A Healthy Cooking Lesson From The Kentucky Derby Chef (Yes It's Possible)

Growing up in a Jewish household my background in cooking was centered on noodle kugel, latkes and attempting to learn my mother’s recipe for the perfect matzah ball soup. As I grew older and my palate grew wiser, I tried recipes ranging from Italian and Thai to a good ol’ American hamburger and healthy salads. Things like fried chicken and grits simply weren’t in my vocabulary and I was pretty much a virgin when it came to Southern delicacies.

So, when I got the chance recently to get a cooking lesson from the ultimate down Southern chef, I jumped at the opportunity to expand my cooking repertoire. But, I had a challenge for him: make the dishes healthy!

"It's totally possible to eat healthy Southern food," Chef David Danielson, the executive chef at Churchill Downs since 2011, told me. "There's this big misconception that all of our dishes are heavy, but we actually use a lot of fresh veggies and make big family-style salads." He proceeded to spend an afternoon showing me how to whip up some of the dishes set to be served at next year’s Kentucky Derby that would also be great everyday nutritious dishes like roasted and pickled asparagus salad (see recipe below). But first, as a New Yorker I needed to know what were the most important things when it comes to creating a solid Southern meal any time of the year.

Here’s what Chef Danielson had to say.

1. Get yourself a cast iron pan

Every good cook needs a cast iron pan. They are sturdy and can take the heat, are perfect for going from stove top to oven, are not stick if properly seasoned, are versatile because you can fry in them, sauté, as well as bake in them, and they will last forever if you take care of them.

2. Shop at farmers’ markets

The fruits and vegetable you buy at farmers markets are the freshest and tastiest available, they are allowed to ripen in the fields then picked and brought directly to you. Shopping at farmers’ market allows you to taste and prepare foods in season and discover new produce you don’t normally see in your grocery store. Farmers are always bringing an interesting variety of product to the market. Know where your food is coming from, support local farm families and connect with your community.

3. Learn out to pickle

Learn to pickle so you can enjoy fruits and vegetables all year long. You can pickle just about everything from garden vegetable to summer fruit. It’s easier than you think. Fruits can be used for meat glazes or in salad dressings and pickled vegetable can brighten up any fall or winter dish. They also make great accompaniments to cheese and charcuterie platters.

Now time for that recipe!

  •  4 Bunch standard asparagus
  •  4 tablespoon olive oil
  •  ½ cup cider vinegar
  •  1 teaspoon mustard seed
  •  ½ teaspoon black peppercorn
  •  3 tablespoon sugar
  •  2 bay leaf
  •  3 ounce thinly slices country ham
  •  1 hard boules egg

-Trim bottom inch of asparagus, separate asparagus by half , placing first half in flat bottom baking pan.
- In a small saucepan combine vinegar, sugar, mustard seed, bay leaf and black pepper bring to a low simmer until sugar is dissolved then remove from heat, pour pickling liquid over asparagus in pan place in refrigerator let sit minimum of 4 hours.
-Pre heat oven on broil high setting.
-Spread out remaining asparagus in a single layer on a cookie pan drizzle with olive oils and season with salt and pepper, place pan in oven under broiler for approx. 4-6 minutes unlit asparagus starts to get blistered and some brown color. Remove from oven let come to room temperature.
-To assemble salad place small bundles of asparagus on a platter alternating between pickled and roasted, top with some slices country ham and dices egg, drizzle with some pickling liquid.