8 Traditional Kentucky Foods to Serve for the Derby

iStock
iStock

When you think of the Kentucky Derby, you probably envision women in elaborate hats and sundresses, men in seersucker suits, and barrels of bourbon for all. You’re not wrong, of course, but for the Southerners who call the Bluegrass State home, the foods and drinks served that first Saturday in May are as worthy of celebrating as the race itself. We’ve rounded up eight of these timeless classics, along with recipe variations that honor the original flavors but add a novel twist. Consider this your complete guide to eating like a horse come Derby day.

1. MINT JULEP

Celebrating the Run for the Roses? The classic Derby cocktail is a non-negotiable. The recipe itself is straightforward—muddled mint, simple syrup, and bourbon over crushed ice—but that doesn’t mean you can’t jazz it up with jalapeños, fruit (try a version with peaches or blackberries), or even beer and basil. No matter which version you choose, make sure it includes crushed—not cubed—ice. The slushier the drink, the more delicious it is.

2. KENTUCKY HOT BROWN

This open-faced sandwich was first served in 1926 at Louisville’s historic Brown Hotel and has since become a regional favorite, appearing on the menus of many local restaurants. Sliced turkey and bacon are layered on top of thick bread, then covered in cheesy Mornay sauce and broiled until the bread crisps and the sauce browns. The hotel still serves its signature dish to this day; re-create their recipe, or try a twist on tradition with this adaptation, which reimagines the sammy as a savory tart. If you’re looking to feed a crowd, hot-brown sliders are the perfect party-sized bites.

3. BENEDICTINE SPREAD

Light and refreshing, this spread, which stars cucumbers, onions, and cream cheese, can be spread onto white bread and served as tea sandwiches, or placed out as a dip for vegetables and crackers. The original recipe, created around the turn of the 20th century in Louisville by famed caterer Jennie Benedict, calls for a few drops of green food coloring, but most chefs nowadays prefer to leave out artificial ingredients. It’s a simple recipe, which also means it’s ripe for interpretations. This rendition achieves the green coloring with spinach and adds a kick with green garlic. Dress up the spread even more by sprinkling crumbled bacon or herbs on top.

4. BEER CHEESE

This cheesy dip, best served with warm, soft pretzels, originated in the 1930s in—you guessed it—Kentucky. It’s so ubiquitous in the region that most natives don’t realize it’s not really a thing elsewhere in the U.S. But it should be! There, the gooey goodness appears on most bar menus and packaged versions are sold in grocery stores. While it’s gained popularity in other parts of the country in recent years, you’ll probably still have to whip up your own for your Derby party. Here’s a straightforward version that pairs a full-bodied beer with cheddar, Worcestershire, mustard, and hot sauce. Or go whole hog and make it a main meal, like this recipe for beer-cheese soup.

5. COUNTRY HAM BISCUITS

Salty, cured ham sliced thin, fried, and then layered between buttery biscuits—there might not be a more indulgent Southern specialty that makes the rounds at Derby parties each year. The Louisville food writer Steve Coomes likens country ham, produced mostly in Kentucky and neighboring Southern states, to “hillbilly prosciutto,” and it’s just as mouth-watering uncooked as it is pan-fried. For an update on the classic, slather baked tea biscuits with flavored mustard or butter blends before sandwiching ham slices in between. Can’t get your hands on a ham in time for the party? Make a simplified version with finely diced store-bought ham and mix it into the biscuit batter with a smattering of cheddar cheese before baking.

6. BOURBON BALLS

These boozy bite-sized treats—first devised in 1936 by Ruth Booe, co-founder of the Rebecca Ruth Candy Co. in Frankfort, Kentucky—can be rolled in powdered sugar or dipped in melted chocolate and topped with pecan halves; on the inside, the creamy center usually consists of some combination of bourbon, sugar, butter, chopped pecans, and semisweet chocolate. For a more unique presentation that preserves that sweet, boozy goodness, try a bourbon-ball trifle that layers chocolate cake with bourbon-laced pudding and mascarpone.

7. KENTUCKY BURGOO

A hearty meat stew, burgoo is most often made with chicken, beef, and lamb simmered with vegetables, beans, tomatoes, Worcestershire, sorghum or molasses, ketchup, vinegar, and spices. Nineteenth-century versions of burgoo served around the South frequently included squirrel, opossum, and rabbit, and was gently simmered and stirred for up to 24 hours. While we applaud the stamina of those early chefs, these days a good burgoo can be made in four to six hours. That’s still a commitment, to be sure, but the results—spicy, stick-to-your-ribs comfort food—are worth it. Like gumbo, burgoo has many variations; we’re partial to this one, which uses bourbon in the stock.

8. CHOCOLATE-BOURBON NUT PIE

Though all Kentuckians refer to this confection of chopped walnuts, chocolate chips, and bourbon as “derby pie,” you’ll never see it appear as such in cookbooks, thanks to the aggressively litigious Kern family, who originated the recipe in 1950 and later trademarked the name Derby-Pie™. Whatever you call it, though, it’s become a staple in Kentucky kitchens everywhere, especially at Derby time. You can still order the trademarked version through the Kern’s Kitchen website, but it’s easy enough to whip up your own rendition. Traditionalists will tell you that you have to use walnuts as the nut of choice in the filling, but pecans are often substituted, making the derby dessert essentially a pecan pie with chocolate and bourbon. This version, cleverly known as “Not Derby Pie Bars” tones down the sweetness a bit and reinvents the basic flavors as brownie-like bars.

10 Things You Might Not Know About Wine

iStock/MarkSwallow
iStock/MarkSwallow

Between the vine and the liquor store, plenty of secrets are submerged in your favorite bottle of wine. Here, Tilar J. Mazzeo, author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma, spills some of the best. Here are a few things you might not know about wine.

