Southern Biscuit & Cornbread Dressing

There is no recipe that reminds me more of my time at A Pinch of Thyme catering in Greensboro, N.C. than this Thanksgiving standard. I look forward to the aromas of each stage of this dish to this day, and about the time I start chopping celery, the memories come flooding back. 

It was November 1994 and I was in the Pinch kitchen, elbow-deep in a humongous Cambro, mixing up the familiar flavors of Thanksgiving dressing — sausage, sage, onions, celery and fresh herbs. (You have probably seen a Cambro; it’s a plastic food pan about the size of a carry-on suitcase, used widely in restaurant and catering kitchens. Sometimes, when I’m in the throes of holiday food prep, I wish I had a stack of ‘em.) Chef Rodney had scribbled out some notes to remind me how to put this dressing together, but after making so much of it for the umpteen in-home holiday parties we catered, I didn’t need them anymore. Nope, I knew that recipe like the back of my hand:

Crumble up the flaky buttermilk biscuits and honey-sweetened cornbread that Kathleen, the pastry chef, had made the day before. They needed to be stale, but not dry. Pull the strings off the celery, then chop it with the onions and cook them in the drippings left in the pan after browning the crumbled sausage. Add fresh herbs, including the signature pinch of thyme and toss it all together in the Cambro. Beat the eggs in one of the large stainless mixing bowls from the side shelf and add it to the dressing mix with enough chicken stock to moisten it all the way through. Pour it into a couple of greased, stainless steel hotel pans and over-wrap them with plastic film and then foil. Label the order with the client’s name and date of their event and move it to the walk-in. The service team would handle it from there, baking it and serving it up for the happy holiday hosts.

Then, wash up and repeat the whole thing for another party. 

Today, wearing the very same apron (which I wore home one night and never returned), I make a scaled-down version of this dressing for my own Thanksgiving meals and it is my all-time favorite. I still don’t need a recipe to make it, but I had to write it down several years ago because everyone I ever made it for wanted the recipe. Even my ex-husband asked me to leave a copy for him when we parted ways (and yes, I did). What makes it so addictively good?

Biscuits and cornbread.

The official breads of the South!

Though the flavors of the dressing are all familiar, the texture of the flaky biscuits and grainy cornbread—the two most popular breads of the American South—make it different from a typical dressing made with seasoned yeast bread cubes. And it doesn’t really matter what recipe you use for the biscuits and cornbread. It only comes down to how much time and baking skill you have, and whether you have a sweet tooth.

The cornbread can be more or less sweet, depending on your taste.

For this version, which I made last year when it was my year for the turkey — my husband, Les, and I alternate years, just as we declared in our wedding vows — I used Bob’s Red Mill whole grain cornbread mix (which is less sweet) and I made my own biscuits, using a partial amount of whole wheat flour.

Over the years, I’ve made it with everything from supermarket bakery cornbread to Jiffy mix (the sweetest option). My only suggestion is to stick with a cornbread that has some amount of flour in it; the kind made with only cornmeal will be too grainy for this dressing. I’ve used frozen biscuits, bakery biscuits and even biscuits from a fast food drive-thru. Other than the twist-can variety (which don’t have quite the right texture), any biscuit will work as long as you pay attention to the sodium factor. The best sausage is a bulk breakfast-style pork sausage (such as Jimmy Dean’s), and I like vegetable broth but chicken broth is also great. For the most authentic Southern version, put your hands on a Vidalia onion from Georgia; otherwise, any sweet onion will do (or you can even use leeks, as I did for this version). The fresh herbs are up to you; in the Pinch kitchen, we added fresh sage and thyme, but you know what your people like so go with that.


Now, I suppose you could technically use this mixture to stuff your turkey, if you do that sort of thing. As in most commercial kitchens, the policy at Pinch was to never stuff the bird because of the risk of food borne illness, and that’s a battle that I still face every other year when my hubby takes his turn with the turkey (yep, he stuffs it). My at-home version relies on the same clean and easy method we used back in the day— only, at home I’m baking it in a buttered casserole dish rather than a greased hotel pan. Sometimes I even “accidentally” make more dressing than my baking dish can accommodate and I wind up with a second dish that gets baked the day after Thanksgiving. That way, I can savor it twice for its lightly crunchy topping and the warm and fluffy insides.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

Just as we did back in the day, you can easily prep this dressing the day before and bake it on Thanksgiving morning, then just warm it when it’s time for dinner. It travels well, too, if you happen to be going to someone else’s house for the big feast. However you go about it, please take my advice and make a large batch. You’ll be thankful for the leftovers! 

