It’s not too early to stock up on your supply of Kentucky bourbon and a goodly amount of mint. If you can’t make it up to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, be sure to have a mint julep or two as you toast one of the world’s most celebrated horse races. At the same time you can salute those hearty pioneers who discovered and settled Naples.
In 1885, the founder of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Walter N. Haldeman, brought his yacht into Gordon Pass and fell in love with this deserted, mosquito-infested patch of land. He bought the whole town, which is now modern Naples and proceeded to bring his fellow Kentuckians to his new retreat in the sun.
Over the years, thousands of Kentuckians have followed suit and at one time they made up most of the population of Naples. With them they brought the tradition of celebrating the Kentucky Derby, and one of the highlights of the social year was to either attend or to host a Derby party.
This occasion gave everyone, even those intrepid Yankees, an opportunity to indulge in delicious and innovative Southern foods … and, yes, drink. For many years the thrill of the Derby came via the radio, and as listeners stood about drinking those zesty mint juleps, it was almost as if everyone was transported to Churchill Downs.
The juleps washed down such viands as the justly famous Kentucky country hams, sliced thin and served with Henry Bain sauce on beaten biscuits or Beene seed crackers. It was even better than being at the races when everyone indulged in cheese grits casserole, pecan pie, fried chicken, chicken salad, creamed oysters, cheese soufflé, pimento cheese sandwiches, deviled eggs, molded asparagus salad, lemon bars and tall, gleaming coconut cakes.
And, later, there was television so we could see the glorious outfits on the smartly dressed women crowned with hats that outshone those at Ascot. The food and drink remained traditionally Southern and often there were barbecues after the race with ribs or chicken and corn on the cob.
Earlier in the century, during Prohibition, the Kentuckians still managed to have their mint juleps come Derby Day. The entire region was notorious for the rumrunners who managed to avoid the federal agents who plagued them. In many of the cottages in Old Naples there are secret compartments where our early forebears managed to stash away the liquid contraband.
Although the mint julep is a delicious and powerful libation, it is almost totally ignored except on Derby Day. Although Kentuckians like to claim the mint julep as their very own, such is not the case. As far back as 1787 a publication called the American Museum described the mint julep as a sugared rum drink Virginians quaffed upon rising every morning. The drink originated in Maryland or Virginia and was made with brandy, rum or rye. An early English travel writer, John Davis described a julep as “a dram of spirituous liquor flavored with mint.”
If you’re planning to celebrate the Kentucky Derby, surely you plan to serve mint juleps. Even if you haven’t a traditional julep cup (a silver or pewter cup with straight sides) you’ll be excused if you use crystal goblets. As for the recipe for juleps; the most traditional recipe for a true Southern mint julep comes from that son of the south Henry Clay. Here is the recipe along with the good news a mint julep contains only 24 calories, no grams of fat, no cholesterol, no protein and one tiny gram of carbohydrate. As for it potency … well, I leave that up to you.
Henry Clay’s Southern mint julep
12 fresh mint leaves
1 teaspoon sugar
2 ounces bourbon
Plenty of freshly cracked ice
1 bunch mint for garnish
Fresh bottled water
-- In a tall, silver tumbler, gently bruise the 12 mint leaves and muddle with sugar and a dash of bourbon. Fill the glass halfway with cracked ice and agitate with a spoon.
-- Pack the rest of the tumbler or julep cup with the rest of the bourbon and equal parts of fresh water and carbonated water.
-- Garnish with mint sprigs, twist a lemon zest over the leaves and dust with powdered sugar. Serve with 2 short straws. Makes one serving.
Molded asparagus salad
2 pounds fresh asparagus
1½ tablespoons unflavored gelatin
¼ cup cold water
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup heavy cream, whipped
1 teaspoon onion juice
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and cayenne pepper to taste
8-ounce can whole water chestnuts, drained and sliced.
-- Butter large ring mold or two small ones. Set aside.
-- Cook whole asparagus until just tender, reserving 1 cup of the cooking water. Slice asparagus lengthwise.
-- Sprinkle gelatin on cold water to soften; add to hot asparagus water and stir until dissolved. Chill until thick.
-- Combine mayonnaise and whipped cream and fold into gelatin mixture. Add onion juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt and cayenne pepper.
-- Spoon 1/3 of the mixture into mold; put on half of the asparagus and half of the water chestnuts. Repeat to make second layer. Top with remaining 1/3 of the mixture.
-- Chill until firm; unmold. Serves 10 to 12.
4 tablespoons butter (½ stick)
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup milk
½ teaspoon salt or to taste
A few grains of cayenne pepper
½ cup grated cheese
4 egg yolks, beaten lightly
4 egg whites, stiffly beaten
-- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter and blend in flour. Gradually stir in milk; cook, stirring constantly, until thickened.
-- Add salt, pepper and cheese, stirring until cheese is melted. Remove from heat and beat in egg yolks.
-- Cool mixture, and gently fold in egg whites.
-- Pour into a buttered soufflé dish and bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
Q: My favorite restaurant was Hilde’s Tea Room and I miss the borscht she served. A friend told me that you had a good recipe and I would appreciate having it.
— Mae Beth McManus, Bonita Springs
A: I never could get Hilde’s recipe from her. This is the closest I could come.
2 1-pound cans diced beets, drained (or 2 pounds cooked fresh beets)
3 cup rich beef stock
1 teaspoon wine vinegar
¼ cup Burgundy wine (optional, but will add much flavor)
1 tablespoon onion juice
½ teaspoon white pepper
2 teaspoons celery salt
1 8-ounce carton sour cream (low-fat or plain yogurt may be used)
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh parsley
-- Combine half the beets and a small amount of the stock in a blender or food processor and process until the beets are pureed.
-- Repeat the process using the remaining beets and a small amount of the stock. Combine the pureed beet mixture, the remaining stock, vinegar, wine, onion juice and seasonings.
-- Chill for several hours and serve in individual soup bowls with a dollop of sour cream or yogurt, sprinkled with parsley. Serve 8 to 10.
Doris Reynolds is the author of “When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet Was Fried” and “Let’s Talk Food.” They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available for sale is a 4-part DVD, “A Walk Down Memory Lane with Doris Reynolds.” For comments and questions regarding today’s column, contact Doris Reynolds at email@example.com.