearly two decades of toiling away in one form of journalism or another, I’m now embarking on a new pursuit – gainful employment in the field of culinary arts. Since moving around and motherhood have curtailed my plans for a formal culinary education, I’ve decided to wing it and trust the training I’ve had thus far (combined with a passion for all things food) will carry me through.

A little about me – I’m a 38-year-old, sane (I think) wife and mother living in Indianapolis. Married to a wonderful Irishman for three years (Patrick the Paddy), I have an adorable stepson named Isaac and Michael, my gorgeous baby boy. Patrick works in auto racing and likes to move around. A lot. We have lived in Indiana and Sonoma CA, survived a 12,000-mile road trip together across the U.S. and Canada, completed a six-week trial cohabitation in Germany, made several journeys to visit my in-laws in Ireland (the site of one of our two weddings), and taken short trips to England, Wales and Scotland. Whew. It makes me tired just writing all that.

But back to the food… I love to cook, I love to eat, and I love to write about it. Outside my passion for writing, the only other thing I could see myself pursuing careerwise is something related to cooking. With the current state of print media, my freelance writing clients are dropping like flies, so here I am. Ready to get this cooking party started. Not to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty good at it. My catering business cards are in the works and my first recipe sampling/networking party is in two weeks, at which time I will attempt to harangue my friends into hiring me for business lunches and bridal showers. In the meantime, I will amuse myself by chronicling my thoughts on a variety of food-related issues as I wait for those lucrative cookbook contracts and/or television deals to start rolling in.

So, let’s get started. The other day, hubby and I had brunch at one of my favorite Indianapolis eateries – Zest! Exciting Food Creations. Four words. Crème brulee French toast.

Now, let me preface my review by saying that I’m a sugar-in-the-morning kind of gal. Muffins, donuts, pancakes — bring it on, and Zest’s French toast is an ideal way to get my sugar buzz up and running for the day.

Zest snuggles into an unassuming little strip mall just off the Monon Trail on 54th Street. We ambled in around 11:30 a.m., baby in tow, just in time to beat the post-church crowd. Each table is covered with sheets of white butcher paper and holds a small glass cup of crayons, allowing hungry patrons and their kids to a chance show off artistic skills while waiting for their food. A charming touch.

I’m in the middle of sketching what I consider to be a rather disarming self-portrait when it arrives, looking and smelling absolutely decadent. I give Patrick’s quite respectable breakfast panini a courtesy glance and a “hm, that looks good,” but really, all I want to do is get a bite of that steaming French toast into my mouth as quickly as possible.

This isn’t like any griddle-cooked French toast I’ve ever had before, rather, it’s two slabs of pillowy, custardy bread pudding-like confection. A shatteringly thin glaze of burnt sugar gives the whole thing a crunchy crust to offset the creamy mouth-feel of the dish. A couple slices of thick bacon come alongside and, as if any more sugar is needed here, a small cup of maple syrup to really gild the lily.

Patrick’s fork sneaks its way toward my plate to see what all the fuss is about. Then again. I swipe a bite of his eggs to get even, but he’s too busy savoring my food to notice. (When we were dating, Patrick insisted on making me order for him in restaurants because he said whatever I got usually turned out to be better than what he’d chosen on his own.)

Patrick always eats faster than I do, then freely helps himself to whatever’s left on my plate, whether I’m finished or not. He polishes off his sandwich, then reaches over and cuts off a large wedge of my remaining French toast for himself. I give him a dirty look as I proceed to polish off every remaining crumb. He looks at me with a somewhat sheepish expression.

“I didn’t think you were going to be able to eat that much,” he says.

It’s not so much that I’m that hungry, it’s just that it’s that good. Try it and see for yourself.

The evening marked an experiment in bread making. Pizza dough, more specifically. There are several food items I would like to perfect my skills in making, bread being one of them. I kneaded out a batch of dough by hand (no bullshit bread-o-matic machines in my house, thank you very much!), let it rise in a bowl on the warm stove, then punched it down and rolled it out. There’s something wonderful about the sight and smell of rising bread dough. It’s reaffirmation that things are naturally working the way they are supposed to and all is right with the world.

The pizza turned out well, in spite of me rolling out the crust a little bit too thin, which turned it soggy under the weight of the sauce and other schwack. (Next time, I’ll precook the crust a little before adding the toppings.) I attempted to recreate the pizza salamis we enjoyed while living in Germany… thin-crusted pies with a scant coating of tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella cheese, crispy salami slices broiled on top and torn fresh basil. Although my version didn’t quite look like what we got abroad, it still tasted pretty darn good.

Happy 2009! Cheer and bon appetit!

memories of Germany...

memories of Germany...