Southern Biscuit & Cornbread Dressing

  • Servings: 8 to 10
  • Difficulty: Average
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I used to make this dressing by the busload when I worked holiday season at a catering company. This scaled-for-home version brings together two beloved breads of the American South into a perfect dressing for Thanksgiving.


Ingredients

  • 1 batch cornbread (see recipe notes for suggestions)*
  • 8 buttermilk biscuits (see recipe notes)*
  • 1 pound bulk breakfast sausage
  • 1 medium sweet onion, chopped (or 1 leek, white and light green parts)
  • 3 ribs celery heart, strings removed and chopped
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Leaves from two sprigs of fresh thyme
  • A few leaves of fresh sage, finely minced (optional, depending on how sage-y the sausage is)
  • 2 cups chicken stock (or more, if breads are very dry)
  • 1 large egg

Batch size for the cornbread should be for an 8 by 8-inch pan. A Jiffy mix works great, but it’s a little on the sweet side. Try pre-made cornbread from your favorite bakery or use your own recipe. My favorite is Bob’s Red Mill whole grain cornbread mix. The only cornbread I do not recommend is a recipe that uses only cornmeal without flour; it would be too gritty for this dressing recipe.

Almost any biscuits will work here, and they certainly don’t have to be perfect. If you make a good drop biscuit, go with that. Rolled-out biscuits are great, and you don’t have to fuss over cutting them into rounds. Frozen biscuits work well (baked, obviously), but the twist-can biscuits don’t have quite the right texture. I have even used biscuits from a fast-food joint, but be mindful of the extra salt they contain.

Directions

  1. Cube or tear cornbread and biscuits into a large, open bowl or onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. The pieces should be about 1-inch square; don’t make them too small or the dressing will be more like mush. Let the bread pieces sit out overnight to stale. Alternatively, you may choose to toast them lightly in the oven, but only long enough to stale them.
  2. Place a cast iron skillet over medium heat and cook the sausage until most of the fat has rendered and sausage is lightly browned, but not crusted. Transfer sausage to a large bowl and keep the drippings in the skillet.
  3. Saute the onions and celery bits in the sausage drippings until they are soft and slightly caramelized. If the drippings are skimpy, add a tablespoon or so of butter. Season this mixture with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer entire skillet contents to the sausage bowl. Sprinkle thyme leaves (and minced sage, if using) over the mixture and toss to blend.
  4. While the sausage mixture is still warm, gently fold in the cornbread and biscuit pieces so that the lingering sausage grease will be evenly dispersed. Set this aside to cool slightly.
  5. Whisk egg and broth together in a large glass measuring cup. Pour half of it evenly over the dressing mixture and fold to combine, and then pour in the remaining broth-egg mixture. The dressing should be wet but not dripping. After the breads soak up the liquid, feel free to add a little more broth if the mixture seems too dry.
  6. Bake at 350° F for 35 to 40 minutes. If you want a very moist, soft dressing, bake it with a foil covering. For a firmer dressing with slightly crunchy top, bake uncovered. I usually split the difference, covering it with foil for the first 15 minutes then removing foil to finish it.


Flavor Bomb Brussels Sprouts

There is no rule that says you have to serve your favorite Thanksgiving vegetables exactly the same way every year, and if there was, I promise I’d be the first to break it. Last year, my husband and I had a very small get together for Thanksgiving—just the two of us and a dear friend who loves big flavor as much as we do. It was my year for the turkey, and I broke the biggest rule of all about not experimenting on Thanksgiving. I dry-brined my bird for the first time ever and I have no regrets (more on that later). We also took a few liberties with the usual sides, and came up with winners in several categories, including these bursting-with-flavor Brussels sprouts.

If you’re ready to inject some serious flavor into one of your standard holiday sides— I’m talking scallions, capers, garlic, jalapeno peppers, anchovies and walnuts—then you’re going to love this recipe, with inspiration from a dish I enjoyed in one of Michael Symon’s restaurants in Cleveland, Ohio.

A dozen years ago, I had occasion to visit Cleveland while on a two-week getaway that also included a stop in Buffalo to the original home of hot wings. Ooh yeah, I was really living it up that summer! To be fair, there was purpose to my trip beyond my foodie cravings. Most of my crazy family lives in the Buffalo area, so that was my eventual destination and I went by way of Cleveland. I had scored tickets to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where I spent—count ‘em—9½ hours walking around and gazing at the musical exhibits. It was a damn fun day for this former disc jockey, and I hope to get back there soon with my music-loving husband. But I digress.

