Every year, holiday party-givers begin searching for recipes that will dazzle guests without offending tradition. To that end, I followed the culinary spotlight that has been sweeping across the heartland recently to Louisville, Ky., to get some advice from Kathy Cary. She is a caterer-restaurateur there whose business has flourished and whose food won rave reviews when she cooked at the James Beard House in New York last spring.
Ms. Cary generously provided entertaining advice, a menu and then offered to visit the Chicago Tribune's test kitchen to re-create a few recipes.
But first, some background.
"It's her love of food that's at the center of all this," says Ms. Cary's husband, Will, who is her partner in the catering business, two carryout operations with limited seating, a bakery (all are named La Peche) and a 6-year-old, 94-seat restaurant called Lilly's. "No one could work this hard if they didn't love what they were doing."
That love surfaced early, Ms. Cary says, and the inspiration was her mother.
"My mother is a really good cook. She taught me a lot. I ate good, well-prepared food as a kid and when we traveled. We lived on a farm, and I would be sent out to pick raspberries or tomatoes for gazpacho."
At 16 she sold her own chocolate fudge sauce at school and organized a cooking class for her friends to earn travel money. She taught them "how to make mayonnaise and chicken salad, things like that." Soon thereafter, as a student in Washington, she talked her way into assisting a local cooking teacher and then began cooking weekly for a socially connected, politically oriented couple.
"I was a combination cook and maid," Ms. Cary recalls. "I'd shop, cook and serve. I had a great time and realized this is what I wanted to do."
So she returned to Louisville, where, at 19, she found herself chef and general manager of a restaurant.
"The owner left everything to me. Too much. I was a young chump, working 20 hours a day. But I learned a lot about my resolve and endurance. I hired and fired and learned to saute and bake and clean the floor. I insisted on homemade everything and stuck to my guns. I also realized that with food and cooking, there is always something to learn, a new beginning to make. But I promised myself the next time I'd own it myself."
Ms. Cary, now 40, became her own boss in 1979 when she began catering out of her apartment. Since then her growth as a creative cook and entrepreneur has been steady. If there has been more applause of late, it's because her cooking style seems to be in tune with the more casual, natural approach to food and entertaining in the '90s.
That style hasn't changed much over the years. It's a blend of her mother's sophisticated farm cooking, some French influences, down-home dishes and a strong emphasis on regional ingredients, such as country ham, rabbit, catfish and free-range chickens as well as beans, limestone lettuce and -- of course -- bourbon. She uses bourbon in marinades, sauces and desserts as well as cocktails and even to flavor salmon that will be smoked on the grill.
"I'm able to use local farmers from the end of April into October," she explains. "They will plant ingredients to be harvested for a special event I'm catering or to be featured as a special on the restaurant menu." As for giving a party, she recommends considerable planning.
* Think the whole thing through, she says. What sort of event is it? A get-together for friends or a duty party? Are you going to sit down or have food passed?
* Consider the layout of your home, seating capacity of various rooms, table-setting capability. New homes tend to make the kitchen a focus. If there's a family room and you have the party there, you can be at the stove and still be part of the party. If you are going to be the cook for last-minute dishes, you have to consider hiring help or you may miss your own party. You may want to plan a buffet instead.
* Whatever the event, know the limitations of your kitchen and your own limitations as a cook. Don't try to prepare too many things at once. You lose focus. A lot can be done ahead. Only a few preparations go down to the wire. To be sure you have confidence in your menu, test unfamiliar recipes ahead of time.
* People enjoy surprise. Try not to keep them in the same space. If you turn the lights on in the dining room just before serving or take everyone to another room for coffee and dessert, it's like opening the curtain in a theater.
* The food should be the most important item, but you can dress the tables, even dress the help to create an ambience. Try to add special touches. Rent or borrow some distinctive china or a centerpiece that will cause conversation.
* If the planning is thorough, any help you hire need only be able to follow simple instructions. If the mood is casual and the bar is visible, people will pour their own.
"In Louisville these past few years, more and more people are reaching out, telling me they don't want the 'same old menu,' she says. "There's more concern about vegetarians, food allergy and 'healthy' food that's low in fat. That's great because I get bored, too, and to come up with something brand-new is a challenge."
Here is the holiday buffet menu Kathy Cary came up with for a party of 14 to 20 people:
Grilled chicken breasts, caramelized onion pudding, green beans glazed with roasted garlic and balsamic vinegar, sweet potato and sage tarts, salmon with spinach and orange sections, olive rosemary bread sticks and chocolate chestnut bourbon torte.
Grilled chicken breasts with bourbon sauce
Makes 20 servings
1/2 cup chopped fresh rosemary
1/3 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard
salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups olive oil
20 chicken breast halves, skinned and boned
10 shallots, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 1/2 pounds shiitake mushrooms, sliced
2 1/2 ounces dried mixed mushrooms, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes, drained and chopped
1/4 pound sun-dried tomatoes, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes, drained and chopped
5 tablespoons flour
6 cups rich beef stock or broth
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup bourbon or more to taste
Make a marinade by whisking 2 tablespoons rosemary, lemon juice, mustard, salt and pepper together then slowly adding 1 cup of olive oil. Pour over the chicken breast halves and marinate at least 1 hour and up to 8 hours.
Make the sauce in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Saute the shallots and garlic in 1/4 cup olive oil until light gold. Add remaining olive oil and rosemary, shiitakes, dried mushrooms and tomatoes. Stir well, then sprinkle on flour. Cook and stir for 1 to 2 minutes, then slowly add the stock, stirring until a sauce forms. Add cream, bourbon, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer 8 minutes. Remove from the heat, taste; adjust seasoning and add more bourbon as desired.
Remove chicken from marinade and grill or broil until cooked but still moist, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, reheat sauce. (Recipe may be done ahead. Gently reheat chicken and sauce separately.)
Arrange chicken on a serving platter and top with sauce.
Chocolate bourbon torte
Makes 16 to 20 servings
6 eggs, separated, plus 2 egg yolks
1 1/2 cups sugar, plus 1/3 cup
4 tablespoons bourbon, plus 2 teaspoons
2 1/2 cups pureed unsweetened chestnuts
3/4 cup ground pecans, plus pecan pieces for garnish
2 teaspoons instant coffee
6 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 ounces bitter chocolate, chopped
3/4 pound bittersweet chocolate
3 1/2 cups whipping cream
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
Make the cake: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 2 nine-inch cake pans. Beat 6 egg yolks well. Stir in 1 1/2 cups sugar and 1 1/2 teaspoons bourbon, then blend in 2 cups chestnut puree. Stir in ground pecans. Whip egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff. Fold whites into the batter. Divide the mixture between the two cake pans and bake for 25 minutes. Cool on a cake rack, then remove from the pans.
Make the filling: Beat the 2 egg yolks with 1/3 cup sugar. Add instant coffee and 1 tablespoon hot water. Beat chilled butter into mixture, then add 1/2 teaspoon bourbon and remaining 1/2 cup chestnut puree. Stir in chopped bitter chocolate. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
Melt bittersweet chocolate with 1 1/2 cups heavy cream over low heat. Stir in 2 tablespoons bourbon, transfer to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
To assemble the cake, spread the chilled chestnut filling atop one cake layer and cover with the other. Cover the torte with the chocolate icing and sprinkle the top with chopped pecan pieces. Chill before serving.
Meanwhile, prepare a bourbon chantilly to pass at the table. Whip the 2 cups of cream to soft peaks, gradually beat in the confectioners' sugar and then fold in 2 tablespoons bourbon.