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And They’re Off…

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That’s a good sound when you’re talking about horse racing; the starting gate has opened and the horses are running.  

Looking back over my life, I don’t think I have ever missed a Kentucky Derby. When I was young, we would watch the race at our house as if it were the Super Bowl. All the fanfare that goes with it takes you back in time and away from life today; I love the idea of dressing up as they did back in the day with hats, dresses, top hats and dress coats along with classic drinks and food. The Kentucky Derby is one place that is on my bucket list to visit and experience. 

This is the first time since the end of World War II the Kentucky Derby did not take place on the first Saturday in May. As of HERLIFE Magazine’s print date, the Derby is scheduled for September 5, 2020, with spectators limited to 23,000 with reserved seating. You can bet that we will be waiting to watch as the gates open.

As always, it’s the food and drink that really intrigue me. Some classics for the Derby are the mint julep, a combination of fresh mint, easy simple syrup and Kentucky bourbon served over a full glass of crushed ice, and black and blue salad, a spinach-based salad with blackberries, blue cheese crumbles and chopped pecans served with a blackberry and blue cheese vinaigrette dressing. Then there’s the famous Kentucky Brown open-faced sandwich, developed at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, by Fred K. Schmidt in 1926. Chef Schmidt created this dish upon the request of many of the visitors in the Brown Hotel. With all-night dancing and parties at the hotel for the much-anticipated Derby, he knew there was a need for something other than ham and eggs and club sandwiches for guests at the Brown Hotel. As does any creative chef, Schmidt started by working with the ingredients he had on hand and developing something with a totally different taste. It was an open-faced sandwich, which means there is only one slice of bread, usually toasted, piled with protein and vegetables with a cheese sauce, then put under the oven broiler until it becomes brown. Served warm to the customers, this new addition to the hotel menu was so well liked that it quickly became a tradition.  

Back home with my family, we would have open-faced sandwiches for dinner. Usually it was leftover chicken, sliced tomato with bacon and sliced cheese, placed in the oven under the broiler. When the cheese was nice and melted and starting to get brown, Mom would pull them out of the oven and they were so tasty. This was her version of the famous sandwich even though we didn’t eat them just for Derby day. Today the Kentucky Brown Sandwich recipe has been converted to appetizers, sliders, dips and even casseroles. I do love the many recipes that are out there but I still favor the open-faced original sandwich. Traditional Derby desserts can range from cupcakes to pecan pie; anything goes as long as it has some Kentucky bourbon in the recipe. 

Several years ago, I had a bridal shower for one of my daughters and used the Kentucky Derby as my theme. The invitation requested the guest to dress up and come with a decorative hat. The back room at Lodi’s downtown Dancing Fox Restaurant was the perfect rustic room for this event. We used fresh roses on the table with linen and white plates. Fresh mint plants were replanted in mint julip glasses and given as gifts. We voted for the best hat, had a photo both and took a group picture to capture the event. We had a cold version of the Brown sandwich with salads and mint julip cupcakes. This was one of the best showers I have ever had the privilege to host, for several reasons but mostly for the love of my daughter.

To bring a bit of Kentucky to your Derby party, try this open-faced sandwich; I bet you will make it again, and not just for the Derby.

Kentucky Brown Sandwich

2 tsp. finely chopped onion
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1½ cups milk
pinch of cayenne
1 tbsp. dry sherry
¾ – 1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar
4 slices of homemade-type white bread, toasted lightly
½ pound cooked turkey breast, sliced thin
4 thin slices tomato
8 slices cooked bacon
1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan
chopped chives for decoration

Start by making the cheese sauce. In a small saucepan, cook the onion in the butter on medium-low heat, stirring until the onion becomes soft. Using a whisk, add the flour and whisk until combined, making a roux. Remove the pan from the heat and add the milk, whisking vigorously until the mixture is smooth. Add the cayenne, salt and pepper to taste. Place back on low heat and thicken to the desired consistency. Strain the sauce through a sieve to remove any lumps, which will be the onions and maybe a little flour, which I like in the sauce, so straining is up to you. Add the sherry and cheddar, stirring until the mixture is smooth.

Start the sandwich by toasting your bread. Arrange the toasts on a baking pan and divide the turkey among them. Top each sandwich with a tomato slice and 2 slices of bacon and spoon the sauce evenly over the sandwiches. Sprinkle the sandwiches with the Parmesan and broil them under a preheated broiler about 4 inches from the heat for 5 to 7 minutes or until the tops are brown and bubbly. Place on a serving plate, sprinkle with additional Parmesan cheese and chives and serve. This makes 4 servings.

Now the sandwiches are done, the mint juleps are mixed, salad tossed and the bourbon cookies are ready. The family is on its way and today is Kentucky Derby Day at my house. I can’t wait to see the hats and traditions that this day brings. From my recipe box to yours, cheers!