Re-reading Hunter S. Thompson’s notorious story, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” I can’t help feeling like I missed out. The past few Derbys I’ve attended haven’t nearly reached the level of decrepitude Thompson describes. You’re more likely to spend all day standing in line than to be hit in the head with a whiskey bottle.
Still, if you’re looking to celebrate Derby in a way that’s guaranteed to be decadent without too much depravity, your best bet is to host a Derby party.
Like most successful shindigs, this one should have several main elements: good food, ample booze, and lively guests. Music and décor help the mood, but the first three are essential.
On Derby Day, guests are likely to be restless as they mingle and contemplate their betting picks. Serving a variety of hearty, bite-size treats buffet style will fuel your pals while allowing them to work the room (which they’ll do, if you’ve chosen wisely). You’re probably familiar with time-honored Kentucky race day dishes such as deviled eggs, Benedictine, and bourbon pecan pie. If you want to turn heads though, you should consider trying something a little different.
For ideas on traditional Derby foods with a twist, I turned to Barbara Goldman, head chef at Parc Café in Maysville, Kentucky. Goldman whips up specials that inject traditional Kentucky dishes with delicious twists. She was kind enough to share the recipes for a few of her covetable dishes, which you can find at the bottom of the article. If you’d like a fresh take on a Southern classic, brandish a platter of her fried green tomatoes with bourbon cherry chutney and goat cheese crumbles. Bored with traditional country ham and biscuits? Try Goldman’s riff on the dish, bourbon peach balsamic glaze with country ham and blue cheese crumbles on toast points. It’s sure to chase away biscuit fatigue. And for heaven’s sake, don’t neglect dessert. Study Goldman’s bourbon bread pudding, perfect it, and then make extra helpings.
As far as drinks, it’s without question that you’ll have bourbon. A proper mint julep should be made individually rather than in batches, so for the sanity of the home bartender, I would recommend a less time-intensive cocktail. Perhaps a carafe with Bourbon Bloody Marys or a heaving bowl of bourbon punch with a big ice ring in the middle. For guests who are intimidated by the brown water, keep sparkling wine and orange juice for mimosas on hand, not to mention pitchers and pitchers of homemade iced tea.
Don’t forget the guest list. Try to invite a fun mix of folks, both close friends and a few newer guys and gals that will keep things interesting. Note: It’s usually worth it to invite one slightly outrageous person who will say or do something conversation-worthy as well. You have to have a little depravity, after all.
For décor, a simple equestrian theme with horseshoes, Derby glasses, and red roses ties the event together. Have some racing programs available as well. However, don’t get too fussy about the style of dishes or other flourishes; you’re better off spending the extra money on a higher grade of country ham or bourbon.
If your friends are up for it, feel free to encourage them to gussy up in seersucker, fancy hats, and bowties. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that’s how everyone at the track dresses. At Churchill Downs, you’ll see all kinds of get-ups, from the t-shirts and shorts of the infield denizens to the serious horsemen and women in jeans who never leave the barns on the backside. Of course, ladies in over-the-top headwear and dapper gents are also represented in vast numbers, from the clubhouse to the concession stand. A few of them may even hazily resemble the caricatures in Thompson’s story. Whatever you do, make sure you’re not one of them at your own party. Unless, of course, that’s what you’re going for.
Bet your Boots, Bourbon Recipes for Derby Parties and Festive Events
Barbara Goldman, Head Chef, Parc Café
Recipes Serve 5
Fried Green Tomatoes with Bourbon Cherry Chutney and Goat Cheese Crumbles
3 firm green tomatoes
Dash of salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup buttermilk
1/3 cup cornmeal
½ cup fine dry bread crumbs
¼ cup peanut oil
1/3 cup goat cheese crumbles
1 thirteen-ounce container of cherry preserves
½ cup Bourbon
½ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
a) Wash each unpeeled tomato and slice into ½ inch slices. Sprinkle with salt and let stand for 3 minutes. Place flour in a separate bowl. Beat buttermilk and egg in an additional bowl, and bread crumbs and cornmeal into another.
b) Heat peanut oil in skillet at medium heat. Dip tomato slices into flour bowl, then buttermilk/egg mix, and finally cornmeal-bread crumb bowl. Fry each side of tomato slices in oil for 3-5 minutes or until brown. Set cooked tomatoes on paper towels to cool.
c) In an additional skillet heat cherry preserves at medium heat. Add brown sugar, lemon juice, and bourbon. Keep your eye on preserves, stirring occasionally. When mix comes to boil, 7-10 minutes, allow to cool for 5 minutes.
d) Place each fried tomato open faced on serving plate. Dollop a tablespoon of Bourbon Cherry Chutney on each tomato slice. Sprinkle with goat cheese crumbles.
Bourbon Peach Balsamic Glaze with Country Ham and blue cheese crumbles on toast points
½ pound country ham
3 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup brown sugar
½ cup blue cheese crumbles
a) Slice baguette into ½ inch slices. Lay onto pan open faced. Sprinkle with olive oil and toast for 5 minutes at 400 degrees. Allow pan to cool and place small pieces of ham on each toast point.
b) Wash and slice peaches, removing seed. In skillet, heat the remaining oil on medium heat. Add peach slices and balsamic. Stir skillet continuously to keep peaches from burning. Add brown sugar and bourbon. After sugar has dissolved and peaches are as crispy as you prefer, remove from heat.
c) Dollop a peach slice on each country ham toast point. Sprinkle blue cheese across peaches and ham.
Bourbon Bread Pudding (to be served with Bourbon Hard Sauce, recipe below)
12 cake donuts
1 cup chocolate chips
½ stick softened butter
1/2 quart heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
Non-stick cooking spray
a) Spray deep baking dish with non-stick spray. Break apart donuts into baking dish. Dash cinnamon onto the top of donuts in baking dish. In a separate bowl mix all other ingredients. Pour mixture on top of donuts and cover with foil. Bake for 45 minutes at 400 degrees.
Bourbon Hard Sauce (to be served with bread pudding or on top of ice cream. Or perhaps both)
½ cup Bourbon
1, two pound box brown sugar
1 quart heavy whipping cream
a) Heat all ingredients in skillet on medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally and not allowing to boil. Take off of heat source when sauce comes to a boil.
b) Pour on top of desired desert.