As a food fan, I love me some Thanksgiving. Sure it’s just dinner and such, but any time there is a situation that devotes a chunk of Wednesday to shopping and prep, along with a full day Thursday to cook, sip cocktails and eat a giant meal – count me in.
Tradition is a big part of what makes holidays special, and is an important foundation for several loves held closely by most across the Bluegrass Region (think college basketball and horse racing). Another would be bourbon. Being I live in Kentucky’s central region, the entire bourbon industry is located anywhere from 5 minutes away (Buffalo Trace in Frankfort) to 90 minutes (Maker’s Mark in Loretto) from my house in Kentucky’s state capital of Frankfort.
Come Thanksgiving, it’s not complete without hopping on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail for a visit to the Wild Turkey distillery in Tyrone, near Lawrenceburg, in bordering Anderson County. There’s something about those rolling hills, the aroma of sour mash wafting through the countryside, and the tradition of excellence found in every bottle Jimmy Russell, Wild Turkey’s Master Distiller, puts his stamp of approval upon.
Fine bourbon has been produced from this spot since the late 1800s. Wild Turkey as a specific brand dates to around 1942, and is a product I’ve associated with Thanksgiving my whole life. It’s renegade bourbon, and having a bottle of ‘Kickin’ Chicken’ within arm’s reach throughout the Thanksgiving holiday is essential for watching football, post or pre-shopping excursions and to steady all the family socializing.
I personally am a proponent of Wild Turkey 101. If resources are available for their premium offerings, i.e. Rare Breed, Russell’s Reserve or Kentucky Spirit – by all means go for it, but in the under $30 category Wild Turkey 101 is a beauty.
Now sure I could pick this up at any number of purveyors in town, but Isabella, my 5-year old, and I, opted for the scenic 30 minute drive south to make our purchase. As we crossed the bridge on Route 62 spanning the Kentucky River, a giant billboard nestled amongst the trees on the far hillside beckoned with its signature bird “Welcome to OUR HOUSE.”
This is Wild Turkey Country.
Wind around the hill upward past the aging rickhouses, stained black on their grey facades to allow each to stand out just enough against the bluegrass and misting fog, like they were meant to anchor the hillsides. Arriving up top the gorgeous newly updated distillery is a modern glass creation to behold, which is tempered by the age of many of its older counterparts interspersed across the landscape. The distillery itself is access controlled, but head that direction and follow the signs to the Welcome Center.
There a giant red holiday wreath is set off against the black barn it’s hung upon. If nothing else it’s worth the view to trot down the slate stone walkway and take in the vista from the cliff’s edge. The countryside, river valley below and flora provide a measure of perspective. Inside can be found the history of this iconic label, plenty of swag emblazoned with the trademark turkey, and yes loads of exquisite sipping whiskey.
Something new on sale was Wild Turkey Decades. This is the first specialty bottle guided by the hand of Wild Turkey’s newly minted Master Distiller, Eddie Russell. This is the son of iconic Master Distiller Jimmy Russell. As father and son master distillers, they make up the only tandem of this sort in the world. Decades, this latest offering, blends precious and rare barrels aged between 10 and 20 years. It’s a gorgeous bottle design and retails somewhere around $150 a fifth.
With purchases in hand, Isabella and I took a few minutes to visit the boat ramp located just down Tyrone Road, to get up-close to the water, then ventured back to Frankfort. It was time to pour a stiff cocktail and embark on a different tradition, that of food prep before the big day.
My Frankfort family joined my wife’s parents and her sister’s posse in Simpsonville for Thursday’s celebration. It’s a mishmash of everybody, immediate family, friends, boyfriends, boyfriend’s moms, visiting pets and immense amounts of Turkey Day treats.
I’m going to highlight one side dish that is fast becoming a family tradition. I’ve continued tweaking this over the last several years. It’s relatively simple to make but especially if you dress it up some, it creates a complex flavor spectrum that will have folks following you to the kitchen to help finish it off, and to get that recipe.
WILD RICE CASSEROLE with MUSHROOMS
Ingredients: 1 cup wild rice, cooked according to package directions; 2 cups Kitchen Basics chicken stock; 1 pound andouille or Cajun sausage; 3 tbsp. unsalted butter; 1/2 cup diced onions; 1/4 cup diced green pepper; 8 oz. sliced Portobello mushrooms; 1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup; 1 cup heavy whipping cream; 1/4 tsp. dried basil; 1/4 tsp. dried tarragon; 1/2 tsp. smoked paprika; 1/2 tsp. garlic powder; 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper; 1/2 tsp. white pepper; 1/2 tsp. black pepper; dash of sherry.
I’ve mutated this into a Southern, low country recipe, with a distinct leaning toward New Orleans. Some want to lump it in toward a gumbo style or jambalaya, and I get why, but it’s not. This is distinct and by itself. With the inclusion of the andouille sausage it could stand as a main course, but I prefer it as a side item in a larger meal.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Slice and quarter the andouille. For those not residing around the deep South, Kroger does a decent andouille, or Johnsonville has one, and Aidell’s Cajun Style Andouille is fine. Both can be found in most supermarkets. I dig the Conecuh brand out of Alabama. It has a distinct hickory presence and can be purchased locally. Plan ahead and andouille can be ordered to your doorstep. The Cajun Grocer has a fine selection, such as Richard’s, Savoie’s and Manda’s.
In a medium-sized pot or rice steamer get the wild rice started according to the package instructions. This can take 30 mins [Note: I substitute chicken stock for water when cooking the rice to add flavor].
In a heavy-bottomed ovenproof pot (think Dutch oven), sauté the sausage until browned.
While this is cooking, slice and dice the onion, green pepper and mushrooms. Remove sausage and place in bowl to the side, leaving any residual oils and burnt residue on bottom of the pan (that’s good flavor crystals to keep on cooking with).
Add butter and let melt > pour in onions, green peppers and shrooms, with a splash of chicken stock > sauté 8-10 mins on medium low heat.
Stir in soup, cream and spices and let simmer for 5 mins [Note: A solid Cajun/Creole spice blend would hit most needs here, but I recommend concocting your own, as many over the counter versions go too light on the pepper(s) and too heavy on the salt].
Fold in the cooked rice, stirring to combine. Splash with sherry. I tend to be liberal with the sherry, as it really highlights the flavors. Stir and place lid on container, then transfer to preheated oven.
Bake until soup and cream are absorbed and the rice thickens, generally 50 mins. Remove from oven and let cool for 5-10 mins and it’s ready to serve. Embrace the decadence.
Happy Thanksgiving kids!