Exploring KY cooking with top Lex chef Phil Dunn

Phil Dunn offers min Hot Brown in cooking class When England’s horse-loving Queen Elizabeth first visited Lexington, her personal chef was Phil Dunn. We don’t know what dishes he served to the Queen, but we do know that Dunn favors gourmet meals and enjoys exploring international flavors. He’s particularly fond of making European pastries—and anything with pasta.

A gorgeous display kitchen at Architectural Kitchens & Baths (345 Lafayette Ave., www.akandb.com) is the perfect setting for Dunn’s popular half-day cooking classes. We attended a recent session and learned that Dunn is equally comfortable with down-home Kentucky cooking. He makes familiar dishes his own through refined technique and a penchant for turning larger plates into finger food—perfect for parties in this most social of cities.

Dunn makes a spicy version of Kentucky Beer Cheese (a cracker spread) that has a thick, rich texture. “You must use flat beer,” he told us. “It’s too fluffy if you use carbonated beer.” He also cautions against over-pulsing in the food processer. “It should be a little chunky.”

He also showed us how to make mini versions of Kentucky’s iconic Hot Brown open-face sandwich by layering Mornay sauce, slices of turkey, bacon, and tomato on slices of baguette. That’s Phil above handing one over to a hungry onlooker.

But we were most taken with his bite-size Bourbon Cakes, a clever use of Kentucky’s signature spirit to round out a meal. He soon had us dipping one-inch squares of firm vanilla cake into a warm bourbon mixture and then rolling them in ground vanilla wafers and chopped walnuts. It took a couple of tries to get the rhythm of wet hand for the bourbon and dry hand for the crumbs, but we were soon on a roll. The little bites are addictive, but if you have any left over, Dunn claims that they will keep for three to four months in the freezer. For information about classes, send an email to phildunn1948@gmail.com.


Phil Dunn makes Kentucky Beer Cheese
1 cup beer
1 lb. extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Pour beer into a mixing bowl and whisk until it loses its carbonation. Place in food processor, add remaining ingredients, and process until well-mixed but still slightly chunky. Adjust seasoning to taste and refrigerate before serving.


Makes 200 squares bourbon cakes by Phil Dunn

For the cake
6 oz. (1 1/2 sticks) softened unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
8 egg yolks
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup warm milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Combine butter and sugar in mixer and blend well. Add egg yolks and blend well. Sift dry ingredients together and add mixture alternately with milk and vanilla extract. Beat until batter is very smooth. It will be thick. Spray a half sheet pan (18×13 inches) with cooking oil and spread batter evenly with a metal spatula.

Bake at 325 degrees for about 25 minutes until cake is golden brown. Cool completely. Cut into one-inch squares.

For the soaking liquid and coating
8 oz. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1 1/3 cups bourbon (Dunn used Very Old Barton)
2 lb. confectioners sugar
12 oz. vanilla wafers, ground
2 cups walnuts, finely chopped

Combine melted butter with bourbon and confectioners sugar. Combine vanilla wafers with walnuts.

Dip cake squares in warm bourbon mixture. (Do not let it cool.) Quickly drain cake squares, then roll them in vanilla wafer-walnut mixture.


08 2015

Belle’s Cocktail House is bourbon ground zero

Seth Thompson at Belle's Cocktail House in Lexington, KY A leading contender for the title of Best Bourbon Bar in Lexington, Kentucky, has to be Belle’s Cocktail House (152 Market St.), which opened in late November 2013. It is the brainchild of barman, musician, and restaurateur Larry Redmon and the young gents behind The Bourbon Review (gobourbon.com), Bob Eidson and brothers Justin and Seth Thompson (above). The magazine, by the way, calls itself “A Guide to the Bourbon lifestyle.” With coverage of bourbon bars, cocktails, horse races, and all manner of civilized drinking, the magazine’s idea of the bourbon lifestyle is whole lot classier than the version that gave George Jones so much to sing about.

Belle's Cocktail House in Lexington, KY The bar is named for Belle Brezing (1860-1940), the famous madam who ran Lexington’s “most orderly of disorderly houses” at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Her place of business was shut down along with other brothels by the U.S. Army in 1915, but Belle’s fame lived on as a Lexington folk hero. The bar, which carries more than 100 bourbons, has no games, no jukebox, and no food other than bar snacks. It is dedicated to social interaction and the art of enjoying good drink. (There are some TVs, mostly to catch the Kentucky Wildcats during basketball season.)

