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Wednesday, January 29, 2014


If you could splash it on the ground and ignite it with gunpowder, you had 100% proof that it was at least 50% alcohol.

Buffalo Trace Distillery, nestled on the banks of the Kentucky River in Frankfort, is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States. Buffalo Trace (known then as the George T. Skagg Distillery)  remained operational during the era of prohibition. Buffalo trace was one of four distilleries issued permits to bottle bourbon for medicinal purposes. During prohibition, six million prescriptions for bourbon were filled in Kentucky. Happy sick people.

I had few expectations when Michael and I joined other professionals on a bitterly cold morning for a private industry tour of Buffalo Trace Distillery. Simply along for the ride, I knew there would be bourbon, bourbon barrels, and bourbon bottles. Other than that, I was game for anything. Blinded by the snow-covered grounds and brilliant blue sky, I guess I expected pretty things. Shiny stills. Pretty buildings. Flowers. I know, unrealistic great expectations.

It felt like a routine bourbon-tour-kind-of-a-day. After a brief introduction in the George T. Skagg Gallery & Gift shop, we broke off into smaller groups for a composite tour that included snippets of the The Trace Tour, Bourbon Barrel Tour, National Historic Landmark Tour, and The Hard Hat Tour. We started the day poking around a 130 year old brick and stone warehouse. Warehouse C, one of the earliest remaining intact
examples of "continuous rack warehouses",  stores nearly 24,000 bourbon-filled charred white oak barrels in a rigid grid of wooden racks that extend uninterrupted from top to bottom in the warehouse.The aging process is determined by where the barrels are stored. They age quicker at the top of the warehouse where they're exposed to more temperature variables. The really good stuff  (23 year old Pappy Van Winkle, for example) takes longer to age on the first floor.

After a quick stop in the barrel inspection warehouse, we slid over a few icy roads to watch workers hand bottle and label premium bourbons in the Blanton's Bottling Hall. The building, built in 1890 as a boiler room, was the original power and heat source for the distillery. It's now used to bottle their premium bourbons.

*Side note. Apparently, there's no rhyme or reason for the selection of the famed racing horse corks used to seal Blanton bottles. Who knew? I always thought it meant something. A little secret something something.
Nope. They're randomly pulled from a box and carefully plugged onto the bottles. Boom. Sealed.

Everything about the adventure was fascinating. Although I was merely along for the ride, I was captivated, mesmerized and bourbonized.

Halfway through the tour, we made our way to the Elmer T. Lee Clubhouse for a catered lunch and bourbon tasting. Booya. Warmed by lunch, a roaring fire, and teeny tastes of White Dog, Eagle Rare, Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon Whiskey, and Bourbon Cream, we bundled up for the Hard Hat Tour. We almost skipped the last leg because Michael didn't want to wear a hard hat.  Didn't blame him, really. Hat hair. As it turned out, hats were not required.

The game changed when we left the clubhouse. The skies turned grey as we made our way down slippery side roads to explore the mash, fermenting, and still houses. It was a weird and different world.  Heavy metal doors. Twisting steel stairwells. Grated steel flooring. Catwalks. Ramps.  We passed the old coal furnaces that still stands at the ready, if needed. Coal chutes. Shovels. Clamps. Steel. Oliver Twist. After sliding past grain receiving, we ended up in the mash house where three 10,000 gallon pressure cookers cook the inspected ground corn with Kentucky limestone water for an hour before other grains are added.

A few more stairs followed by a covered skyway  led us to the fermenting house where twelve 92,000 gallon fermenting tanks gurgled and bubbled with sour mash.  The numbers were staggering.

More metal stairs led to passageways under noisy rumbling pipes. "That's the mash pushing through the pipes." Gotcha. Comforting. It was crazy. Crazy fantastic. Where the hell were we? "The floor gives a little, but it's fine. Just wanted you to know."

Crooked metal stairs led to another heavy door. When it squeaked open, we were standing on the rooftop. The rooftop. Bolstered by the freezing temperatures, endless poofs of steam billowed from nowhere. From everywhere. When the cold breezes shifted, the steam enveloped me. I lost track of my people. I could hear them, but I couldn't see them. Haunting. Mysterious. For a lost moment, I felt like Meryl Streep cloaked in mist on the stone jetty from that scene in The French Lieutenant's Woman. Transported.