This place alone is worth the trip to Cleveland!

The next evening after my Rock Hall adventure, I stopped for dinner at another Cleveland landmark—a neighborhood bar and restaurant called Lolita. It was opened by Chef Symon before he became famous as an Iron Chef on Food Network, and it still felt like a place for locals.


Sadly, a fire broke out in Lolita’s kitchen in 2016 and the restaurant is now permanently closed, but I’m still enjoying my memory of the dish that inspired today’s recipe. As I recall, when the server approached the table with a cheerful greeting, she asked, “Can I bring you a beverage to enjoy with your Brussels sprouts appetizer?” Apparently, it was a given that we would be ordering them, as nearly every guest did. They were that popular, and they were truly amazing with crispy, deep-fried edges and a feisty, umami-bomb vinaigrette dressing. I later tried making them at home, Symon-style, but I’m not proficient with deep frying and don’t care for the odor it leaves in the house.

If you want to give it a go in the deep fryer, you can still find Symon’s original recipe for them here. But if you’d rather try my lighter, healthier approach of roasting, then meet me in the kitchen!


I started by toasting a handful of walnuts for the dressing, then prepping the sprouts. For even roasting, be sure the sprouts are completely dry before you slice and drizzle them with oil. Lingering water from rinsing will effectively steam the sprouts, giving them more of a soft, mushy texture and you’ll miss out on the caramelization that happens when they roast.

Test doneness with a fork, and stop when the sprouts are al dente with some caramelized edges.

After roasting, I cooled the sprouts and set them aside while I finished a few other things for our Turkey Day feast. If you need to multi-task, as we usually do on Thanksgiving, par-cooking vegetables is a good way to go, as they only need a few quick minutes to finish them at serving time. You could even prep these Brussels sprouts a day before, and then take them from the fridge a half hour before dinner. They’ll finish better if they are room temperature rather than ice cold.

Now, let’s talk about the big flavor happening in this dressing! If you can’t tolerate the jalapeno heat, you could omit them or substitute a spoonful of pimientos, but I can assure you that the flavor gets dispersed so evenly, it is not all that hot. The red wine vinegar and honey do a lovely little contra dance in the background, and the garlic, scallions and anchovies keep the dish firmly grounded in savory flavor land. In other words, the dressing is the real star of this dish.


Whisk it together while the sprouts are roasting, and again just before dressing them. I kept the scallions a bit on the chunky side, so I stirred them in with the walnuts right at the end. I missed getting a picture of the final, important step (multi-tasking—sorry!) but it’s a simple one. Give the par-roasted Brussels sprouts a quick spin through a hot skillet for about two minutes, then toss them in the mouthwatering vinaigrette and serve them hot.

Flavor Bomb Brussels Sprouts

  • Servings: 6 sides
  • Difficulty: Average
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If your Thanksgiving table needs an injection of big flavor, the feisty vinaigrette on these Brussels sprouts will get the job done! You can prep these ahead somewhat by roasting and then chilling, and give them a few minutes in a hot skillet just before you toss them in the dressing to serve.


Ingredients

  • 1 lb. Brussels sprouts, washed and trimmed
  • A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil for roasting
  • 1/2 cup walnuts, toasted in oven for 8 minutes, then cooled and chopped
  • 2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 red jalapeno, seeded and finely minced
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 Tbsp. honey
  • 4 anchovy fillets, finely minced (mine were packed in chili oil, and the heat was great!)
  • 2 tsp. capers
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 scallions, white and green parts cut on bias
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (mine was infused with lemon, but any bright variety will do)

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400° F, with rack in center position. Spread walnuts out onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast for about 6 minutes, until they are just fragrant. Cool completely and then break into pieces.
  2. Wrap the washed Brussels sprouts in a clean kitchen towel and roll them around to completely remove excess water. Carefully slice the sprouts into 1/4-inch slices. Wick away any residual moisture with a paper towel. Transfer the sprouts to a medium bowl and drizzle olive oil over them. Spread them out onto the parchment-lined pan and give them a quick seasoning with salt and pepper. Roast for about 20 minutes, until softened but still al dente and bright green. If you are working ahead, let the sprouts cool and then wrap them up and send them to the fridge until 30 minutes before serving time.
  3. While the sprouts are roasting, prepare the vinaigrette by stirring together vinegar, jalapeno, garlic, honey, and anchovies. Season with a few twists of ground pepper, but skip the salt because the capers and anchovies have plenty. Whisk in the olive oil and stir in the capers. and scallions.
  4. When you’re ready to serve, give the Brussels sprouts a quick spin through a hot skillet dashed with oil or bacon drippings. Let them get a few crispy edges. Toss in dressing with broken walnuts and serve immediately.


