The coronavirus pandemic may have spoiled the Kentucky Derby’s usual plans of happening in early May, but now the Derby’s back—just four months later than it was originally scheduled. The iconic horse race is swapping the opening of summer for the close, taking place on September 5, during Labor Day weekend.
Derby celebrations won’t look the same as they usually do, so to ensure that racing fans still enjoy the experience, the Derby tapped Queer Eye star Antoni Porowski for tips on throwing a splashy (and safe) backyard bash. He mixed ideas from his debut cookbook, Antoni in the Kitchen, with in-season produce and Derby-inspired drinks for a menu that hits all the right summery notes.
Although Porowski may seem like a dark horse pairing (ha, get it?) for such an American tradition—he’s actually Canadian—his childhood spent partially in West Virginia and love for all things Americana gives him a surprisingly personal connection to the Derby. Read on for Antoni’s creative party recipes, plus a look at what he's been up to in quarantine (mainly, perfecting scrambled eggs and trying out new hair styles).
Rachael Ray In Season: What interested you in partnering with the Kentucky Derby?
Antoni Porowski: I actually only found out that the Kentucky Derby was a thing when I was about 12 years old. I moved from Montreal to West Virginia, which shares a border with the great state of Kentucky, and that’s where I first learned about it. I remember there was a clubhouse near where I lived and all of the moms would go watch on these giant screens. They wore these colorful, crazy hats and had a bunch of hors d'oeuvres and cocktails and juleps. It was the first time I learned about a very American tradition. I’ve always been obsessed with Americana—anything that is steeped in American culture—and especially as a Canadian kid, I just thought it was really cool.
When they asked me to come up with some recipes and cocktails along with the celebration, it posed a challenge because the Derby isn’t what it was (like literally anything else with Covid). So I was figuring out how to have fun, how to celebrate, but to do so under the recommended guidelines. We came up with recipes that you can make for yourself, or you and your dog, or you and your significant other, or if it’s outdoor social distancing, the recipes work just as well. It’s been a fun thing.
So let’s hear some of these recipes.
I thought the cocktails were a good opportunity to include the Derby’s history. I read about this one guy with an incredible name. I don’t know why, I just think it’s the coolest name in the whole world. It’s James Winkfield [Derby-winning African American jockey], so I call this the Jimmy Wink cocktail. There aren’t many things that are more Kentucky than straight-up bourbon, so it’s a cocktail with bourbon and some dry apple cider. A little bit of orange peel for garnish adds that nice bitterness and complements the sweetness of the bourbon. I also used a simple syrup—I did one with equal parts water and sugar, but then I put in some ground rosemary and clementines, which go really well together.
You should probably have a non-alcoholic cocktail, too. This is named after Rosie Napravnik, who, I think, is the most successful female jockey to ever compete in the Derby. It’s just badass when typically male-dominated sports have these strong female figures, so I wanted to honor her with a drink. Since her name is Rosie, I did a strawberry cardamom rose lemonade spritz, and the garnish on that is strawberries that are basically dipped in crushed sweet and sour candy. So it’s this nice little crunchy outside texture over the strawberries. You should make these fresh because you really want that crunch on the outside of the strawberry. It’s also a fun snack—I like the idea of having the healthy, delicious, beautiful strawberry with a straight-up candy coating.
What about food?
I talk about peaches all the time because I’m obsessed—they’re literally my favorite fruit—so I have to include my Grilled Peach and Tomato Salad with crunchy almonds. When a peach is perfectly ripe, you should just enjoy it as is with nothing else on it. But if it’s still a little firm, when you grill it it’s going to hold really well. Add some acidic, tangy tomatoes and crunchy almonds, which you can heat up in a sauté pan so they’re nice and crunchy, and fresh basil. It’s an awesome salad and even once the Derby’s over, if you have leftovers, you can grill up some salmon or chicken and have a complete meal. It’s my favorite thing of summer and I make it every single week.
Also, okay, you need something that’s kind of decadent and cheesy—who doesn’t love a cheese dip? Unless you’re lactose intolerant, but if you’re lactose intolerant you probably still love cheese, like me. It’s Herbed Lobster and Saffron Dip. Start with Boursin, which is a ready-made cheese with a bunch of herbs in it. You take that with chunks of lobster or crab, which you can get from a can—or if you’re going bang for your buck, just use the cheese alone with a bit of saffron. A couple of threads go a really long way. You can serve that with some nice crusty bread or any grainy crackers that you want or whatever fresh vegetables you have. That’s a big crowd pleaser.
Finally, Watermelon Halloumi Bites. Watermelon is in season, and I always try to find different ways to use it. My favorite way—that has nothing to do with this recipe—is actually taking watermelon cubes and rubbing fresh ginger on them. It’s really delicious and just so easy to make. I always find myself eating half a watermelon when I do that. Anyway, back to the recipe!
Because watermelon is so sweet and light and water-filled, I like marinating it in olive and oil and just a lot, a lot, a lot of fresh cracked pepper. If you think you’re done cracking pepper into it, just keep on going. They end up being these really peppery, juicy, olive oil-coated bites of watermelon. Heat halloumi up on a pan or a grill pan or your barbecue if you’re outdoors. Mint gives a nice little fresh kick at the end. So you have your cheese, fresh watermelon, and mint—the perfect little trio. You can serve them as small bites, or, if you want to feed a larger group of people, you can toss them all into a big salad and add balsamic or whatever greens you have laying around.