Back through the door, down more flights of stairs, out onto the street, and the tour was over. Just like that, it was over. In so many ways, it was exhilarating. Sure, it was a fabulous peak into the history and tradition of Buffalo Trace Distillery. In the end, it wasn't all about distilling bourbon. For me, it was about feelings and emotions. Buffalo Trace felt real. Our little adventure gave us an honest, gritty and raw glimpse into what really happens inside a distillery. I went into the day expecting pretty things. I left with an unexpected insight and fond emotional appreciation for the art of bourbon making. Pretty cool.

Most folks drink bourbon. I eat bourbon. During our tour, I had a notion that I'd pick up a bottle of bourbon to use for a pork glaze when we got home. Nope. Didn't happen. Too fussy. After reveling in the starkness of the day, I wanted something I could put my foot in.

Collard Greens.
I filled a stock pot with 5 cups of water before adding 2 sliced onions, 2 large bunches of torn collard greens (with stems), 3 smashed garlic cloves, a split country ham hock from Finchville Farms, seasoning salt, onion powder, kosher salt, cracked black pepper, a splash of Chrystal hot sauce, 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, and 1/4 cup Blanton's Bourbon.  I brought the stock to a boil, reduced the heat, and let it simmer for  2 1/2 hours.

After scooping the greens into bowls with ribbons of shredded pork, I topped our bourbon collards with poached eggs, a splash of vinegar, and cracked black pepper. With little resistance, the yolks exploded and spilled through the greens, oozing into the smoky sweet tang of the potent pot likker. Drinkable. Proofed.


Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Winter Market

I finally made it down to the Winter Market. In previous years, the Lexington Farmers' Market moved their digs into the atrium of Victorian Square for the winter season. This year, they stayed put. Located  under the Fifth-Third Pavilion in Cheapside Park, the market is open from 8:00AM-1PM every Saturday. The free street side parking on Short Street makes it a cinch to stop by and pick up seasonal offerings from our local farmers. On any given Saturday, chicken, beef, pork, lamb, goat, sweet potatoes, onions, breads, dried beans, canned goods,  eggs, greens, turnips, and other great things can be found. We're lucky to have a resource for locally grown farm to table opportunities available to us downtown in the dead of winter. It's
urban and real.

While I was thrilled to hear they were staying outside under the familiar confines of the pavilion, I expected to find it sectioned off and protected from the elements with barriers. Wind breaks. Tarps. Something. Nope. Armed with huge heaters, it was a full blown outdoor experience.
Business has been brisk at the Winter Market. Freed from the inner shell of Victorian Square with its piped-in music, the market is now more visible and accessible. If it's cold, bundle up when you go. Every scarf and glove will be worth the effort.

Although the Winter Market has been operating outdoors for a few weeks now, I managed to hit it on one of the bleakest days of the year. Snow. Ice. Wind. Freezing temperatures. Given all of that, I was greeted by happy farmers with smiling faces huddled under blasting heaters. Kudos. Numbed by the bitter winds, I grabbed a few sweet potatoes and baby onions before skedaddling back to my car. I can't wait to go back.

Sweet Potato Soup. 
Sweet potatoes, onions, and other stuff. I think I've roasted and pureed everything at some time or another. With pureed soups, I typically roast vegetables until they're ridiculously caramelized before blitzing them in a blender with cream and stock. That's usually how I roll. Roasting deepens their flavors and brings out their inherent sweetness, resulting in rich creamy soups. I thought about that route... for a minute.  I suppose a sultry burnt umber sweet potato soup would have been perfect on a blustery winter day. Nope. I flipped off the weather and went to a brighter side of sexy.

I needed stock. I didn't need a textbook stock, so I used  what I had on hand. After thawing a few chicken
parts and backs from the freezer, I dropped them into a stock pot with snapped celery stalks, quartered onions, parsley, bay leaves, and black peppercorns. I covered the chicken with cold water, brought the water to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, and skimmed the scum. After 3 hours (for a light stock), I ladled the stock through a cheesecloth-lined strainer, chilled it down quickly in an ice bath, and slid it into the refrigerator.

Instead of peeling, slicing, and roasting the sweet potatoes, I simple baked them in a 350 degree oven until they were fork tender. Midway through, I tumbled the onions onto the sheet pan with the potatoes, poured myself a glass of wine, and took a break. After 45 minutes I pulled the potatoes and onions from the oven to cool. When the potatoes were cool enough to handle, I scooped the fluffy flesh( about 2 1/2 cups)  into a blender with 2 cups warmed chicken stock, onions, salt, pepper, and smoked paprika. After adding 1/2 cup fresh orange juice and 1/4 cup fresh lime juice, I pureed the soup until it was smooth.