Jamaican-inspired Sticky Sweet Potatoes

I’m all for tradition—Thanksgiving, after all, is my all-time favorite holiday and also happens to be the most traditional meal most Americans enjoy together—but for me, some of the meal traditions are tired. So I’m here to shake things up in the flavor department, starting with these sweet potatoes.

For many years, I made a sweet potato casserole that had brown sugar and eggs and cream and buttery layers of pecan crumble and everyone loved it. But it was so sweet that one year when I took it to a potluck, the organizer peeked under the cover and put it on the dessert table. True story. And no wonder, with 2/3 cup sugar in the sweet potato mixture and 3/4 cup sugar in the topping. In an 8-serving side dish?! Let’s not even discuss the amount of butter because it’s clogging my arteries just thinking about it.

Still, I made this over-the-top dish year after year after year because the people I was feeding at the time expected it. “Tradition,” and all that jazz. After some time, I got bored and started zhuzhing it up with a splash of booze, mainly to amuse myself. I incorporated a shot of Grand Marnier at first, because orange is a natural pairing with sweet potato. And then I tried it with bourbon because, well, bourbon. As you can imagine, neither did much to tamp down the cloying richness of that dish, which has since been banished to the darkest depths of my recipe box.

Yes, it is tradition to indulge on Thanksgiving, but what did fiber-rich, perfectly nutritious sweet potatoes ever do to deserve being drowned in a sea of saturated fat and then crusted up with so much sugar?

In recent years— and especially since the launch of Comfort du Jour— I have enjoyed twisting up the classics and traditional foods, and I’m thrilled to be married to a man who enjoys the variations as much as I do. For last year’s table, I presented these sticky sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving, and they were a hit! Yes, there is some brown sugar in the recipe, but a far cry from the amount in my old standard. And this one has zero saturated fat from butter, milk, eggs or cream.


These beauties are spiced up with flavors that remind me of Jamaica—bold and balanced with sweet, spicy, savory and herbal notes—a combination I loved when I visited the island many years ago. The flavors play up the natural goodness of sweet potato without overwhelming. I created a blend of brown sugar (only 1/3 cup for this 8-serving batch, but you could use as little as 1/4 cup), kosher salt, sweet Spanish paprika, allspice, cinnamon and freshly ground black pepper. In place of butter, extra virgin olive oil; specifically, I used a specialty oil that is whole-fruit fused with blood orange. You can find this at one of the olive oil and balsamic boutiques that have popped up everywhere.


I arranged them in a single layer and roasted them at 350° for about 30 minutes, then turned them over, sprinkled more of the spice blend and roasted 15 more minutes. By this time, the sweet potatoes were tender and essentially done, but dinner wasn’t. So I left the baking sheet on the countertop, covered loosely with foil. When I was ready to serve them, the sweet potatoes got sprinkled with the last pinches of the spice blend and went under the broiler for about one minute, just enough to heat them through and caramelize that sticky spicy coating.


The timing worked out perfectly, as they only needed a quick blast of high heat at the end, and then a quick transfer to a serving platter where I decorated them with fresh thyme leaves and sent them to the table.

These Jamaican-inspired sweet potatoes are a nice change of pace with a big punch of flavor and no guilt. Yes, I’ll take these any day—Thanksgiving or otherwise!


Jamaican-inspired Sticky Sweet Potatoes

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: Average
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These are no ordinary candied sweet potatoes! The island-inspired seasonings, especially the allspice, lend an unexpected flair to a Thanksgiving day standard.


Ingredients

  • 3 pounds fresh sweet potatoes, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch thick rounds
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (see recipe notes below)
  • 1/4 to 1/3 cup brown sugar, depending on your sweet tooth
  • 1 tsp. sweet (Spanish) paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. ground allspice
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • About 20 twists of freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves, for garnish

Note: If you have a specialty olive oil store, I like the blood orange-fused oil for this recipe. The citrus essence makes the island-inspired spices even more aromatic and addictive.