1. Digital eyes are everywhere in today's vineyards.

Certain premium estates in Bordeaux and Napa are beginning to look a little more like army bases—or an Amazon.com warehouse. They’re using drones, optical scanners, and heat-sensing satellites to keep a digital eye on things. Some airborne drones collect data that helps winemakers decide on the optimal time to harvest and evaluate where they can use less fertilizer. Others rove through the vineyard rows, where they may soon be able to take over pruning. Of course, these are major investments. 

2. Modern vineyards also bury a lot of cow skulls. 

They’re not everywhere, but biodynamic farming techniques are on the rise among vintners who don’t want to rely on chemicals, and this is one trick they’ve been known to use to combat plant diseases and improve soil PH. It’s called Preparation No. 505, and it involves taking a cow’s skull (or a sheep’s or a goat’s), stuffing it with finely ground oak chips, and burying it in a wet spot for a season or two before adding it to the vineyard compost.

3. Ferocious foliage is a vintner's secret weapon.

The mustard flowers blooming between vineyard rows aren’t just for romance. Glucosinolates in plants like radishes and mustard give them their spicy bite, and through the wonders of organic chemistry, those glucosinolates also double as powerful pesticides. Winemakers use them to combat nematodes—tiny worms that can destroy grape crops.

4. Roses in a vineyard are the wine country equivalent to the canary in the coal mine. 

Vintners plant roses among their vines because the flowers get sick before anything else in the field. If there’s mildew in the air, it will infect the roses first and give a winemaker a heads-up that it’s time to spray.

5. Birds of prey help protect the grapes.

Glasses of red wine and charcuterie
iStock/Natalia Van Doninck

Small birds like blackbirds and starlings can clear out 20 percent of a crop in no time. But you know what eats little birds? Big birds. Falconry programs are on the rise in vineyards from California to New Zealand. Researchers have found that raptors eat a bird or two a day (along with a proportion of field mice and other critters) and cost only about as much to maintain as your average house cat.

6. Small bugs become big problems in wine tasting rooms.

Winemakers are constantly seeking ways to manage the swarms of Drosophila melanogaster that routinely gather around the dump buckets in their swanky showrooms. You know these pests as fruit flies, and some vintners in California are exploring ways to use carnivorous plants to tackle the problem without pesticides. Butterworts, sundews, and pitcher plants all have sweet-sounding names, but the bug-eating predators are fruit fly assassins, and you’ll see them decorating tasting rooms across wine country.

7. Wine needs to be filtered. 

Winemaking produces hard-to-remove sediments. Filters can catch most of the debris, but winemakers must add “fining agents” to remove any suspended solids that sneak by. (Unwanted compounds in the wine bind with the fining agents so they can be filtered and removed.) Until it was banned in the 1990s, many European vintners used powdered ox blood to clean their wines. Today, they use diatomaceous earth (the fossilized remains of hard-shelled algae), Isinglass (a collagen made from fish swim bladders), and sometimes bentonite (volcanic clay). Irish moss and egg whites are also fine wine cleaners.

8. Wine is ever so slightly radioactive (that's a good thing).

About 5 percent of the premium wine sold for cellaring doesn’t contain what the label promises. So how do top-shelf buyers avoid plunking down serious cash on a bottle of something bunk? Most elite wine brokerages, auction houses, and collectors use atomic dating to detect fraud. By measuring trace radioactive carbon in the wine, most bottles can be dated to within a year or two of the vintage.

9. MRIs can determine the fine from the funk.

Even with atomic dating, there are certain perils involved in buying a $20,000 bottle of wine. Leaving a case in the hot trunk of your car is enough to ruin it, so imagine what can happen over a couple of decades if a wine isn’t kept in the proper conditions. Back in 2002, a chemistry professor at University of California at Davis patented a technique that uses MRI technology to diagnose the condition of vintage wines. This technique may soon be used at airport security, meaning you’ll be able to carry on your booze.

10. Wines can be aged instantly.

If you end up with a bottle of plonk, Chinese scientists have developed a handy solution. Zapping a young wine with electricity makes it taste like something you’ve cellar aged. Scientists aren’t quite sure how it happens yet, but it seems that running your wine for precisely three minutes through an electric field changes the esters, proteins, and aldehydes and can “age” a wine instantly.

Taco Bell is Opening a Taco-Themed Hotel in Palm Springs This Summer

Taco Bell Corp.
Taco Bell Corp.

For some, having a Taco Bell and its cheese-filled menu within driving distance is enough. For others, only a Taco Bell destination vacation will do. This August, the popular fast food chain is going to convert an existing Palm Springs, California, hotel into a burrito-filled Taco Bell getaway for a limited time.

The Bell Hotel will have all the usual amenities—rooms, food, gifts, and a salon—operating with a taco-themed cosmetic facelift. The nail salon, for example, will feature Taco Bell-inspired nail art. (Though we're not entirely sure what that consists of—possibly nails that resemble hot sauce packets.) The gift shop will feature Taco Bell apparel. Guests can also enjoy the standard variety of Taco Bell menu items. According to Thrillist, some new additions to their line-up are expected to be unveiled.

The as-yet-undisclosed hotel in Palm Springs will be operating as a Taco Bell partner for five nights total. As with pop-up stores and other publicity campaigns, the expectation is that guests will share their bizarre Taco Bell resort experience on social media and create some buzz around the brand. Taco Bell is no stranger to audacious marketing, as in the case of their Taco Bell Cantina in Las Vegas, which books weddings. Recently, the company also began making home deliveries via GrubHub.

The Bell Hotel website is now accepting sign-ups so fans can be notified when reservations open. The facility is expected to open August 9.

[h/t CNBC]

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