If you’ve watched me cook at Eastern Market, or ventured into my home for a meal, you’ve probably heard “the butter story.” It goes like this:
Four years ago I started using farm-fresh butter in an effort to cook with the best ingredients I could find. My husband, upon discovering that fabulous, farm-fresh butter can cost twice as much as grocery store butter, started giving me a good ribbing. “Local, farm-fresh butter can’t possibly taste twice as good as grocery store, stick butter.”
At the time I was reading Jennifer McLagan’s cookbook, Fat. Extolling the virtues of good butter, she recommended doing a tasting. So off we marched, Jason and I, into the kitchen, with a block of local, farm-fresh butter in one hand and a stick of grocery store butter in the other. One at a time, we cut a small sliver of each and let them melt on our tongues.
The first thing you notice about farm-fresh butter is the rich taste of cream. Then you notice the season and diet of the cows. In spring the butter is herbal and floral, light and perfect against grassy spring vegetables – asparagus, spring onions, fiddleheads and radishes. In summer the butter turns grassy, pairing perfectly with zucchini and tomatoes. In fall and winter when the cows switch to a feed diet, the flavor is rich and mellow, perfect for pumpkin, beets and holiday baking.
The grocery store butter was nearly flavorless. Softening on your tongue it gave the feel of greasy fat with the taste of cardboard.
When cooking from scratch you’ve got six, maybe ten, ingredients in a dish (that’s if you count salt and pepper). You can’t afford to have one of those tasting like cardboard, and not pulling its weight.
That’s the butter story. Every word of it is real and true. Every week I bring home a block of butter from Dan at Agora Farms from his stand at Eastern Market. I finish soups with a tablespoon or two for added richness. I’ll whisk a tablespoon into the deglazed pan juices of a sautéed chicken breast or bone-in pork chop to make a quick sauce.
This coming weekend, as part of my weekly cooking demo, I’m making Hollandaise. It has four ingredients – water, egg yolks, clarified butter and lemon juice (plus salt and white pepper). Strawberries and rhubarb are in season and I’ll make a pie next weekend as well. The dough contains flour, water, a pinch each of salt and sugar, and butter. In each case the butter is on stage, exposed, and it had better be good.
Good butter – good ingredients – matter. And they matter greatly. They also cost more.
A friend of mine passed around a blog entry listing five lessons learned from an evening with farmer, Joel Salatin. In one of those lessons, he challenges, “Do you have a cell phone? Do you have cable? Drink beer on the weekends? I bet you do. If you can afford those things, you can afford to eat good food, real food. And if you tell me you still can’t afford it, I will tell you the issue isn’t with money. It’s with priorities.”
Prioritize good food. Cut out something small this week and treat yourself to a pound of incredible, farm-fresh, Amish butter this weekend. Or local asparagus, really exceptional olive oil, or strawberries that will travel less than 50 miles from the field to your shortcakes. Good food is worth it. And so are you, your friends and your family.