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375 F, with rack in center position. Line a large, rimmed cookie sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Combine brown sugar and seasonings in a small bowl and set it aside.
  3. Put thick slices of sweet potato in a large bowl and drizzle olive oil over them, tossing to coat evenly. Sprinkle half of the seasoning blend over the sweet potatoes and toss again. Arrange the slices in a single layer on the parchment-lined sheet.
  4. Roast for 30 minutes. Remove pan from oven and carefully turn each sweet potato slice. Sprinkle half of the remaining spice mix over the second side of the sweet potatoes and roast 15 more minutes, or until potatoes are tender enough to pierce with a fork.
  5. Remove from oven and let the sweet potatoes rest a few minutes; tent loosely with foil and set aside as long as needed while you prepare other dinner items. If you need to refrigerate them overnight, put remaining spice mixture in a bowl and set it aside; pick up with Step 6. If you plan to finish the sweet potatoes now, skip to Step 7.
  6. Remove chilled sweet potatoes from refrigerator at least one hour before proceeding with the recipe.
  7. Remove foil and turn sweet potatoes over. Sprinkle with remaining amount of spice mixture and broil on high for 1 to 2 minutes (watch so it doesn’t burn!), to re-heat the potatoes and caramelize the sticky spice coating. Transfer sweet potatoes to a serving platter and sprinkle with thyme leaves. Serve warm.


Pumpkin-Lentil Stew

For me, the scariest thing about learning to cook plant-based food was accepting that it’s more than ingredient swaps, it’s a new process. Learning vegan cooking forced me out of my comfort zone of using what I call “crutch” foods—the easy things we were all taught to reach for—like cheese, eggs, cream and chicken broth. The only way to overcome this hurdle of making foods in new ways is to practice, and if you have vegetarians or vegans coming for Thanksgiving, the time to practice is now. There are plenty of plant-based convenience foods out there today, but they aren’t always an even swap and it’s important to also know how to cook real, whole foods without needing those processed substitutes.

A couple of years ago, when Comfort du Jour was new, I went over the top with a Savory Sausage Mac & Cheese (baked in a pumpkin). It was fun to serve and tasted as good as you’d imagine. This year, I decided to do something visually similar but with all plant-based ingredients, and this is that dish.

Loaded with nutrients, satisfying and perfectly festive for fall!

Unlike my earlier creation, which was stuffed with rich, decadent cheese, heavy carbs and calorie-laden pork sausage, today’s recipe is entirely plant-based. It also happens to be free of gluten and nuts, so it’s suitable for people with those dietary restrictions, too. I start thinking about dishes like this around mid-October, because my husband’s daughter is a committed vegan, and as I see it, we can dread cooking for loved ones with dietary restrictions (and believe me, they will feel it at the table), or we can adjust in a way that is as fun as it is nutritious.

Who needs a bread bowl when you can have a pumpkin bowl?

This effort was also a reminder that a meal doesn’t have to be heavy to be satisfying; after we finished our pretty pumpkin supper, both my bacon cheeseburger-loving husband and I acknowledged that we were “stuffed” (in a good way). We didn’t miss what wasn’t in it, and no wonder, because what was in it was hearty and full of texture.  

There are three main components of this dish: roasted pumpkin (which did double duty as a serving vessel), creamy pumpkin bisque (without actual cream, to keep it vegan) and a mixture of cooked lentils and rice with sautéed mushrooms and aromatics.


If you prefer, you could swap in another sturdy winter squash, such as buttercup or acorn. If you wish to serve the stew inside the roasted squash, be sure to choose one that will sit flat on a plate. Or you could simply serve the soup in a bowl and save time by using canned pumpkin. I found it comforting to roast the pumpkin. My mini pumpkins were small—about six inches across—and I roasted them at 350° F for 45 minutes, then scraped out some of the soft pumpkin pulp when they were cool enough to handle. I was careful to keep enough pulp in the bottom of the gourd to prevent my soup from leaking, and enough along the top cut edge to keep the carved top from falling inside


The pumpkin bisque was the simplest part of this, made with the scooped-out roasted pumpkin, enough vegetable broth to blend smoothly, and a couple of other ingredients to punch up the flavor a bit. Roasted garlic adds a depth of flavor. The carrot-turmeric juice is something I bought for smoothies, and it worked great here for spice and color. And the smoked maple syrup is a fall/winter staple in my smoked maple old fashioned cocktails, and I liked it here for a slight touch of sweetness but mostly the smoke. I might have added some plant-based creamer here as well, but I never have it on hand unless I have a vegan guest coming. Honestly, the soup was great without it. If you have some almond milk, go for it!


