Creating Flavor Profiles in Compounded Butter
Words by Lesley Mahoney / Photographs by Kristin Teig
It’s a Monday night and Tracey Brown is pulsing a pound of organic butter in a Cuisinart she bought with her grandmother nearly 30 years ago. “It’s a dinosaur but it’s never failed me. It’s still going strong. It’s my lucky charm,” she says.
Considering her grandparents’ influence on Brown’s food sensibilities, it seems only fitting that she would use the well-used kitchen appliance to blend her own line of flavored artisan butters.
Growing up on the second floor of her family’s Somerville triple-decker, Brown remembers picking and eating tomatoes right off the vine from the yard, and salting them with a shaker hanging from a piece of twine. She recalls those tomatoes sun-drying on the roof; eggplant resting under bricks; and pasta drying on laundry racks. From the time she was old enough to reach the stove, she helped with the cooking. Instilled with such an appreciation for fresh and local ingredients, to this day, Brown wouldn’t think of eating a tomato out of season.
As she dreams up and creates flavor profiles—she’s got 16 to date—for her Amesbury-based business, Seacoast Butters, Brown channels her family’s culinary roots. On this particular night, she blends the butter with hearty chunks of maple- and brown sugar-smoked bacon from Kellie Brook Farm in Greenland, New Hampshire. She and her husband, John Valdes—Seacoast Butter’s “chief taster”—are in the kitchen of a local restaurant in downtown Amesbury, where Brown rents space during the business’ off hours, preparing batches of butter to fill the signature 3-ounce containers that Brown will sell at the weekend farmers markets.
Making butter isn’t a new venture for Brown. It’s just one she decided to grow into a business, which she launched in summer 2011, debuting her product at the Newburyport farmers market. “I’d been making flavored butter for years for holiday gifts and meals when I decided to launch. All my recipes are my own creation.”
Brown’s recipe development isn’t steeped in any kind of formal culinary training but again, harkens back to her family’s devotion to good food, and careful observation of their approach, much of it intuitive.
“I’m not a classically trained chef. I just grew up with the love of food. We’d sit at the dinner table and talk about the next meal,” says Brown. “On Labor Day, we’d strategize about Christmas cookies. In our heyday, we made 22 varieties.”
There wasn’t a cookbook to be found in her grandparents’ kitchen. Her grandfather could smell a bunch of herbs and instinctively know what to do with them based on the aroma. Once when Brown mentioned she’d watched Julia Child stuffing artichokes on TV, her grandfather made his own perfect version the next day.
While Brown doesn’t shun cookbooks, she laughs when friends ask her for recipes. Because she puts her own twist on everything, it’s never as simple as providing a web link. “I look at the basic recipe and see what I can tweak. I write it up with arrows and notes. I make it my own,” she says. “I can’t leave well enough alone.”
She remembers her mother playing with flavors, too, improvising new versions of a basic cheesecake over a stretch of a few years.
“We were always encouraged to be creative with food,” Brown says, whose creative flair extends beyond her food; her hair is highlighted with flecks of bright purple.
Brown brings her expansive palate and culinary curiosity to her wide-ranging butter flavors, which run the gamut from savory roasted red pepper, roasted herb and garlic, wasabi, and berbere, to sweet maple; chocolate orange, and cranberry.
Seacoast Butters—named in homage to the coastal community and Brown’s and Valdes’s daily beach walks—comes on the heels of a much different kind of career trajectory for Brown. For more than 20 years, she worked in the insurance industry, transitioned to high tech as an insurance business analyst, and more recently, joined Valdes in his electronic recycling company, Cyberbuzz.
Looking to launch something of her own, a food venture just made sense to Brown. “We came up with the idea of food because it’s something we’re passionate about,” she says, also noting it was her husband’s incredible entrepreneurial spirit that prompted her to take such a leap of faith.
The butter is bold, its flavor profiles intense, and a little goes a long way when using it as a condiment or to cook with, such as rubbing a bit of berbere under the thigh of a chicken, Brown notes.
While she hesitates to pick a flavor she’s most proud of—“they’re all my babies”— Brown considers her berbere blend the most exciting. She came across the Ethiopian spice, and true to her nature, created her own take on it using guajillo peppers, cardamom, coriander and nutmeg, among other ingredients.
Brown’s and Valdes’s commitment to organic and local food shines through in Seacoast Butters’ ingredients.
Brown sources her ingredients mostly from local farms and doesn’t use additional sugars, only touches of local honey and maple. With the butter, Brown says she was faced with a choice of using organic or local. She chose organic, using Organic Valley butter from Wisconsin.
“It’s about supporting as local as possible, and a commitment to organic things grown without hormones and pesticides. These also happen to be better quality ingredients,” says Brown. “It’s about using really good quality ingredients and keeping it simple.”
Seacoast Butters can be found at local farmers markets, including Newburyport, SOWA, Dewey Square, Middleton, Medford, Salem, and Cambridge in the summer, and Newburyport, Cambridge, Somerville, and Wayland in the winter. Look for Seacoast Butters in retail locations soon. Visit seacoastbutters.com for more information.
Lesley Mahoney is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her work has appeared in South Shore Living, Cape Cod Magazine, various GateHouse Media publications, and Edible Berkshires. You can reach her at LMahoney1@gmail.com.