This Saturday is the annual Run for the Roses, The Kentucky Derby. It is the first of three races that comprise the Triple Crown. Always run on the first Saturday in May, it is steeped in tradition and history. The Derby is America’s favorite horse race, “the greatest two minutes in sports,” and a family tradition for me. As the sun rises over the twin steeples of Churchill Downs, the horses are being fed, exercised, and groomed for the festivities. The gates open and people stream in, ready for a full day of festivities. The ladies dress in their finest, most donning elaborate hats that have become a much-heralded tradition. The gentlemen are equally dapper and it is a day for gentility and honoring the grace of the Old South. While most of the fashions are lovely and tasteful, you will also see a wonderful array of homemade costumes and hats, showing remarkable ingenuity and humor.
Groomers, jockeys, trainers, breeders, and owners all anxiously wait for the moment that could change their lives forever. There are a series of races that are run during the day, each one more important than the last, leading up to the Derby itself. The excitement grows as the day progresses, and the wagering is brisk with the odds changing constantly. With the opening strains of “My Old Kentucky Home,” a hush falls over the crowd and the entire audience rises to sing as the University of Louisville Marching Band plays the wonderful Stephen Foster song. The horses are led from the paddock and head for the track. Soon we will hear the trumpet herald the “Call to the Post.” The race is only minutes away and the crowd will roar as the horses break from the starting gate.
This is the 137th running of the Derby and a source of great pride for the people of Kentucky. My family is from southern Indiana, just a stone’s throw from the Kentucky border. Many of my “kinfolk” are from Kentucky and one of my cousins lives there now. May is a big month in that part of the country. The first Saturday is always the Derby and the Indy 500 car race is run on Memorial Day weekend. Everyone looks forward to both events and they are the highlights of the summer.
I grew up hearing stories of the Derby and every year my mother and I would watch it together. Like most little girls, I was crazy about horses and prayed every year that I would get a pony for my birthday. I read everything I could find on Man o’ War, considered one of the greatest thoroughbred racehorses of all time. My favorite books from childhood were Black Beauty, Misty of Chincoteague, and The Black Stallion. I knew the story of Seabiscuit long before the movie came out. Willie Shoemaker was my hero. I cheered for Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. Every year I anxiously await the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, fingers crossed that this will be the year that the Derby winner will take Triple Crown. I sobbed when Barbaro and Eight Belles had to be put down, and still get teary when I think of those beautiful horses. Every year I am glued to the television, watching the pageantry and elegance that is Derby Day. I guess you could say that I am still horse crazy.
Along with the legendary fashions, The Derby is renowned for good food and potent drinks. For nearly a century, everyone sips on the traditional beverage of Churchill Downs, Mint Juleps. Made with aged Kentucky bourbon, most often Early Times, over 80,000 are served over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, requiring 8000 liters of bourbon, 2200 pounds of freshly harvested mint, and 80 tons of shaved ice. It is an interesting cocktail made with bourbon, sugar, mint, and ice, sort of a Kentucky version of a Mojito. It’s traditionally served in a silver or pewter “julep” cup that develops a characteristic frost on the outside as the drink is stirred. I actually have a collection of julep cups which are beautiful as they sit gleaming on the sideboard, just waiting to be filled and enjoyed. But don’t rush out and buy julep cups just for one day of the year. Any good 10-oz highball will work perfectly.
There is a wonderful letter written by Lt. General S.B. Buckner, Jr. (V.M.I. Class of 1906) that describes the ceremony of making juleps. I cannot resist including a portion of it here …
“The preparation of the quintessence of gentlemanly beverages can only be described in like terms. A mint julep is not the product of a formula. It is a ceremony and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the old South, an emblem of hospitality and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of a happy and congenial thought.
So far as the mere mechanics of the operation are concerned, the procedure, stripped of its ceremonial embellishments, can be described as follows:
Go to a spring where cool, crystal-clear water bubbles from under a bank of dew-washed ferns. In a consecrated vessel, dip up a little water at the source. Follow the stream through its banks of green moss and wildflowers until it broadens and trickles through beds of a mint growing in aromatic profusion and waving softly in the summer breeze. Gather the sweetest and tenderest shoots and gently carry them home.
Go to the sideboard and select a decanter of Kentucky Bourbon, distilled by a master hand, mellowed with age yet still vigorous and inspiring. An ancestral sugar bowl, a row of silver goblets, some spoons and some ice and you are ready to start. In a canvas bag, pound twice as much ice as you think you will need. Make it fine as snow, keep it dry and do not allow to degenerate into slush.