After trying a few rare bourbons straight up, we couldn’t resist one of the bar’s signature cocktails called Gatewood’s Manhattan. Like all good things in Kentucky, it comes with a story. First of all, “Gatewood” refers to the late Gatewood Galbraith, a sometimes criminal lawyer and frequent political candidate for governor. He believed fervently in outlawing mountainside-removal coal mining and in legalizing marijuana. He did not win any of those elections, and strip-mining and pot busts still take place in Kentucky. Gatewood was much beloved as a colorful character.

Gatewood was also legendarily fond of bourbon, so the Manhattan is made with Buffalo Trace bourbon, some smoky Sombra Mezcal, and a dash of Liquid Smoke as a nod to Gatewood’s penchant “for smoking all kinds of things,” as Seth Thompson explained.


Making Gatewood's Manhattan at Belle's Cocktail House in Lexington, KY Belle’s gives out the ingredients but not the recipe. Here’s how we observed it being made.

2 oz. Buffalo Trace bourbon
1/2 oz. Dolin sweet vermouth
1/2 oz. Sombra mezcal
1 dash Abbot’s Bitters
1 dash Liquid Smoke
Luxardo Maraschino cherry

In a shaker filled with ice, add bourbon, vermouth, and mezcal. Strain into cocktail glass and add dash of bitters and dash of Liquid smoke. Stir. Add maraschino cherry and serve.


08 2015

Lexington chefs show true grits

Mac Weisenberger with millstone
The fried oysters with cheese-sausage grits at Nick Ryan’s (157 Jefferson St., Lexington; 859-233-7900; nickryans.com) were real eye-openers, since both the batter on the bivalves and the grits had striking corn flavor. Then we tried the shrimp and grits at Coles (735 Main St., Lexington, 859-266-9000; coles735main.com), and had the same epiphany. There was really something special about the grits these Lexington, Kentucky chefs were using.

grits at Nick Ryan's and at Coles in Lexington

Few restaurants have the luxury of using freshly ground, locally grown grains with the germ intact, which gives a much more profound flavor than nationally distributed products where the germ is removed to make them more shelf-stable. The difference is comparable to fresh sweet corn as opposed to corn picked a week earlier and shipped across the country. We were so intrigued that we decided to go to the source.

Weisenberger Mill (2545 Weisenberger Mill Rd., Midway; 859-254-5282; weisenberger.com) is just a little over 11 miles northwest of downtown Lexington. We admit to taking our time to get there, as there was too much handsome horse country to ogle along the way on Route 421. But when we turned a corner and began twisting downhill to South Elkhorn Creek, we could hear the falls even before we spotted the mill.

Weisenberger Mill on SOuth Elkhorn Creek in Midway, Kentucky The Weisenberger family has been grinding corn since 1865, has been at this location since 1870, and built the current mill in 1913. It’s a towering presence beside the mill dam—a big limestone building standing three stories above the creek bank and another extending below the bank to house part of the mill machinery. Safety concerns prohibit mill tours, but the 1913 equipment is still grinding away. Some of the grains go through roller mills, but the cornmeal, grits, and whole wheat are all milled on stones, not unlike the one that Mac Weisenberger is posing with above.

Mac’s son Philip is titular head of the business now—the sixth generation of the family—but Mac is in no hurry to escape his daily grind. “I’ve been here every day since 1973,” he admits, “and off and on since I was a kid.” Mac is proud that Weisenberger Mill buys all its grains from a 100-mile radius. “We put the county where it was grown and the name of the farm on every package,” he says.

Grits are the biggest seller for Weisenberger, with white grits outselling yellow three to one. Mac likes his prepared very simply, just boiled with salt and water and topped with a knob of sweet creamery butter. Cornmeal is another popular item, again with white leading yellow. “When I was a kid,” Mac says, “no one even ate yellow corn.” He notes, however, that white corn is not as white as it used to be either, so cornbread “has a kind of yellow tinge.”

Weisenberger mixes small Restaurants and other institutions represent the biggest part of the business for Weisenberger Mill, but the products are available in Central Kentucky at Kroger’s grocery stores and at many small independent grocers as well as on a rack in the mill’s office. In addition to cornmeal and whole wheat flour in larger sacks, Weisenberger also makes a number of packaged mixes, including fish batter, hushpuppy, spoonbread, pancake, and biscuit blends. All the products can be ordered through the web site www.weisenberger.com. We can especially endorse the white grits, which we used to make grits with black truffles and poached egg.


