CHEERS: A Toast to Bourbon Month 

CHEERS: A Toast to Bourbon Month 

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By Tom Yates

Twenty minutes before service, I left the controlled chaos of the kitchen to gather my thoughts and take a quiet stroll through the shaded grounds of My Old Kentucky Home State Park.

September means different things to different people. To me, it’s a nostalgic reminder of the two years I taught the Culinary Arts: Bourbon Style Cooking School at the Kentucky Bourbon Festival. For bourbon lovers, it means descending on Bardstown, KY  for a nonstop celebration of all things bourbon during the annual two week festival. With a myriad of events scheduled daily and nightly, there’s something for everyone craving bourbon. 

The Culinary Arts: Bourbon Style Cooking School usually snags a prime spot during the first week of the festival. Smallish in comparison to the other events, it’s the first to sell out as the hot ticket up for grabs to the estimated 53,000  attendees of the two week event. 

For back to back years, I was fortunate enough to head a catering team for the Bourbon Cooking School and lead (on a cramped corner stage) 250 paying guests through a five course meal jacked up with Jim Beam Bourbon. After months of planning, testing, prepping, and cooking, we’d load up our goods and take our makeshift mobile kitchen 70 miles down the road to Bardstown  for the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival. Set up. Hook Up. Mise. Prep. Cook. Chill. Hold. Mark. Place. Delegate. Lead. Trust. Breathe. Repeat. With very few (zilch) on site resources, precise planning and concise packing was key. Fetching forgotten stuff wasn’t an option. 

It’s one thing to love the sanctuary of the kitchen when hammering out food, it’s another animal altogether to step out of the kitchen and demo said food in front of an adoring bourbon guzzling crowd.

Twenty minutes before service, I needed to breathe.

After meeting Fred Noe, the seventh-generation Jim Beam distiller, I gathered the staff for a quick pre-shift rundown and hit the stage for what would become my last (by choice) stint teaching the Culinary Arts: Bourbon Style Cooking. Thankfully, the traditional pre-dinner bourbon toast was obligatory for everyone present. I chugged.

• Southern Cornbread with Jim Beam Red Stag Whipped Butter. Check.

• Basil Hayden Marinated Shrimp Cocktail Shooter. A Two-Fer. Check.

• Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Fried Sage and Jim Beam White Label creme fraiche. Check.

• Bakers Bourbon Braised Short Ribs. Check.

• Chocolate Bread Pudding with Bookers Bourbon German Chocolate Hard Sauce. Say no more. Check. Double Check.

After 25 years, they’ve pulled the Bourbon Cooking School from this year’s festival to make room for other events. Whether or not it returns to the schedule, I’m proud to have joined a long list of area chefs that helped ignite the rage of marrying bourbon with food before it was cool. Trailblazers. The Bourbon Trail. Kentucky Proud.

Bakers Bourbon Braised Short Ribs

Looking over my prep lists and costs sheets from the event that year, I worked with 250 pounds of Certified Angus Beef Short Ribs. There’s the beef.

Revisiting my old recipe recently, I dialed it back a bit.

Replacing bourbon with red wine, I  cooked the beef with a nod to beef bourgignon.

Sear.

Brown food equals flavor. I seasoned 4 pounds room temperature Marksbury Farm beef short ribs with salt and pepper. After slicing thick cut bacon into 1/2” lardons, I fried the bacon in a large dutch oven until crispy and scooped the lardons onto a paper towels to drain. While the bacon fat was still smoking hot, I seasoned the short ribs with salt and pepper before searing the ribs on all sides (using tongs to turn). When deeply caramelized, about 4 minutes per side, I pulled them from the pot, and set them aside.

Flavor.

I drained all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat from the pot, returned it to the heat, and tumbled 2 sliced carrots, 2 sliced celery stalks, 2 quartered onions into the hot fat. When the vegetables started to sweat, I added 2 crushed garlic cloves, salt, and cracked black pepper. Before the vegetables took on color, I added 2 tablespoons tomato paste and swirled it through the softened vegetables, making a point to coat them with the paste as they cooked down. After the tomato toasted and darkened to a brickish color, I pulled the dutch oven from the heat and deglazed the pot with 1 cup bourbon. I returned the pot to the heat and reduced the bourbon to a glaze before adding 3 cups beef stock, 1 cup additional  bourbon, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 bay leaves, 1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns, salt, fresh thyme sprigs, fresh parley stems, and fresh rosemary. I brought the stock to a boil, reduced it to a simmer, and slid the the short ribs (covered) into a preheated 350 degree oven.

Extras.

Two hours into the braise, I sauteed sliced button mushrooms in a combination of butter and oil until golden brown, showered them salt, and set them aside. After adding 1 tablespoon oil to the cast iron skillet, I tumbled 1 pound blanched and peeled whole pearl onions into the skillet, sauteed them until they started to caramelize, scooped them out, and tossed them with the reserved mushrooms.

Finish.

After three hours, I pulled the short ribs from the oven, carefully removed them to a side plate and strained the braising liquid through a fine mesh sieve, discarding the solids. After skimming the accumulated fat from the top of the sauce, I returned it to the heat and reduced it by half before swirling a beurre manié  (a flour and butter paste) into the sauce to thicken it a bit.

After briefly warming the short ribs in the satiny bourbon-infused sauce, I nestled the ribs over Weisenberger Mill pimento cheese grits, scattered the sauteed mushrooms and pearl onions to the side, and drizzled additional sauce over the ribs before finishing with salt, cracked black pepper, and micro greens.

Kentucky Short Ribs.

Bourbonized.

Check.

September is Bourbon Month. Celebrate responsibly. 

(More bourbon-infused recipes by Ace food writer  Chef Tom at aceweekly.com.)