That sounds delicious—I love halloumi, so I definitely want to make that.
I do too! I get so excited when I see it at the grocery store. It’s definitely in my top three summer cheeses.
I feel like you don’t see it in the U.S. that much.
It’s certainly not as popular. I do feel like it’s having a bit of a moment, or at least it was last year, so it’s becoming a little more popular, but same thing with feta cheese. I was raised in Montreal and we have a really strong Lebanese, Middle Eastern, and Greek community, and we always have like three different kinds of feta at the store, from sheep to cow to goat, sharper to milder. Now I just want to eat a whole block of cheese!
Speaking of eating entire blocks of cheese, quarantine has obviously been a stressful time. Is there anything in particular that’s been getting you through?
Partnering with Kentucky Derby has been really fun. I love any opportunity where I get to be creative with something that’s a little outside of my wheelhouse—not being an American and figuring out how to come up with recipes that are fun but still simple.
But personally, in the mornings, I’ve just been obsessed with making scrambled eggs. It’s all I can talk about—just figuring out how to make the perfect soft scramble. I’ve really been enjoying the ritual. Waking up in the morning, working out and getting those endorphins up—because some days are more depressing than others, which is something I think we can all relate to—and then just being in the kitchen.
I’m an optimist and I always try to find the bright side of things, and the irony is that I had been traveling so much and didn’t get to cook like I used to. With quarantine and being stuck at home—I shouldn’t even call it stuck at home, I should say I get to be at home—it’s just been really nice to cook all the time, just make things for myself. Now being back in New York, I’m supporting small businesses that I wasn’t able to enjoy while I was in Texas for three-and-a-half months.
I try to find joy in just the simplest little things, like taking the dog on a walk or lighting a candle. With everything I do now, I seem to be a little less manic and a little more focused. I get to pay more attention to the small things. I used to be on my phone having a work call while answering an email and making a list of things to do. Now I find myself taking one thing at a time, and I’m able to be more engaged and focused. I get a lot more pride out of everything I do now.
The pace is a lot slower.
Totally. Before I was all about the express train. Fun little tidbit, speaking of speed—I was looking at the Derby leaderboard for the names of the horses, trying to figure out who I’m going to vote for, and there are two that I’m obsessed with. One is called New York Traffic, and the other one is Art Collector. I love horses, and I want to see what Art Collector looks like. I’m just imagining this horse with a monocle or something. Another one is named Honor A.P. Like, these are very proud horse parents who name their horses.
How do they come up with those bizarre names?
I don’t know. My dog’s name is Neon so she definitely wouldn’t fit in.
Is she going to have a Derby-themed costume?
Great question! So here’s the thing. Do I dress her up as a horse, or do I dress her up as a jockey?
I think both—horse for half the day, then jockey for half the day.
I think that’s a good idea. I want to find a cool neon jockey outfit. And my dream is to find a saddle that’s not heavy and doesn’t hurt her, even though she’s very strong as a pit-beagle mix. I just love the idea of her wearing a saddle, and putting one of my G.I. Joe or Star Wars figurines on her to ride around. So it’s going to be a fun day!
I actually interviewed Bobby [Berk] a few months ago, and he said if he had to switch roles with any of the QE guys, it would be with you, and that you’d take design. Do you agree with that?
That’s actually very true. In university, all my electives were in art history. I was so obsessed with post-war art, and a lot of American and French deco, so I’ve always loved furniture a lot. I think Bobby is a master at putting pieces together cohesively and creating a living space. I’m terrible at that. I would just love the opportunity to go shop for furniture and tchotchkes. In season five, we had this super awesome young activist named Abby. She was all about sustainability, so almost all the pieces in her house were either refurbished or vintage. That was the most exciting reveal for me, because it was all these awesome vintage pieces from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. I would make every single hero, whether they like it or not, have a vintage home.
I loved that episode because of its focus on repurposing!
They were such great pieces! I like things that are old and have a story. I get to daydream—where did these pieces come from? Who used to sit in them? Where did they live?
Well, I’m glad to know that you agree with Bobby.
Totally. Anyone else—Karamo... I already cry enough as is. He seems to make the heroes cry and it would just be a cry sesh for me. For fashion, I wear jeans and a white t-shirt so there isn’t much going on there. And Jonathan, like... I can barely shave my beard every two months. So I’m going to leave that up to him.
You did recently buzz your hair, though, right? What was the reasoning behind that?
I did. The honest answer is boredom. But also, I’ve just been thinking about it for so long and it’s kind of like, if not now, when? As a kid, I switched between a fully buzzed head or a perfect ‘mushroom’ cut. I just got a visual of Jim Carrey’s hair in Dumb and Dumber when there’s literally a bowl on his head. That perfect bowl cut, that was basically me. So I just go for either really long hair or really short, nothing in between. Now I have to figure out whether I want to maintain the short hair or whether I’m just going to grow it out again. We’ll see!
Find Antoni's Kentucky Derby recipes in Antoni in the Kitchen or at the Derby website.