BELLOWS FALLS—With the weather so warm this autumn, little have our thoughts drifted to the upcoming holidays. But now that Halloween has passed, we turn our attention to the busy times ahead, and the gatherings and meals to be planned.
There are some traditions at the holidays that cannot be altered, especially at Thanksgiving. The turkey (of course), the mounds of mashed potatoes, the pools of gravy and, in my family, everyone has their favorite pie that has to be on the dessert table. Sometimes the sides are the favorite dishes.
I often fiddle with those sides, and the reactions from family have been mixed. I won’t go into the details of the Tofurky event, but enough to say that even with a lot of doctoring, it was not a culinary day of glory.
But making the same side dishes year after year can be boring for the cook!
A few years ago, I recreated an easy one — creamed onions — because they were not on the top of the list of family favorite sides; I wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers.
I love these onions, as did my mother, and my grandson as well. But most of the rest passed them by for the more enticing offerings, there being only so much room on the plate!
My mom’s recipe was simple. A white sauce made from a roux of flour and butter and warmed half-and-half, and a touch of nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Add the cooked pearl onions, and serve. That was it. Not too exciting, but you really had to like onions to appreciate this.
I wanted more people to love them, and in my family, that usually means turning to cheese. I added a little cheddar and a bit of Dijon mustard to the white sauce, and I topped it all with a little more cheese mixed with bread crumbs. A little trip under the broiler, and it was browned and bubbly.
Everyone loved them and didn’t seem to notice it was still mostly about the onions. Vermont cheese is really a wonder food, especially when melted and browned.
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Last year, I decided to tackle the stuffing — more accurately “dressing,” since we cook this bread concoction in a casserole and no longer stuff it into the bird.
It is much too easy for the stuffing to be bacteria-ridden if not cooked to a high-enough temperature, and that temperature means the bird will probably end up overcooked. Also, we all love the crispy top when cooked as a casserole.
Regardless of where it is cooked, we still call it stuffing. Although I added different ingredients over the years, I basically made the same recipe as my mother: dried bread cubes with celery, onions, eggs, stock, lots of Thanksgiving savory spices, and, of course, the ever-present Bell’s Seasoning in the little cardboard box.
I created a savory brunch bread pudding for my guests at the B&B that was a huge hit and became my starting point for the Thanksgiving stuffing makeover. I used local apples and sausage in a traditional bread pudding, and people absolutely loved it.
The best thing about this recipe is that I assembled it the night before, and all I had to do in the morning was pop it in the oven to bake. For a holiday dish that takes a lot of preparation, this is a gift of time and reduced stress in the kitchen!
For my holiday version, I found a large challah bread, half price because it was two days old, perfect for this application. Bread puddings and stuffing are best made with stale bread, which will absorb the liquid; if none is available, you will have to dry it out in the oven first. You can use any hearty, rich bread in this recipe.
My mother used a little milk in her stuffing, but I used light cream instead, and lots of it. I really wanted this to be more custard-like. I also doubled the amount of eggs to give it a little extra puffing and dramatic interest.
To add other dimensions, I used sweet pears, some tart Vermont cranberries, and heavenly caramelized onions. Spicy sausage from the local farm stand added the savory element, heat, and texture.
The family and friends loved the redux. It was most definitely a hit, and we’ll make it again this year. I may add a different fruit, or maybe some nuts, just to keep it interesting.
My loaf of bread was large, so I had enough to make a small meat- and dairy-free version as well, using soy milk, veggie stock, and veggie sausage, and I topped with nutritional yeast. It was as delicious as the original!
Savory Pear, Cranberry, and Caramelized Onion “Stuffing”
¶1 large loaf day-old challah bread, cut into cubes
¶4 Tbsp. butter, divided
¶2 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
¶1 lb. spicy sausage, or soy alternative
¶2 ribs celery, small dice
¶1 small onion, small dice
¶1 cup fresh Vermont cranberries
¶2 pears, cored and diced
¶2 Tbsp. fresh sage, minced
¶1 Tbsp. fresh rosemary, minced
¶1 Tbsp. Bell’s Seasoning
¶3 or 4 large, sweet onions, sliced, about 4 cups
¶2 Tbsp. maple syrup
¶2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
¶3 cups light cream
¶3 cups chicken stock, homemade if available
¶6 large organic eggs
¶Grated Cheddar cheese to top (optional)
If your bread is not stale, cut it up and place it on a cookie sheet in a low oven (250 degrees) for a half hour or so to dry it out. Butter a 10 in. x 13 in. casserole or baking pan.
In a large skillet, over medium high, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and add the sausage, removed from casing and broken up. Season with salt and pepper.
When about half cooked, add the celery and sauté a few more minutes.
Add the cranberries, pears, sage, rosemary, and Bell’s. Cook for another couple of minutes and remove from pan to a bowl.
Check seasoning, and let cool while onions are cooking.
In the same pan, add an additional 1 tablespoon each of butter and oil, half the onions, and salt and pepper to taste. The onions will reduce in volume. Cook for a couple of minutes, and add the rest of the slices.
Cook for another 15 minutes or so, stirring now and then, reducing the heat if they seem to be browning too quickly while not cooking through.
As the onions brown, add the maple syrup and cider vinegar, and stir to deglaze the pan. If you need a little more moisture, add a bit of water.
Reserve a little of the stock. In a large bowl, beat the cream, most of the stock, and eggs. You will probably need the reserved stock, but it will depend on the size of the baking pan you use, and how big and dry your loaf of bread was. This is not an exact science.
Add the bread to the custard and stir. Add in the sausage mixture, and a little more salt and pepper, combining all.
Place half the bread mixture in your prepared casserole. Spread the onions evenly over the mixture, and top with the rest of the bread. Press down. There should be some liquid still visible; if not, add the rest of the stock and perhaps a little more.
Cover tightly with foil and place in the refrigerator for a minimum of 1 hour, but overnight is best.
To bake, preheat oven to 350 and position casserole, still covered, on the middle rack. Cook for 50 minutes; remove foil and dot with remaining butter. Sprinkle with the cheese of choice, then return to the oven.
Increase the heat to 375, and bake uncovered for another 20–30 minutes, or until the top is puffed and nicely browned.
Almost your mother’s canned cranberry sauce...
Although I’ve made home cooked whole-berry cranberry sauce for years because I want to use local, organic berries, there’s always a joker in the crowd who wants canned, jellied cranberry sauce from the supermarket. I won’t name names.
The joke was on that person last year when I made my own jellied cranberry sauce, making use of a recycled tin can, and nobody was the wiser.
It is actually one of the simplest things to do, and it tastes better than the canned!
Combine in a saucepan:
¶1 cup sugar
¶1 cup water or cranberry juice
Bring to a boil and add:
¶12 ounces cranberries.
Cook for 10 to 15 minutes. The cranberries will pop open. Force this all through a mesh strainer or food mill, then place the mixture in a clean can. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
That’s about it!
You can also prepare it any pretty dish or mold, just to be different, and if you want to be adventurous, replace half the water with orange juice and add a pinch of cinnamon.
To serve, cut off the other end of the can and push through, slice up and serve — just like the stuff from the market, but made with local cranberries!
I realize I am going to have to hide this section of the newspaper.