Bourbon puts spirit in holiday recipes

December 26, 1993|By William Rice | William Rice,Chicago Tribune

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.

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