08 2015

Keeneland Track Kitchen starts the day right

Keeneland Track Kitchen Thoroughbred horses are among the most beautiful creatures to walk the earth, and few places to see them are quite as magical as Keeneland (www.keeneland.com) in Lexington, Kentucky. For us, the defining character of the track is its sheer egalitarianism. Everyone there loves horses, and when you’re in the presence of equine majesty, it really doesn’t matter whether you’re a stable hand, a groom, a jockey, a trainer, an owner, or just an admirer of horses.

Keeneland horse barns That’s part of why we think breakfast at the Keeneland Track Kitchen is a must for every visitor to Lexington. There are two race seasons at the track: April and October. In fact, this fall’s schedule concludes with the 2015 Breeder’s Cup on October 30-31. But Keeneland is also the premier thoroughbred auction house, with big sales in September, November, January, and April.

Admission is charged to the auctions and races, but Keeneland is a major training center and the track is open to the public for free during the training hours of 6-10 a.m. Everyone is also welcome at the Track Kitchen, which opens at 6. We won’t make exaggerated claims for the food—it’s just good Kentucky country breakfast fare. The house special ($5) includes scrambled eggs, bacon or sausage, and a choice of two sides: biscuits, grits, skillet potatoes, or spiced apples. Gravy is de rigeur.

Washing down horse after workout at Keeneland You can watch the horses work out on the track (see below) and walk past the barns where they are being curried and groomed or lovingly washed down after a workout. It brings to mind the great American writer Sherwood Anderson’s early short stories, many of which are set at small-town Kentucky tracks. The narrator of “I Want to Know Why” (1918) maybe puts it best:

“If you’ve never been crazy about thoroughbreds it’s because you’ve never been around where they are much and don’t know any better. They’re beautiful. There isn’t anything so lovely and clean and full of spunk and honest and everything as some race horses.”

Go to Keeneland and see for yourself—after breakfast. And see if you don’t agree with that unnamed narrator:

“It brings a lump up into my throat when a horse runs.”

Keeneland workout


08 2015

In Lexington, Kentucky, no one eats alone

sweet corn at Lexington Farmers Market
Plutarch would have loved central Kentucky. In his first-century A.D. treatise on food in Moralia, he astutely observed, “We do not sit at the table only to eat, but to eat together.”

Coles Dining Room in Lexington In Bluegrass Country, mealtime is just a phase in the ongoing party that begins with drinks and appetizers and is followed up with after-dinner drinks, snacks, and definitely lots of conversation. We spent a week in Lexington and the surrounding countryside at the end of June, and never did we taste alone. Food and drink in this corner of America are the currency of social exchange. If a Lexingtonian has anything to say about it, no visitor ever goes hungry. Or lonely.

peaches at Lexington Farmers Market The Lexington area is justly famed for thoroughbred horses and fine Kentucky bourbon, both of which owe their strong bones and muscular beauty to the limestone bedrock of the aquifer and the rich loam that grows both the grass that the horses graze on and the corn that bourbon makers mash and distill.

The conversations start even before the food is ready. The Saturday Lexington Farmers Market on West Main Street was established in 1975, and has roughly 75 members who come into the city from the surrounding counties. (There are smaller markets on several other days of the week in the growing season.) Even before you start talking to one of the farmers, you’ll know exactly where the food for sale was grown. Each vendor labels his or her produce with the county of origin. This is a byproduct of the “Kentucky Proud” program run by the state Department of Agriculture, which uses cash from the 1998 Master Tobacco Settlement to promote Kentucky’s healthier agriculture.

Brandywine tomatoes at Lexington Farmers Market In fact, you’ll find the Kentucky Proud logo all over Lexington, from the menus of the most casual breakfast joints to the front door of some of the city’s toniest restaurants. Don’t even wonder if the local folks really believe they have some of the best food in the world, just ask them. It’s not just hype—they truly are Kentucky Proud.

Stay tuned over the next few weeks for some of the signature tastes of Lexington.