Finally, a mixture of cooked lentils, kale, sautéed mushrooms and aromatics gave my dish all the texture and fiber it needed to satisfy our hungry bellies. I also added a portion of wild rice blend to my stew, but next time I would sub roasted Yukon potatoes for extra chunkiness. If gluten isn’t a concern, I think cooked wheat berries would also be great in this, for a little snappy texture.

This was a time-consuming project, partly because I was multi-tasking and making it up as I went along. Next time, it’ll be a breeze, especially since I’ve made a click-to-print recipe card below to guide me (yes, I make those for sharing, but I also use them myself)! Please, don’t be intimidated. Cooking is as fun as you make it. By the way, every part of this dish can be prepared in advance. Simply warm the stew and pumpkins before assembling and serving.

We scooped a little pumpkin flesh with each bite of the stew.

A word to the wise, though—if you decide to make this for a vegan guest at Thanksgiving, you might want to make enough for everyone. This is exactly the kind of dish to make the meat eaters jealous. 😉

Pumpkin-Lentil Stew

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
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This is a satisfying, autumn-themed dish that also happens to be vegan, gluten-free and nut-free. It would make an excellent main course for a vegan Thanksgiving.


Ingredients

  • 4 mini pumpkins, tops removed and cleaned (see ingredient notes below)
  • 1 bulb roasted garlic
  • About 1-1/2 cups cooked lentils (see notes)
  • 1 cup cooked wild rice blend (substitute cooked wheat berries or cubed and roasted Yukon potatoes, if you wish)
  • 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided (you’ll use a little for each thing you saute)
  • 1 medium sweet onion, chopped
  • 8 oz. carton cremini mushrooms, cleaned and cut into chunks
  • 1 rib celery, strings removed and chopped
  • 1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and minced (I used a red one for color)
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • A fat handful of kale (substitute with double the amount of spinach, if you prefer)
  • 1/2 cup vegetable broth
  • 1/4 cup carrot-turmeric juice (or substitute more broth)
  • 1 Tbsp. smoked maple syrup (substitute with regular maple syrup or omit)
  • Roasted, shelled pumpkin seeds for garnish

Ingredient notes: The pumpkins I used were about 6-inches across and more squatty than round, primarily because I intended to use them as serving dishes. If you only find pie pumpkins, you may want to cut the tops a little deeper so it isn’t awkward to reach a spoon down into it at serving time. If you prefer to serve in bowls, any roasted pumpkin or winter squash will be fine, and you’ll need about 2-1/2 cups of pumpkin pulp. You could even use canned pumpkin puree, and one standard can should cover it.

I used dried brown lentils for this dish, and cooked them in veggie broth for extra flavor. To save time, purchase lentils already cooked, such as canned, or those sold by Trader Joe’s.

Directions

  1. If using canned pumpkin puree, skip to Step 3. If roasting the pumpkins, pre-heat oven to 375° F, with rack in center position. Spray or brush a small amount of olive oil inside the pumpkins and sprinkle the flesh with salt and pepper. Replace the tops, capping the stems with a piece of foil to prevent burning them.
  2. Roast pumpkins for 45 minutes, until flesh can easily be scraped with a fork. Let them rest until cool enough to handle, and then use a small spoon to gently scrape out some of the flesh, keeping about 1/2-inch intact on the bottom and sides of the pumpkins’ interiors so they hold their shape. Transfer the scooped flesh to a blender container, and set the roasted pumpkin bowls aside at room temperature.
  3. Combine pumpkin with roasted garlic (squeezed from it’s paper shell) in the blender container. Add veggie broth, carrot juice (if using) and maple syrup. Pulse a few times to combine, then puree until completely smooth. Transfer to a bowl and set it aside.
  4. Place a skillet or wide pot over medium heat and swirl in a tablespoon or more olive oil. When the oil shimmers, add onions, celery and jalapeno. Season with salt and pepper, and saute until slightly softened. Push the vegetables to one side of the pan. Swirl in another tablespoon of oil and cook the mushrooms until they become soft and give off most of their moisture. Transfer the vegetables to a bowl and set it aside. Add a final tablespoon of oil to the pot and saute the chopped kale until it has wilted and softened. Adjust salt to taste. Transfer the kale to the same bowl with the other vegetables. Add lentils to the vegetable bowl and fold gently to combine.
  5. Transfer the pureed pumpkin base to the same pot used for cooking the vegetables, and place it over medium-low heat. Gently stir in about half of the lentil-vegetable mixture, then add more until the stew seems balanced to you. Add more vegetable broth if you wish, and adjust salt and pepper to taste.
  6. If the pumpkin bowls have cooled completely, slide them into a warm oven on a cookie sheet for about 15 minutes. Ladle the pumpkin-lentil stew into the bowls, sprinkle with roasted pepitas and serve.