In each goblet, put a slightly heaping teaspoonful of granulated sugar, barely cover this with spring water and slightly bruise one mint leaf into this, leaving the spoon in the goblet. Then pour elixir from decanter until the goblets are about one-fourth full. Fill the goblets with snowy ice, sprinkling in a small amount of sugar as you fill. Wipe the outside of the goblets dry and embellish copiously with mint.
Then comes the important and delicate operation of frosting. By proper manipulation of the spoon, the ingredients are circulated and blended until Nature, wishing to take a further hand and add another of its beautiful phenomena, encrusts the whole in a glistening coat of white frost. Thus harmoniously blended by the deft touches of a skilled hand, you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women.
When all is ready, assemble your guests on the porch or in the garden where the aroma of the juleps will rise Heavenward and make the birds sing. Propose a worthy toast, raise the goblet to your lips, bury your nose in the mint, inhale a deep breath of its fragrance and sip the nectar of the gods.”
Now, can’t you just see yourself sitting in a rocking chair on a wide covered veranda, sipping these intoxicating beverages, while a light breeze gently cools your brow. Ahhhh, the beauty of tradition is still alive!
The foods that are served alongside the juleps are quite substantial otherwise everyone would fall over drunk after one julep. Some of the more common items served include Kentucky Hot Browns, an open-faced turkey and bacon sandwich, ladled with a creamy Parmesan sauce and heated under the broiler until golden brown and bubbling. Cheese grits are often served, as are Bourbon Balls, Horse Race Pie, and Bread Pudding with Bourbon Sauce. Are you sensing a theme here? No wonder everyone has a fabulous time at the Derby.
By far the most popular dish of the day is Kentucky Burgoo, a hearty stew big enough to feed a crowd. Created by sailors in the 1600’s, it is often cooked outdoors over a wood fire in a huge iron pot. Full of whatever meats and vegetables you have available, it usually has some combination of corn, bell peppers, carrots, celery, lima beans, and green beans. You can use any type of meat the most common being beef, pork and lamb. Depending on your hunting prowess, it might have venison, rabbit, squirrel, or even opossum in it! The name Burgoo comes from the bulgur wheat that was originally used to thicken the stew. The recipe I am sharing with you today was made a bit healthier by using chicken breasts and thighs, but feel free to be creative if you want.
Biscuits are the pride of every good Southern cook and I thought serving a cheddar, bacon, and chive biscuit alongside the Burgoo would make a heavenly meal. You need something to help sop up the delicious broth. If you think there is too much meat already being served, leave the bacon out of the biscuits. But I think that you would be missing out on an unbelievable treat.
Since the meal starts with Bourbon, isn’t it natural that it would end the same way? I sure think so! I am including a recipe for Bourbon Ice Cream with Chocolate Chips. You can leave the chocolate out, but somehow it just seems to be a natural with the bourbon. You could make sugared pecans and sprinkle them over the top making the dessert reminiscent of another Southern favorite, chocolate bourbon pecan pie. This ice cream recipe come from master Pastry Chef David Lebovitz. The combination of vanilla beans and extract create a super-intense vanilla flavor, witha sophisticated twist from a shot of bourbon.
I hope you have fun this weekend and if you have a moment, turn on the Kentucky Derby. You might just get caught up in the excitement and fun the same way I do. Get dressed in your finery, slap on a fun hat, sip some juleps, and get in the spirit of Kentucky. And They’re Off!
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
You need to start making the ingredients for your juleps a day ahead because the mint syrup needs to rest overnight. There is an ongoing argument about the best sweetener to use, a boiled simple syrup, superfine sugar, or granulated sugar. You could even use golden syrup for a richer flavor it you want. Try a couple different versions until you decide which is your personal favorite. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. And make sure you use either crushed or shaved ice. This cools the drink rapidly and melts more quickly, giving much needed dilution!
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 cups water
- Sprigs of fresh mint
- Crushed ice
- Early Times Kentucky Whisky
- Silver Julep Cups
- Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight.
- Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tbsp of the mint syrup and two oz of Early Times Kentucky Whisky. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Tuck a mint sprig into the top of the cup and insert short straw for stirring and sipping.