08 2015

Grits with black truffle and poached eggs

grits with black truffle and poached egg
As Pat and I developed ways to use black truffles, we generally opted for the simplest and most straightforward combinations. Keeping in mind that truffles pair well with corn—and that northern Italians sometimes eat truffles on polenta—we decided to try truffles with some of the best grits we’ve been able to lay hands on. We’ll be writing shortly about our food and drink visit to central Kentucky, where we had the good fortune to drive from Lexington out to Midway to visit Weisenberger Mill. This is a truly old-fashioned mill that has been stone-grinding grain for six generations, starting in 1865. Living in Yankeeville, we have a hard time finding good white grits, but now know we can order them online from Weisenberger at www.weisenberger.com. Their grits are ground from locally grown non-GMO corn. They even put the name of the farm on the package. Ours came from the Rogers Farm in Hardin County, Kentucky.

For this truffle dish, we made the grits according to the directions on the package. It really doesn’t get any easier than that. The eggs that we poached had been stored in a sealed container with a truffle for about three days to pick up the truffle aroma. Along with being simple, it looks great on the table with sunflowers from the garden. Don’t forget to order your Australian black truffles from The Truffle and Wine Company’s USA office at truffleandwineusa.com/.



Serves 2

2 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup grits
salt and butter to taste
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vinegar
2 eggs
10 grams black truffle

In a medium saucepan, bring water to boil and add salt. Stir water to create a swirling motion and pout in grits. Bring to boil while continuing to stir. Reduce heat and cover. Cook 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, heat 2 inches of water in a large, deep frying pan. (A cast iron chicken cooker is perfect.) Bring to boil, reduce heat, and cover until grits are done. When grits are ready, season to taste with additional salt and butter.

Add 1 teaspoon salt and vinegar to water in deep frying pan. Break each egg into a shallow bowl and lower into simmering water. Let cook about 3 minutes, or until whites are largely set and yolk is still runny.

Spoon grits into two serving bowls. Using a slotted spoon, lift each poached egg onto grits. Shave truffle over top and break the yolks to flow over grits.


07 2015

Even more decadent grilled cheese and truffle sandwich

ingredients for truffle grilled cheese sandwich
Some foodies love to play the “last supper” game: What would you want to eat for your last meal on earth? Pat and I are in accord on this one. It would probably be this elegantly simple grilled cheese sandwich with Comté, prosciutto, ripe tomato and truffle. Cooked just enough to brown the bread in butter (an omelet pan is perfect for the task), the Comté brings out all the high, resinous notes in the black truffle. You could die happy just biting into the sandwich, which gives you a strong whiff of truffle just before you actually taste it.

grilled cheese and truffle sandwich In the interest of research, we tried this sandwich in the purist form—just Comté and truffle—before adding the prosciutto and tomato. The basic sandwich shown here is very, very good. But it’s only good enough for a last lunch, not a last supper. We chose Comté, by the way, because it’s the standard cheese for making a great croque monsieur. Although we’ve never been able to lay hands on Patricia Wells’ book, Simply Truffles, we’ve read that she includes a recipe for a truffled croque monsieur. Any cheese that can stand up to béchamel sauce, we figure, can stand up to black truffles. The addition of prosciutto was also in homage to the croque monsieur. Using paper-thin prosciutto gives a lot of flavor without interfering with the toothiness of the truffle. Like the burger, we think this dish is the apotheosis of an American classic.


Makes 1 grilled cheese sandwich

2 slices excellent white sandwich bread
butter (lots of butter)
2 oz. aged Comté cheese, coarsely grated
1 slice prosciutto large enough to cover bread
1 ripe tomato, skin removed, cut into 1/4-inch slices
10 grams black truffle, thinly shaved

Butter both slices of bread. On one buttered side, place half the cheese, then a layer of prosciutto, the truffles, the tomato slices, and then the remaining cheese. Top with other slice of bread, butter side toward filling.

In an omelet pan, melt a knob of butter and swirl it around the pan to coat. Place sandwich carefully into pan and press gently with a spatula. Cover with a pot lid and let cook over medium heat for up to 90 seconds. Remove lid and flip sandwich over. Top should now be golden brown. Place lid back on and cook another 45-60 seconds until other side is browned and cheese is just melted. Remove from pan and cut on the diagonal. Eat while hot. Alternate bites with sips of cold Chablis.

Try not to die just yet. Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins.
grilled cheese truffle prosciutto and tomato sandwich


07 2015

Truffles, cheese, and honey for dessert

Manchego cheese with honey and truffle
One of our favorite breakfast dishes in Spain is a plate of sliced Manchego cheese drizzled with honey and served with a bit of membrillo (quince jelly). For dessert, the ewe’s milk tang and saltiness of Manchego pairs exceptionally well with black truffle.