I poured the soup directly into my hand-me-down chipped Bybee Pottery soup bowls before finishing with tiny dollops of lime-infused sour cream, snipped chives, toasted almonds, and smoked paprika.

A new take on sweet potato soup. Without cream weighing it down, the citrus was key. The slight acidity of the orange/lime combination lightened the puree and countered the sweetness of the potatoes. While whispers of paprika gave the soup smoky warmth, the sour cream added subtle tang under the crunch of splintered almonds and grassy fresh chives. Light. Simple. Sassy.

Support the Lexington Farmers' Winter Market.

It's real.

Bundle up and check it out.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Citrus Bombs

Every year, Michael and I receive a crate of oranges and grapefruits from a dear friend. Without fanfare, they arrive on our front stoop on what always seems like the coldest day of the year. Like giddy school girls not knowing what to expect, we open the crate to reveal rows of individually wrapped plump and juicy citrus bombs. Sunshine in a crate. Delivered. Pretty cool.

Like clockwork, we pile the sunny fruit into large bowls and set them around the kitchen as if they'll radiate enough heat to offset the electric bill. Never happens. Eventually, we start eating and drinking them. The first few form the bases for mimosas, screwdrivers, greyhounds, and salty dogs. When we tire of squeezing them for juice, we start eating them. After the usual parade of citrus salads wears thin, I halve the grapefruits, score the little sections, dust them with  sugar, and broil them until they deeply caramelized.  Even with all of those shenanigans, we still have more oranges and grapefruits than two people could possible want to eat or drink. The citrus bombs always win. They outlast us.

Not this year.
I had a trick up my sleeve.
Grapefruit Tart.
Although I'm not much of a baker, I can muddle through a few citrus based things like curds and tarts. I have enough common sense to stay away from flaky pastry things, so I tend to go with more forgiving crumb crusts. Push and press. Yep.

The Crust.
For a subtle punch of spice, I crushed enough gingersnaps in a food processor to measure 2 1/2 cups. After mixing the crumbs with 6 tablespoons of melted unsalted butter, I pressed them into a 9" tart pan and tossed the shell into a 350 degree oven to bake for 10 minutes before setting it aside to cool.

The Curd.
I'm a sucker for citrus curds of any kind. I whisked 3 eggs, 3 egg yolks, and 1 cup sugar in a large mixing bowl. After adding 1/2 cup fresh squeezed grapefruit juice, 2 tablespoons grapefruit zest, and a pinch of salt, I placed the bowl over a pot of simmering water, whisked constantly, and cooked the filling until it was thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, about 15 minutes. I pulled the curd from the heat , added 4 tablespoons of butter, strained it directly into the cooled tart shell, placed the pan onto a sheet pan, and slid the tart into the oven (350 degrees) to set the curd, about 12 minutes.  When it started to puff, I pulled the tart from the oven to cool.

The Extras.
So, here's the deal. I wanted to play with a mix of grapefruit textures and flavors. Maybe....just maybe, I had a little too much time on my hands. Or, maybe I simply needed to gild the lily, tart up the tart, and take it out on a date. Whatever the case, I had a blast dabbing lipstick on the tart. Candied grapefruit...without the fuss. Candied citrus anything takes time. It's a process. Blanch. Drain. Blanche. Drain. Repeat. Blah blah blah. I wasn't opening a candy store, for Pete's sake. It was a garnish. In lieu of a production line, I simply melted 1 cup sugar into 1 cup water over a low flame.  When the mixture started to ripple, I dropped a few grapefruit slices into the simple syrup, simmered them for an hour, killed the heat, and let them cool in the sticky mix before transferring them to parchment paper to air dry. To echo the mild heat of
the gingered crust, I whipped 1 cup heavy cream with 1/4 cup powdered sugar. After hitting the stiff peak stage, I folded 2 tablespoons of crushed candied ginger into the whipped cream. Booya.

I topped petite slices of the grapefruit tart with dollops of whipped cream and candied grapefruit shards before tumbling a few supremes of fresh grapefruit to the side. From top to bottom, it was all about texture and flavor.

For such an innocent looking thing, the dainty little tart packed a multi-layered punch.  Mellowed by the whipped cream, the lingering spice of the crisp gingersnap crust poked through the slight tang of the soft curd and tempered the sweet wet acidity of the fresh grapefruit. It was a killer combination. Sweet. Crisp. Tart. Fresh.  Unexpected.