- 1 whole, skinless chicken breast (about 1 lb.), split
- 2 skinless chicken thighs (about ½ lb.), all visible fat trimmed
- 4 cups fat-free, reduced sodium chicken broth
- 1 medium carrot, sliced
- 1 celery rib, sliced
- 1 medium green bell pepper, seeded and diced
- 1 cup fresh green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1/2 cup frozen baby lima beans or fava beans
- 1/2 cup frozen corn kernels
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- Hot pepper sauce, to taste
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Place the chicken and broth in a large, heavy saucepan. Bring liquid almost to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce to a gentle simmer, and cook until the chicken is white in the center at the thickest part, about 25 minutes.
- Transfer the chicken to a plate, reserving the broth in the saucepan. When cool enough to handle, pull the meat off the bones and tear it into bite-size pieces. There should be about 2 cups.
- Meanwhile, add the carrots, celery, green pepper, green beans, lima beans, corn, and tomato paste to the broth. Simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes. Add the chicken and warm through. Season the stew to taste with hot sauce, salt and pepper.
- Can be made up to 2 days ahead. Store, covered, in the refrigerator. Reheat gently when ready to serve.
- 6 thick-cut bacon slices
- 3 3/4 cups bread flour
- 1 1/2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1 1/4 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes, plus melted butter for brushing
- 2 1/2 cups (packed) coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese (about 12 ounces)
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh chives
- 1 3/4 cups chilled buttermilk
- Honey (optional)
- Position rack just above center of oven and preheat to 425°F. Line heavy large baking sheet with parchment paper. Cook bacon in heavy large skillet over medium heat until crisp and brown. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain, and then chop coarsely.
- Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in processor; blend 5 seconds. Add butter cubes. Blend until coarse meal forms, about 30 seconds. Transfer flour mixture to large bowl. Add cheddar cheese, fresh chives, and chopped bacon; toss to blend. Gradually add buttermilk, stirring to moisten evenly (batter will feel sticky).
- Using lightly floured hands, drop generous 1/2 cup batter for each biscuit onto prepared baking sheet, spacing batter mounds about 2 inches apart.
- Bake biscuits until golden and tester inserted into center comes out clean, 18 to 20 minutes. Brush biscuits lightly with melted butter. Let cool 10 minutes. Serve biscuits warm or at room temperature with honey, if desired.
- Yield: 12 biscuits
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- Pinch of table salt
- 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out (use back of knife)
- 5 large egg yolks
- 3 to 4 tbsp bourbon
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 to 1 cup chocolate chips
- In a medium saucepan, mix 1 cup of the cream with the milk, sugar, and a pinch of salt. Warm the cream mixture over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves and tiny bubbles begin to form around the edge of the pan, 3 to 4 minutes.
- Stir in the scraped vanilla seeds and the split vanilla bean pod. Cover, remove from the heat, and let sit for 1 hour. Taste and let sit longer if you want a stronger flavor.
- Prepare an ice bath by filling a large bowl with several inches of ice water. Set a smaller metal bowl (one that holds at least 1-1/2 quarts) in the ice water. Pour the remaining cup of cream into the inner bowl (this helps the custard cool quicker when you pour it in later). Set a fine strainer on top. Whisk the egg yolks in a medium bowl.
- Rewarm the cream mixture over medium-high heat until tiny bubbles begin to form around the edge of the pan, 1 to 2 minutes. In a steady stream, pour half of the warm cream mixture into the egg yolks, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from curdling.
- Pour the egg mixture back into the saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom with a heatproof rubber spatula until the custard thickens slightly (it should be thick enough to coat the spatula and hold a line drawn through it with a finger), 4 to 8 minutes. An instant-read thermometer should read 175°F to 180°F at this point. Don’t let the sauce overheat or boil, or it will curdle. Immediately strain the custard into the cold cream in the ice bath. Press firmly on the vanilla bean in the strainer with the spatula to extract as much flavor as possible. Discard the vanilla bean or rinse, pat dry, and add to your sugar to make vanilla-scented sugar.
- Cool the custard to below 70°F by stirring it over the ice bath. Stir the bourbon and vanilla extract into the cooled custard.
- Refrigerate the custard until completely chilled, at least 4 hours. Then freeze the custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Stir in the chocolate chips during the last 15 minutes of churning. Transfer the just-churned ice cream to an airtight container, and freeze for at least 4 hours or up to 2 weeks.
- Yield: about 1 quart