Food & Drink

New cookbook 'Classic Kentucky Meals' promotes local, fresh flavors

Each Monday, Lexington blogger Rona Roberts and husband Steve Kay host a potluck Cornbread Supper in their Campsie Place home. Roberts' mission is to increase awareness of local food.
Each Monday, Lexington blogger Rona Roberts and husband Steve Kay host a potluck Cornbread Supper in their Campsie Place home. Roberts' mission is to increase awareness of local food. Herald-Leader

If the thought of having hordes of family, friends and total strangers over for dinner at the holidays intimidates you, then imagine the culinary aplomb it takes to host 25 to 60 people every Monday.

That is food writer Rona Roberts' life. For the past 51/2 years, she and her husband, Steve Kay, have hosted a weekly potluck Cornbread Supper at their home in Lexington as an extension of her mission to increase awareness of great local food through her blog, SavoringKentucky.com.

"I have no agenda, nobody gets to promote their good cause. The purpose is just conviviality and connections," Roberts said. "Everyone brings whatever they want.

"I think of it as a 'supported potluck' because I usually make something based on corn, like corn bread or spoon bread."

Nobody goes away hungry, but many come back hungry for more.

To satisfy them, Roberts has written a new cookbook, Classic Kentucky Meals: Stories, Ingredients & Recipes From the Traditional Bluegrass Kitchen. It's a guided tutorial through five great menus of Kentucky flavors, with options for dressing up standards like corn bread and baked beans.

"To me, the flavors and tastes of Kentucky are so far from the little isolated things," Roberts said. "I don't think the taste of Kentucky is a hot brown, as much as I love a good hot brown. ... We get distracted by Derby Pie, and Kentucky fried chicken, thinking that a single dish speaks for Kentucky."

To her, the taste of Kentucky is the magic combination that "happens in the middle of that plate full of seasonal food."

As the holidays approach, what's her advice for giving family meals a special Kentucky flavor?

"Most people have about two-thirds of their Thanksgiving menu determined by family favorites," Roberts said. "Where the margins are for flexibility are around vegetables. My own experience in big celebration meals is people like vegetables, particularly fresh vegetables."

She recommended her dark and bright kale salad, laced with lemon juice, nuts and rich cheeses. Or her herb-spiked vegetable salad, which incorporates herbs and vegetables on hand.

"Just about any good, green stuff, chopped fine with lemon vinaigrette on it, will freshen the entire plate and add to the experience," she said. "So find places for fresh food, keeping that part of the palate nourished during the holiday season."

The meals in her cookbook allow for guided serendipity: to go with braised pork, lamb or beef shoulder, Roberts pairs a salad of roasted winter vegetables dressed with a sorghum-bourbon vinaigrette from chef Ouita Michel, roasted sweet potatoes and buttermilk corn bread.

The mix of winter vegetables can be anything you have available, from sweet potatoes, onions, winter squashes, turnips, parsnips or carrots.

For a company version, the corn bread gets fancy, with different cheeses, peppers and corn, with its own tangy sorghum-lime drizzle from chef Edward Lee.

Sorghum, Roberts noted in the book, is her "good luck charm and it encourages the naturally sweet tastes of certain ingredients to stand out a bit more in the savory batter."

Her first book, Sweet, Sweet Sorghum: Kentucky's Golden Wonder, extolled the virtues of the grain turned syrup and all it does on and off the plate.

"If we eat sorghum, more growers are going to grow sorghum ... their communities are going to flourish, and there will be more happiness all around," Roberts said. "Whereas if we eat brown sugar, we're not having that same impact on the system and on self-sufficiency."

Self-sufficiency is a big part of Roberts' food philosophy.

"My thought about working in the world of food ... is that Kentucky is completely set up to feed itself," she said. "We can feed ourselves; we used to. We've let that ability go, and we're vulnerable as a result."

With her new book, she hopes to shine a light on many of the growers who are focusing on wonderful and delicious products. Between the menus and recipes, she profiles people who grow and refine those flavors — like Travis Hood of Hood's Heritage Hogs, who raises Red Wattles in the fields and woods of Robertson County, or the Weisenbergers, who mill grain near Midway.

"I want to be encouraging for more people to cook food, grow food, buy food from local farms," she said.

Roberts, who has worked for decades as a researcher with public decision making, now is researching a third book on Kentucky food. It is likely to be focused on farms, the foundations of all food, she said.

"As Savoring Kentucky has settled in and become an extremely regular part of my life, I do think of myself much more as a food writer, and I do think that will be my last chapter of work in my life," Roberts said. "I think we also are entering this wonderful era, where people like Mark and Velvet Henkle, who have hoop houses, are going to spread the season for eating things local and fresh dramatically. ... We're going to have more fresh food, year-round."

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