Serves 2

6 oz. wedge of Manchego semi-curado (aged at least 6 months)
2 tablespoons of chestnut or acacia honey
10 grams black truffle
crackers for serving

Remove rind from Manchego. Lay wedge on its side and slice into 7-8 triangles of cheese. Arrange on a plate and drizzle with honey. (The easy way is to dip a butter knife in the honey and “paint” it on the cheese.) Shave black truffle over the top. Add crackers to the plate and serve with a glass of late-harvest muscat, Hungarian Tokaji, or Pedro Ximenez.


07 2015

Decadent hamburger with black truffles

truffle burger and truffle aioli poyayo salad
Several high-end restaurants (we’re talking about you, Daniel Boulud) serve a magnificent wintertime hamburger with foie gras and shaved French black truffle on top. We can’t top that. When we decided to take our Australian truffle bounty and see if we could build a summer burger, we were inspired by the great bacon burger we ate last year at Cured in San Antonio. (Here’s the recipe.)

We knew the truffle would respond well to a bit of fat and to acid, so we plumped up the ground beef with some fattier ground pork and added a thick slice of heirloom tomato on top. Not caring to heat up the house making brioche buns (and we’re not that good at baking bread), we purchased some great potato buns from Vermont Bread Company (www.vermontbread.com). One of the keys to maximum truffle flavor is to cook the burgers very rare. To double the decadence, serve with potato salad made with truffle aioli.


Makes 2 burgers

3/4 lb. freshly ground round (85% lean)
1/4 lb. freshly ground pork
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
10 grams finely grated black truffle
2 hamburger potato buns
2 thick slices ripe heirloom tomato
10 grams black truffle to shave

At least four hours before cooking, combine beef, pork, salt, pepper, and grated black truffle. Knead the mass to mix thoroughly. Form into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to cook.

When hardwood charcoal is fully lit on one side of the grill, unwrap the meat mixture and form into two thick patties of equal weight. Place on grill on side away from fire and cover grill. Cook three minutes. Open grill and flip burgers. Cover again and cook 2 minutes. Check internal temperature with a thermometer probe. It should be 140°-145°F (60°-63°C). Remove from grill and quickly toast the buns over the hot coals—maybe 15 seconds.

Place a burger on each bun. Top with tomato slice. Shave black truffle over the top. Swoon as you eat. This burger calls for a decent negociant red Burgundy or a Brunello di Montalcino.


07 2015

Lemon risotto and Caprese salad with truffles

lemon risotto and caprese salad with truffle
What a luxury to shave truffles over some of our favorite summer dishes! I was surprised when several chefs suggested black truffles on a Caprese salad, but if the tomatoes have enough acidic zing, it’s a match made in heaven. Our own tomatoes aren’t quite ripe yet, so I have to resort to hoop house or hot house varieties. One trick to restore the “fresh tomato” flavor to these typically bland fruits is to give them a tiny sprinkle of salt, sugar, and citric acid. Citric acid is sometimes sold as “sour salt,” and is readily available in Indian grocery stores. (I mix up the seasoning in a ratio of 20 parts salt to 5 parts sugar and 1 part citric acid and store it it an airtight jar.)

But what to eat with Caprese? The natural choice for us is a lemon risotto, lightly adapted to the herbs we have on hand this time of year. It’s best with a very grassy flavored olive oil. Instead of mint and basil, you could substitute fresh lemon thyme and rosemary.


Serves 2 as an entree, 4 as an appetizer

sprig of fresh mint
sprig of fresh basil
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots, minced
1 cup arborio rice
1/4 cup white wine
1 1/4 cups strong chicken broth
juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
20 grams black truffle

Remove stems from herbs and combine the leaves with grated lemon zest. Chop very finely and set aside.

In 2-3 quart pressure cooker, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until translucent. Add rice and stir until well coated with oil. Raise heat to high and add white wine. Stir to keep from burning until wine is absorbed. Add chicken broth, stirring well. When pot begins to simmer, tighten lid and cook on medium pressure for exactly 8 minutes, turning down heat to keep pressure steady.

Remove from heat and run pot under cold water to decompress. Remove lid and place pot back on low heat. Stir in lemon juice and test rice for doneness. (It should be al dente in the middle but rather creamy.) When rice is desired texture, add grated cheese and reserved herbs and lemon peel.

Place in bowls and shave half the truffle over the top. Serve with a Caprese salad over which you have shaved the other half truffle.


07 2015