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How To Throw A Killer Kentucky Derby Party

This 130-year-old race epitomizes acceptable excess much as Mardi Gras does, but there are a few prerequisites for hosting a Kentucky Derby party.
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So, to continue my fiddling while Rome burns (in other words: planning parties while the world is in an uproar), this week's celebration is a Kentucky Derby Party. This 130-year-old race epitomizes acceptable excess much as Mardi Gras does, and the combination of the beginnings of spring and the Derby offer a fabulous rationale for a group of friends to drink bourbon together in the afternoon.

There are a few prerequisites for hosting a Kentucky Derby party:

1. A big ass TV. Of course a wide screen high-def number is optimum, but any television that allows a group of people to gather around it and be able to watch the race unobstructed will do the trick. While there are races all day, THE RACE itself, known as the most exciting two minutes in sports (old boyfriend comparisons notwithstanding) goes on at 6:00 PM., so I suggest calling the party for 4:00.

2. Some clever thematic element. If you have any outdoor space -- a terrace, a garden, or if you are lucky enough to actually have a lawn, use it. Obviously since this is last minute, invite your guests by phone or e-mail and ask them to come in "garden party attire", but do allow for creative interpretation.

Whacko, over-the-top hats are a big part of the derby, and I love hats, always have. Since most people don't own big hats these days, hat decorating is going to serve as the fun, interactive activity for this party. Buy baseball caps and cheap floppy beach hats to use as the base. Supply glue guns, sequins, glitter, rhinestones, ribbons, decals, and whatever else you have lying around the house to inspire the fabulously artistic among your friends to create a masterpiece. Remember to take a group photo of everyone in their finery -- that's the party favor.

If you are up to any décor at all at this point, vases of roses as well as scattered rose petals are your easiest and best bet -- the Derby is known to aficionados as The Run of The Roses as the winners are draped with a rose blanket.

3. Gambling. Due to the wonders of technology and thanks to the Derby's brilliant marketing folks, your entire party can actually participate in betting on the various races for prizes either for the group or individually via their mobile phones. Register your party at http://party.kentuckyderby.com

4. Food and Drink. (My personal favorite, of course.) Juleps are always in order, and while the traditional mint and iced-bourbon drink is delicious, I've included an easy and scrumptious modern version from the National Wine and Beverage Director for the BLT restaurants, Fred Dexheimer.

Some of the Kentucky standards don't appeal to me for the first Saturday in May. I'm not crazy about serving dishes like burgoo, a nasty stew of beef , lamb and chicken or Hot Brown Sandwiches; turkey and bacon smothered in a cheese sauce. I prefer going with an elegant picnic concept -- invoking the Derby vibe in spirit, if not quite exactly. Scroll down for my favorite recipes.

Peach Julep
Courtesy of Fred Dexheimer, BLT Restaurant Group

2oz Makers Mark
1oz Peach Liqueur
3 slices lemon
8 sprigs mint
Soda

Muddle lemon and mint... Add liqueur and bourbon... Add ice and shake... Pour into highball glass and splash with soda.

Chocolate Nut Pie

The official Kentucky Derby Pie is a trademarked secret recipe and belongs to Kerns Inc. of Louisville Kentucky, this pie is my variation and is definitely delicious

1 Cup Sugar
½ cup Flour
2 eggs beaten
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup melted butter
½ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup chopped pecans
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
2 Tablespoons Makers mark

Mix flour and sugar, add eggs then the butter, nuts, chocolate chips and vanilla

Mix well and pour into a 9 inch pie shell

Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven and bake for 35-45 minutes until filling is set.

Hot Browns (Sort Of)

Hot Browns, as I mention above, and as they are served at the Brown Hotel in Louisville are another Derby day classic. I prefer to make them without the turkey and bacon that the original recipe calls for and using a whole grain bread, turning them into more of a welsh rarebit.

½ cup butter
½ cup sifted all purpose flour
3 cups milk at room temperature
3 tablespoons heavy cream
3/4 cup freshly grated good quality Parmesan cheese
1 Tomato thickly sliced

Make a béchamel sauce: in a small saucepan melt the butter and stir in the flour with a whisk and continue to cook until it begins to brown slightly. Gradually whisk in the milk stirring constantly so that no lumps form and bring mixture to a simmer. Stir in ½ cup Parmesan cheese, remove from heat and thin the mixture with the heavy cream.

Preheat your broiler and using individual broiler safe casserole dishes, place two slices of good quality whole grain bread, or for a large casserole dish, several 2 inch tick slices of whole wheat baquette. Place tomato slices over the bread, spoon the sauce over each slice and sprinkle with remaining Parmesan.

Broil until the top is well browned and if you wish, top each with a slice of crispy bacon.