This is my favorite week of the year – Derby week, an unofficial holiday that showcases the great commonwealth to millions of people in what is called the greatest two minutes in sports.
As former Gov. Paul Patton once said, Kentucky is the only place in the world where we can take a two-minute event and turn it into a three-week celebration.
As with all holidays and celebrations, I take great joy in the food that can only be called Kentucky. And if you think about it, I’m not sure it is the entire commonwealth, but it is definitely the central part of the state.
There are some must-haves for me on Derby Day or Oaks or even as a parting brunch when houseguests take their leave.
First and foremost I think having bourbon balls in the house to be enjoyed by all is a must, whether you buy the ones that made Kentucky famous or you make them yourself. I love the “Oh, my goodness, yum!”s from those who have never tried them.
I love my company that comes each year and immediately upon entering the house, asks two questions: “Where are the bourbon balls and where are the mint juleps?”
That’s my second must-have – the makings for a good mint julep. My friends have pronounced mine great. It’s kind of like chili, which I don’t make, people who make mint juleps, which I do, think their recipe is great.
My Mint Juleps
I make a quart of simple syrup – that’s four cups water and four cups sugar. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, add two or three sprigs of mint and let simmer for five minutes. Turn off heat, let syrup cool. Remove mint and put syrup in a container and put in the fridge.
I use my julep cups – yes, after I get them polished. Or it is also a great way to showcase the Derby glasses you have collected.
Pack the cup or glass with ice. If you can find crushed ice, buy it.
Rub the rim of the cup with a mint leaf. Add about an ounce and a half of the syrup and two to three ounces of your favorite bourbon.
Add a stem of the mint.
Then I take powdered sugar and sprinkle gently over the top and I take red-striped straws which I have cut in half and add one.
My next must have is a good sweet tea. I have friends who don’t drink and I make sure they have something special they enjoy.
Make simple syrup of one cup water and one cup sugar. Brew your favorite tea. Mix the two together. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Again, use those julep cups or Derby glasses and fill with ice. Rub a leaf of mint around the rim. Pour in tea.
Garnish with a mint sprig and a slice of lemon. Sprinkle a little powdered sugar and add a straw.
The tea is as festive as the julep.
My next must-haves are the snacks or appetizers – Benedictine, pimento cheese or beer cheese and all most of the time.
Pimento cheese is definitely a southern food and perhaps even a Kentucky one. Try finding it south of the Mason-Dixon Line or even past Tennessee.
Basic Pimento Cheese
One 8-ounce block good sharp cheddar cheese, softened
One 8-ounce block Monterey jack, softened
Using either a grater or food processor, shred both. (Don’t use pre-shredded cheese.) Place cheese in a large mixing bowl.
Grate one quarter of a sweet onion. (Can do this when you are grating the cheese or in the food processor.)
Add two large jars, partially drained sliced pimentos.
Pinch of salt
One teaspoon Tabasco
¾ to one cup of Hellman’s mayonnaise
Mix well. Taste. Add more mayo, salt or Tabasco, if needed or to suit your taste.
Put into a container and store in the fridge.
Note: Some people like a sweeter pimento cheese; you can add a half-cup diced sweet gherkins; some even enjoy a bit of crunch and add a half-cup finely chopped pecans.
TaTa Scott (Mr. E.L.) likes to use sharp Kraft cheese, no jack and believes in Duke’s mayonnaise.
My next must-have on hand is country ham. If you don’t want to make biscuits, order some butter biscuits.
I am also providing you today with another idea (see Kay’s recipes) for using country ham that I am serving this year.
‘Tis the season for asparagus and strawberries, and nothing says Derby like the pair.
You can blanch asparagus in a skillet of boiling salted water, no longer than two minutes. Remove to ice bath for about five minutes and drain well. Place in fridge until ready to serve. All that’s needed when serving is a squeeze of fresh lemon or diced tomatoes marinated in olive oil, salt and lemon.
As for those strawberries, what says Kentucky like strawberry shortcake or strawberries dipped in dark chocolate.
Again strawberry shortcakes can be made up a day ahead and placed in an airtight container once they cool completely.
Strawberry Biscuit Shortcake
1½ cups self-rising flour
One stick cold butter cut into pieces (I cut my butter and return it to fridge)
One cup cold heavy cream
½ cup sugar
One teaspoon vanilla
One egg yolk, beaten
Put butter and flour into food processor or mix by hand. Once butter and flour look like corn meal, add sugar, cream and vanilla. Pulse several times and turn out onto floured board or clean counter.
With floured hands, make a round ball or disc, handling dough as little as possible. Again with floured hands, gently pat out the dough into a one-inch deep circle. Take a floured biscuit cutter, and cut biscuits.
Place on greased or parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush with egg yolk that has been mixed with a scant tablespoon of water. Sprinkle sugar over top.
Bake at 375 degrees until biscuits are golden brown.
Remove from oven and cool.
Strawberries. Take one pint of ripe strawberries, slice and mash with a potato masher or fork. Add ¼ cup sugar. Stem, wash and slice a quart of strawberries. Add to mixture. Stir well. Cover and refrigerate.
Minted Whipped Cream. Pour two cups heavy whipping cream into mixing bowl. Add one-fourth cup sugar and one teaspoon vanilla or even almond flavoring, ½ teaspoon. Beat until cream produces heavy peaks. Take several mint leaves and finely chop or add a drop of mint flavoring. Stir into cream. Put into a container and refrigerate.
When ready for some dessert, put the bottom half of a sliced shortcake on a dessert plate, cover it with some of the strawberry mixture. Put on top layer and add more strawberries. Put on a dollop of the whipped cream. If you want to be creative, add a mint leaf.
If you serve a meal of country ham and biscuits, asparagus, grits casserole and strawberry shortcake, your guests will have some of the best foods Kentucky has to offer.
Happy Derby, everyone!
Simple Country Ham Quiche
This simply made, delicious quiche can be served at any time of the day. I’ve tried it with bacon and country ham and both are good. Drain the bacon thoroughly on paper towels and chop. Remove the fat from the country ham and chop.
The asparagus I mentioned in my column or a salad made with fresh lettuces, now abundant, are both good accompaniments to the quiche. Remember Kentucky Bibb lettuce had its beginnings right here in Frankfort.
The good thing about this quiche is that it can be made the night before, baked and refrigerated. (I’ve done it.) Place quiche in microwave, covered with paper towel for two minutes. Remove and let stand a minute.
In fact, everything I am recommending today can be done from two days until a day before. I’ve learned the hard way, making my guests wait until I fixed some pretty complex things is not a good thing and that easy on the cook is more enjoyable for the guests.
One premade refrigerated pie crust. Remove from refrigerator and let come to room temperature.
Unroll crust and place in a nine or 10-inch glass pie plate. Crimp crust using fingers.
Chop 1½ cups of country ham.
Finely chop ¼ cup onion.
Grate one cup Swiss cheese.
Layer each into crust.
Beat four eggs with ½ teaspoon salt, a teaspoon pepper and one level teaspoon ground mustard.
Add to the eggs either a half teaspoon dried or fresh thyme; a fourth-cup chopped chives.
Add a cup of heavy cream or half-n-half. Mix all well and pour into crust.
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, or until quiche is lightly brown on top and does not jiggle.
Remove from oven. Let stand 10 minutes and serve, or let cool completely, cover and place in fridge.