Buttermilk Roasted Chicken

Ahead of Thanksgiving, I like to make a few “Sunday Supper” meals—the kind of menu that takes a little extra time or effort—because it gives me something to focus on besides worrying about Thanksgiving, and it also gives me a chance to do a trial run on potential new side dishes before the big day. You know what they say about experimenting on Thanksgiving, right?


This spatchcocked and roasted chicken can hold its own next to even the most elegant of side dishes you might be auditioning, and the best thing about it is that its lovely presentation takes minimal effort. I wouldn’t have believed it several years ago when I first saw a magazine cover with an image of a roasted chicken laid-out flat on a platter, and I remember thinking, maybe one day I’ll be able to cook like that. Little did I know how easy it is, and after my first attempt at it for a Passover meal a few years ago, I’ve been hooked.

From a technical standpoint, the spatchcocking (or, butterflying, if you wish) of the bird serves an important purpose by putting the whole chicken on the same level for roasting. After 45 minutes in the oven, you won’t have the concern about the breast meat being overdone before the thighs are cooked through because the cavity of the bird is essentially eliminated. The breast of the bird is not sitting several inches higher than the rest of the body, and that means the heat is applied more evenly. Thus, the chicken cooks more evenly.

And the flavor comes easy for this chicken, too, because the buttermilk does all the work. Most often, when you hear the words chicken and buttermilk in the same sentence, it’s probably in context of a recipe that involves frying. At least, that’s how it usually works here in the South. But this oven-roasted recipe is lighter, easier to prep and cook, and so, so flavorful. Buttermilk, which is acidic to begin with, has special enzymes that help break down the proteins of meat. When that breakdown occurs, it opens the door for flavors to go into the meat.

During six hours of marinating, the chicken soaks up the flavors of the herbs and seasonings I add to the buttermilk, including kosher salt, white pepper, garlic and onion powders, paprika and dried thyme.


When I shared my plans last week for making homemade stock for Thanksgiving gravy, I mentioned a tip for adding some chicken parts to the simmering broth, most notably the backbone, which I removed from a whole chicken with a technique called “spatchcocking.” This step is not necessary for roasting the bird, but I like it for the evenness of roasting that results. And as I explained in the stock post, I needed some more poultry parts for my stock. Because we don’t eat it, the backbone doesn’t add much value when it’s left on the chicken, but there’s a world of flavor in those bones when you simmer them down in a stock, so this is a smart way to “waste nothing.”

Removing the backbone is easy. You need a good set of kitchen scissors, and a little bit of gumption to crack through the ribs that are attached to the bone along both sides. Start on the neck end of the chicken, where the backbone is easy to recognize. Cut all the way down one side, then the other, and then lift the bone away from the body and cut it off at the tailbone.


If you don’t need the backbone, you can discard it; otherwise, follow my lead and add it to the pot for your next batch of stock. All that collagen in the bone will really amp up the flavor and richness of any soup or gravy you make with it. You can even freeze it for later, if you aren’t ready to make stock just yet. Pat the bird dry with paper towels and place it in a heavy-duty plastic freezer bag with a zipper top. Pour in the seasoned buttermilk mixture and seal up the bag, squeezing out as much air as possible to force the brine up around every part of the chicken. Stash it in the refrigerator for about six hours, and let the buttermilk work its magic.


After marinating, dry the chicken with paper towels and rub a small amount of olive oil all over the skin of the bird to protect it from drying out. Let it rest while the oven preheats to 400° F, and roast it for about 45 minutes, until the skin is golden brown all over and the internal temperature is 160° F. It looks beautiful and the buttermilk keeps it nice and juicy on the inside.


I’ve put this buttermilk roasted chicken in the Sunday Supper category, not for any difficulty but for the marinating time that’s required for tenderizing and flavoring. Let me know in the comments what side dishes you’d like to see with this yummy chicken.


Buttermilk Roasted Chicken

  • Servings: 6
  • Difficulty: Easy
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You don't need any special skills to spatchcock a chicken, as long as you have a good pair of kitchen scissors. And this buttermilk brine brings a world of flavor into the chicken with almost no effort.


