I am sometimes forced to admit that, as a transplanted New Yorker, I have missed my home from time to time. Honestly, there are elements of the northeast that will never be found here in the Bluegrass. If it makes me an elitist snob to reveal that, well I guess I can live with that. Because it’s spring in Kentucky, one of the very best times of year in this part of the country, and if I have to live with my snobbery, at least the living is easy.
Besides the obvious benefits of an early spring, long growing season, excellent farmland, wizard farmers and a fierce adherence to the old (and best) ways, there are two other reasons why spring in Kentucky is primo: basketball and bourbon. We found out the Great No. 8 team will leave en masse, and some will drown their sorrows or toast the team’s success with a shot of Kentucky’s best bourbon.
Most areas of the country have their identities meshed with the day-to-day reality of living there. New York City is big, busy and full of diversity. That diversity is a gift, and sometimes a burden both in the social sense and in the culinary world. “I need to make it in New York” could be the mantra of every up-and-coming cook, at least when I was up and coming. When I lived and worked in Maine, specifically Portland, I worked for one of the best seafood vendors in town: Harbor Fish. They were known for their off-the-boat-fresh fish and seafood, and they delivered that every day. Fresh scallops eaten raw right out of the shell, thin slivers of sushi-grade tuna back before we knew what sushi-grade tuna was, and fresh Maine shrimp – tiny, sweet and gone oh too soon!
When we arrived in Kentucky in the summer of 1990, I knew that tobacco, horses and coal were the key elements of the state’s identity. It wasn’t long, however, before local produce starting arriving at the back door of Dudley’s restaurant. From that moment on, Kentucky became for me and a group of fellow chefs a culinary playground driven by great produce, livestock and farmers. This is the identity that continues today, and I am happy to include that basketball and bourbon have made my stay that much sweeter.
The ability for chefs from white tablecloth restaurants to small delis to have this quality and diversity of goods to work with is amazing. It highlights not only the craftsmanship of the farmer but also the overwhelming need of a small but economically powerful group of customers. They demand good food, whether at the market or the restaurant table, and that demand has made up for the precipitous drop in tobacco sales.
With the rise of food comes the parallel rise of drink, and that has been no less dramatic and compelling. Once in the deep past, Kentucky was known for its vineyards. When they fell into disrepair and neglect, so too did the know-how. Today we see the vines back in place, and the slow inexorable climb back to first plausibility, then in the future, respectability and hopefully prominence.
The rise in bourbon greatness is more understandable but still remarkable in its own right. Bourbon was the lifeblood of many a small-town distillery and, quite surprisingly, it still is. In fact that small town appeal has a name: artisanship. These brands never grew up and moved away, and that probably is the secret of their success. They are made using great ingredients, local machinery and locations, and generational expertise, the cornerstones of all that is artisanal.
When I cooked in local restaurants, it was with a sense of pride in most everything I cooked with. More and more, it’s not just pride but great marketing to advertise all things local. This concept is nationwide, but to me it also represents a shift in how we perceive Kentucky. No longer is it just the few big things that are celebrated, that make the state what it is; it’s all the little things we do so well.
A word about bourbon and pork – they go well together. I usually try to pair several pork products with the bourbon to produce several different layers of flavor and texture. I will wrap pork tenderloin with bacon, sear it, and then transfer the pork to the oven to finish to medium. In the pan that’s left, I sauté a sliced shallot until it caramelizes, deglaze (off the flame) with a hefty shot of bourbon (usually ¼ cup, sometimes more), and when the flames subside add a little pork stock (made with pork bones/ribs, water and a mire poix), brown sugar and cream.
Reduce the mixture until it lightly coats the back of a spoon and you are ready to eat. If I use the bourbon to marinate a shoulder, I will make the marinade with a little raw bourbon but will cook the alcohol out of the rest. Too much raw alcohol will de nature the protein, in essence cooking it chemically. My marinade will consist of bourbon two ways, brown sugar ( a good local substitute is sorghum but go easy on it), Dijon mustard, cracked black pepper, apple cider, apple cider vinegar and a little lemon zest. There is no set recipe, but I do taste it before the pork shoulder goes in. I’m looking for some sweetness, heat and tanginess in that order. I also want more of a wet rub, not a liquid, so whisk thoroughly to get the textures combined. Rub down the shoulder, let it sit for a couple of days, and then smoke, roast and pull. A new marinade can then be made to serve as a sauce for the pork, but the ingredients (set aside the mustard) should be simmered and then whisk in the mustard to taste.
John Foster is an executive chef who heads the culinary program at Sullivan University’s Lexington campus. A New York native, Chef Foster has been active in the Lexington culinary scene for more than 20 years. The French Culinary Institute-trained chef has been an executive chef, including at the popular Dudley’s restaurant, and a restaurant owner.