With the Kentucky Derby coming up this Saturday, you've no doubt already picked out your hat, laid out your seersucker, and made all the fixin's for your Hot Browns.
What's that? No? You haven't?
Well, never fear. Even if you're out of the Derby loop, you can still easily enjoy one of the Derby festivities' great pleasures: the julep. A simple mixture of mint, simple syrup and bourbon over crushed iced, the julep is the kind of drink that's tailor-made for warmer weather.
But does a julep have to be...minted?
We thought so until last weekend, when we read Simple Fresh Southern, the latest cookbook from Matt and Ted Lee, which we had featured in our holiday gift guide last year. We've been wanting to read it since last winter, when it turned up in almost all our food magazines and we heard the Lee Brothers interviewed on "The Splendid Table." On that show, they shared their recipe for Pickled Grapes with Rosemary and Chiles. Zach's mom made these while we were in Tennessee for the holidays and we loved them. They're a fun spin on party food -- those who pop one in their mouths expecting an olive get a huge surprise. If you want to try them, the recipe is available on "The Splendid Table" website.
Pickled Grapes are a good example of the kinds of dishes that fill the Lee Bros. cookbook: simple executions with unexpected twists. We're especially intrigued by their recipes for Rice Pudding Pops (rice pudding in popsicle form) and Lettuce Soup (we once had lettuce soup at Dan Barber's Blue Hill in New York City, and still talk about it to this day). We'll be making both of these dishes soon.
Anyhow, back to juleps. In the book's chapter on cocktails, we were stopped cold by the idea of a Celery Julep. Derby, after all, is this weekend, and we'll be observing as we do every year, at a ex-pat Kentuckian's apartment filled with Kentuckians and friends of Kentuckians. There will, indeed, be the annual hat contest, plenty of folks dressed in seersucker, and, of course, mint juleps.
So does a celery julep deserve a place at the Derby table?
Similar to the preparation of any mint julep, this one has you first create a simple syrup. In this case, you're actually creating a celery syrup by first chopping and pureeing celery in a food processor, straining it, and then heating the liquid with sugar to make the syrup. The syrup, along with bourbon,is poured over ice.
The color of the celery syrup threw us -- as you can see above, it is green and conjured thoughts of wheat grass in our minds, which is decidedly not tasty. We braced ourselves and then took a sip of the finished julep.
And we loved it! The celery syrup is crisp and an excellent complement to the bourbon. It's a refreshing twist on the julep. While mint really brings out the bourbon's sweetness, we felt like the celery gave an almost herbal quality to the cocktail. It's a lighter and delicious take on the julep.
If you're considering making juleps this weekend, or even this summer, we'd recommend serving these celery juleps alongside classic mint juleps. They'll provide an interesting point of comparison for your guests.
If classic juleps are your thing, we've included two recipes below. The first is from our friend Wendy. When we told her one summer that we our mint plants were out of control and we weren't sure what to do with it all, she suggested that we make Refrigerator Juleps by putting a big bunch of mint in a quart jar, adding sugar and bourbon, and letting it sit in the refrigerator for several weeks. If you like juleps, these are great to keep on hand, since they'll last in the fridge for a long time.
We've also included the classic mint julep recipe from the Kentucky Derby's official website.
And finally, if you're betting on the race this year, our money's on Lookin for Lucky. Why? Well, the same reason we always pick a horse: We just like the name.
10 ounces celery (about 4 large ribs)
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
12 ounces (1 1/2 cups) Kentucky bourbon
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (from 2 to 3 lemons)
12 ounces (1 1/2 cups) seltzer water or club soda (optional)
Celery tops, for garnish (optional)
1. Chop the celery into pieces, put them in the food processor with 1 tablespoon of the sugar, the celery seeds, and the salt, and process until the celery is a loose puree. Pass the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer, pressing the pulp to extract as much flavor as possible. You should have about 1/3 cup.
2. Add the celery juice and the remaining sugar to a small saucepan, and warm the mixture over medium heat just until the sugar dissolves. You should have about 1 cup celery syrup. (Covered with plastic wrap, the syrup will keep in the refrigerator for 1 week.)
3. Fill six 9-ounce julep cups to the rim with crushed ice. Add 2 ounces of bourbon, a tablespoon of lemon juice, and 2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons of celery syrup to each glass, and stir. Top up with seltzer, if desired, and garnish with the celery tops if using.
As told to us by our friend Wendy
Fill a quart jar with mint then fill it with bourbon, then put in about 1/4 - 1/2 cup of sugar, depending on how sweet you like your drinks. Then just let it sit in the refrigerator for three weeks or so, until the sugar has disappeared. It just gets better and better and keeps for a long time.
Early Times MInt Julep - The official drink of the Kentucky Derby
2 Cups sugar
2 Cups water
Sprigs of fresh mint
Early Times Kentucky Whisky
Silver Julep Cups
No Derby Party is complete without the Mint Julep which has been the traditional beverage of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby for nearly a century. Each year, almost 120,000 Early Times Mint Juleps are served over the two-day period of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. This is a feat that requires over 10,000 bottles of Early Times Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail, 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint and 60,000 pounds of ice.
Make a simple syrup by boiling sugar and water together for five minutes. Cool and place in a covered container with six or eight sprigs of fresh mint, then refrigerate overnight. Make one julep at a time by filling a julep cup with crushed ice, adding one tablespoon mint syrup and two ounces of Early Times Kentucky Whisky. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost the outside of the cup. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint.