Ouita Michel shares her best tips for no-fuss holiday entertaining, plus a delicious homemade appetizer to always have on hand!
Chef Ouita Michel learned Southern cooking from the best teachers there are — family and friends with timeless Kentucky recipes and a passion for homegrown produce.
"My mom and dad always had a huge garden," she says about growing up in Lexington, Kentucky. Everything we ate was either cooked or preserved from the garden.
As an adult, she's turned her passion for regional cuisine and flair for entertaining into a career as one of the region's best-known chef and restaurateur.
Chef Ouita has six restaurants throughout central Kentucky, all of which highlight a bounty of fresh seasonal ingredients served with a healthy helping of Kentucky tradition and hospitality. She's remained very much in tune with her agricultural roots, even collecting dandelion greens from her yard to make dandelion vinegar and pokeberries around Holly Hill Inn for salads, she says.
In addition to being owner and executive chef at Holly Hill Inn in Midway — which she runs with her husband, Chris — Ouita's restaurants also include Wallace Station Deli in Versailles (featured on Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives"); Windy Corner Market and Restaurant and Smithtown Seafood, both in Lexington; and The Midway Bakery. She's also chef in residence at Glenn's Creek Café, located in Woodford Reserve's visitor center in Versailles.
In 2017, she'll open a new restaurant called Honeywood at The Summit at Fritz Farm in Lexington.
Chef Ouita was also recently selected to be the executive chef at the Kentucky Society of Washington's 2017 Bluegrass Ball, an event held every four years to celebrate the presidential inauguration in January.
"I want all of the dishes to reflect Kentucky," she says. Her menu so far includes fricassee of Cornish game hen with biscuits (a variation on one of Abraham Lincoln's favorite meals), spoon bread, kilt salad, transparent pies and Woodford pudding.
With such an intense focus on Kentucky cuisine, Chef Ouita must have a favorite local ingredient.
"Are you going to limit me to just one?" she says.
Weisenberger Mill corn meal and grits make her list, as does Country Rock sorghum, Stonecross Farm pork and just about any local cheese. She also likes using Kentucky-raised lamb and mushrooms from local producers.
And she loves hickory nuts, which a supplier collects for her locally, and wild-seedling pecans, which she sources from the Kentucky Nut Corporation in Hickman, Kentucky.
And of course what Kentucky chef could neglect bourbon as a favorite ingredient? Believe it or not, it took Ouita awhile to come around to the idea of incorporating bourbon with food.
"I was offended at first," she says of the concept.
To better understand how bourbon and food might work well together, she tried substituting bourbon for brandy in several French recipes that called for it. She was pleasantly surprised.
"It's a local Kentucky product and it's also the best in the world."
And when company drops by, you'd better believe she's ready with a drink and plenty of Southern hospitality. Here's how Chef Ouita is always ready to entertain — as well as her recipe for Holly Hill Inn's delicious cheese wafers!
Ouita's Best Tips for No-Fuss Holiday Entertaining
• Always have cream cheese on hand. Top with some really good pepper jelly and serve with crackers and you have a quick, delicious appetizer.
• My daughter, Willa, loves to make a festive ice-cream pie. Start with a pre-made graham cracker or chocolate cookie piecrust and fill it half way with softened peppermint ice cream. Add a layer of fudge, then another layer of ice cream and top with more fudge. Freeze for at least an hour before serving.
• At Holly Hill Inn starting in November, we simmer a pot filled with water, orange peel, clove, cinnamon sticks and a little allspice. I find that the more natural smells of the raw ingredients are far more appealing than some scented candles or oils.
• We use pomegranate juice in everything: champagne cocktails, sparkling apple juice and as a mixer for holiday cocktails.
• We fill all our pretty bowls with peppermints. I have a collection of green Depression glass, and I love to hang candy canes on rims and fill vases with candy canes. I'm sure this is not an original idea, but I love the colors and the old-fashioned feeling that it conveys.
Holly Hill Inn Cheese Wafers
We make very large batches of this dough at one time and freeze the logs. Just pull from the freezer to the refrigerator the night before you want to bake them. Make more than you think you'll need because they go fast!
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 cups flour
- 1 pound grated sharp Cheddar cheese (we use sharp white Cheddar)
- ¼ tsp. cayenne or more to your liking
- Fresh thyme leaves or pecan pieces if you want to get extra fancy
1. Bring the butter and flour together quickly to form a very soft dough. They should be well combined, but do not over knead. I use the paddle attachment of a Kitchen Aid mixer for about 4 to 5 minutes.
2. Add the grated cheese and the cayenne, and bring together until the cheese is well incorporated but not over-mixed. In a mixer, this would be about 3 to 4 minutes.
3. Roll the dough into logs about 3 inches in diameter. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze.
4. Slice each log into 1/8-inch discs when you're ready to bake. If you've decided to get fancy, press a leaf of thyme or another hearty fresh herb or pecan piece into the center of the circle. Bake on parchment or a lightly sprayed cookie sheet at 350 degrees for 10 minutes or until golden brown. They are a little soft when first removed from the oven. Let them cool just a bit on the cookie sheet, and then you can lift them off to a plate.
Photo by GLINT Studios
Visit the shop for kick-ass Kentucky gear, and come on down and visit us at the Fun Mall, y'all!