Kentucky's Regional Cuisines

Have y'all read your July issue of Southern Living yet?

I just loved the Letter from the Editor this month. Lindsay Bierman, who has done a great job with giving the magazine a hip and relevant edge, addresses the big issue of Southern food. It seems a small-town newspaper criticized the venerable publication for using "exotic" ingredients like fennel, and claimed they should get back to the basics by including more traditional Southern recipes like fried chicken, grits, and so on. Mr. Bierman does a lovely job of countering those complaints. He notes that Southern food is an inclusive cuisine, encompassing styles from Cajun to Lowcountry to Appalachian. I loved this manifesto so much that I mentioned it on Twitter. And, no big deal, the editor of Southern Living tweeted us back.

Now, if you write about Southern lifestyles, there are three gospels to which you adhere: Southern LivingGarden and Gun, and the Oxford American. Getting a tweet from the editor of one of these publications... Well, it's like one of those Belieber kids hearing back from The Biebs. It made my day: Lindsay Bierman liked what we had to say!

Mr. Bierman's manifesto also got me thinking about the foods that define Kentucky. There's Western Kentucky's mutton barbecue. There's Central Kentucky's beer cheese and burgoo. There are the Louisville foods I traditionally think of as "Derby Recipes" -- benedictine and hot browns. As the holy trinity of Southern lifestyle magazines are starting to tell us, there's the stack cakes and soup beans of my youth, now re-branded as Appalachian cuisine. There are country hams and tomatoes. And that doesn't even count all the ways we can cook with bourbon. There are so many tastes that are unique to the Commonwealth. As Mr. Bierman articulated in his "manifesto", there are new tastes and old tastes and room for inclusion. And they all taste pretty darn good.

We'd love to hear from y'all. What foods are your idea of "Kentucky Cuisine"?

Derby Party

I adore Derby.  I also adore Derby parties.

Derby 2003.
Over the years, I’ve watched the Run from the Roses from Churchill Downs, from friends’ gatherings and from my own living room.  I’ve ordered mint juleps in official Derby glasses and I’ve made them from freshly cooled simple syrup and mint that I planted just for the occasion.  To me, making a big deal of Derby isn’t about having connections to the racing industry or knowing anything about gambling.  It’s simply a celebration of Kentucky.  One year, several of my aunts and cousins gathered at my grandmother’s house for a Derby party.  We watched the race and drew horse names from a bowl to determine our “pick.”  We made quarter bets, and my ever-so-religious grandmother insisted that the winner put the pot in the church offering plate the next morning.  To this day, it’s one of my fondest Derby memories.

When we lived in Nashville, I couldn’t let the celebration slip.  One year, I made a huge production of donning a festive Lilly Pulitzer dress and an over-the-top chapeaux, even though I was watching the race in the living room of our condo and my beau and our black lab were far more modestly attired.   Perhaps it was a little silly, but I felt connected to home in a profound way.

And they're off!
This year, I’ll be watching Derby with a small group of relatives in my hometown.  As I’ve planned the soiree with my mother, I’ve put together a list of my favorite Derby party recipes.

Derby Pie

Derby Pie was first created by the Kern family at the Melrose Inn in Prospect.  Although the official name of pastry has been trademarked by the Kerns, many variants of chocolate and nut pie have arisen across the state.  I still prefer to pick up an original Kerns Kitchen version.

Louisville Stoneware Hot Brown Plate
Mini Hot Browns

Hot browns are my favorite.  They’re rich and decadent.  And they have no place being eaten in front of people.  A great alternative is a little hot brown bite – there’s all of the comforting flavor, but none of the gooey mess nor resulting carb coma.

Cut several slices of bread into quarters and lightly toast.  On each toast point, layer a small amount of shaved turkey breast, provolone cheese, a slice of Roma tomato, and about half a piece of cooked bacon.  Place in toaster oven or in a warm oven until the cheese has melted and the tomato has slightly wilted. Serve immediately.

Beer cheese

I love beer cheese.  The sharp, tangy dip is an amazing compliment to crackers or crudités.  It’s also pretty awesome on a warm hamburger.  Beer cheese recipes across central Kentucky come in two varieties – standard and mayonnaise-included.  I prefer the former.  I love the flavor that Bourbon Barrel Ale gives beer cheese – the nutty, complex beer with a hint of bourbon is the perfect complement to the sharp tang of the cheese and garlic.

In a food processor, combine about 20 ounces of grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese, 2 minced garlic cloves, 4 ounces of flat beer (Kentucky Ale Bourbon Barrel is my favorite for this recipe), and a dash each of salt and Tabasco sauce.  Pulse until smooth.  Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for a few hours before serving.

Mint Juleps
Louisville Stoneware Mint Julep Pitcher
Among Kentucky’s true bourbon aficionados, the recipe coined by Courier-Journal founding publisher Henry Watterson rings true:

 "Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of the evening is about to form upon it ... Prepare the simple syrup and measure out a half-tumbler of whiskey.  Pour the whiskey into a well-frosted silver cup, throw the other ingredients away and drink the whiskey."
It just  isn’t Derby without a julep, though.  Just make a simple syrup: combine one cup water and one cup sugar in a saucepan.  Let the sugar dissolve in the water and allow the mixture to simmer slightly.  Remove from heat and let cool. (You can depart from the traditional “muddling” by infusing the syrup with mint -- just add a sprig of mint when you remove the syrup from the heat and let steep for about 15 minutes, then strain.)  Combine one part simple syrup to two parts bourbon (I prefer Maker’s Mark) in a small pitcher.  Add a mint leaf or two to each julep glass; muddle by pressing mint along the cup with the back of a spoon.  Pour bourbon-syrup mixture over crushed ice.  Garnish with a sprig of mint.

Benedictine Sandwiches

I’ve never been a huge Benedictine fan, but I’m dying to try my hand at making a batch of my own.   The famous cucumber spread invented by Louisville caterer and cookbook author Jennie Benedict is synonymous with the Derby City.

The recipe I want to try this year comes from the Courier-Journal:

· 8 ounces of cream cheese, softened
· 3 tablespoons cucumber juice
· 1 tablespoon onion juice
· 1 teaspoon salt
· a few grains of cayenne pepper
· 2 drops green food coloring

To get the juice, peel and grate a cucumber, then wrap in a clean dish towel and squeeze juice into a dish. Discard pulp. Do the same for the onion. Mix all ingredients with a fork until well blended. Using a blender will make the spread too runny."

What do y’all serve at Derby Parties?