Ingredients

  • 3.5-pound chicken, preferably free-range
  • 2 cups real, cultured buttermilk
  • 1 heaping tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp. onion powder
  • 1/2 tsp. white pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika
  • 1 tsp. dried thyme leaves
  • 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

Directions

  1. Remove the giblet package and neck parts from the inside of the chicken. Use kitchen scissors to cut down both sides of the backbone and set it aside with the innards to be simmered into a stock.
  2. Open up the chicken, essentially “unfolding” it, and lay it breast side-up on a sheet pan. Use the heel of your hand to press firmly onto the breast of the bird until it cracks. This will help the chicken lay flatter when it is time to roast it.
  3. Add buttermilk to a 2-quart bowl. Combine the salt and other dry seasonings in a small bowl, and then stir the spice blend into the buttermilk until the salt is dissolved.
  4. Place the chicken in a gallon-size freezer bag with a zip top. Pour the buttermilk into the bag and seal it, gently squeezing the air out of the bag as you go. This will ensure the brine covers every surface of the chicken. Wash and dry the bowl and place the bagged chicken into it (just in case the bag leaks) and refrigerate it for about six hours.
  5. Remove the chicken from the buttermilk brine, allowing the excess to drip off. Do not rinse the bird, but pat it dry with paper towels and lay it, breast side-up, on a baking rack placed over a rimmed sheet pan. Rub the olive oil all over the skin of the chicken and sprinkle it with kosher salt and black pepper. Let the chicken rest at room temperature for an hour before roasting.
  6. Preheat oven to 400° F, with rack in the center position. Roast the chicken without convection for 45 minutes, until the skin is golden brown all over and a thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh reaches 160° F. Rest chicken for 15 minutes before carving and serving.


Make-ahead Stock for Thanksgiving Gravy

With 20 days to go before Thanksgiving, I’m starting to feel a little edgy. There’s no point planning the menu, because I will change my mind about it a dozen times before Turkey Day arrives. It’s too soon to start much of the cooking, but I can’t sit still either. It’s just my nature, and so I have to focus my effort. And because this will be the first full table since 2019, getting organized feels more important than ever before.

But what can I do, this far ahead?

Spiff Up the Dining Room

To a good degree, we have already done this by having the room professionally painted and replacing the dated, builder-basic chandelier with a beautiful, recycled glass fixture that complements our kitchen remodel. It looks great, and we have a few more upgrades coming soon.

Table wise, I will be washing platters and serving dishes to knock a year’s worth of dust off them. I’ll inspect the table linens and press the napkins if they need it. I’ll wash all the wine glasses in the corner cabinet to be sure they are spot-free and gleaming. I’ll double-check our wine selection and attend a few tastings to be sure we have something for everyone.

Dust the chandelier and the window blinds and tidy up the bar. Clean and fill all the salt and pepper shakers because we don’t want to find an empty one when the meal is on the table.

Refresh the Kitchen

A few weeks before Thanksgiving each year, I pack up my favorite knives and take them to Chef Larry, my sharpening guy, and he will get them in tip-top condition for me. I’ve noticed a little greasy film on the cabinet doors nearest the stove, so I’ll be filling a bucket of hot soapy water to knock that down. It’s time for a deep clean of the gas range and the oven, too, and then the kitchen will be ready!

Restock the Essentials

This is one area that I tend to keep in order throughout the year, and much of that is attributed to my regular baking. I have more than enough flour, sugar and spices. But there are some ingredients I use more during holiday cooking, so I’ll be stocking up— especially nuts, because they are best when they are fresh. While I’m at it, I’ll clean out canned goods that we aren’t using and get them ready for donation.

OK, Now What?

I’ll be wringing my hands with too much time ahead to really start any cooking. Except for one thing— by this weekend, I will at least have my turkey stock in the done column. I don’t know at this point exactly what side dishes we’ll be serving on Thanksgiving— those decisions are always up for grabs until a few days before— but I do know for sure that there will be turkey and mashed potatoes, and that means we will need gravy (My husband, Les, will be making the turkey this year, because we alternate and he does the even-numbered years. He felt I needed to share that, while also noting that he “allows me” to make stock for him).

I am a big fan of store-bought broth, and I use it regularly throughout the year. But for a meal as special as Thanksgiving, it absolutely must be homemade. The holiday week will be busy enough without me taking up a burner all day to simmer down my ingredients, so my solution is to make the stock now and stash it in the freezer for a few weeks to make the best homemade gravy to accompany our meal.

Freezer-ready and packed with flavor!

My stock cannot be salty, because we brine our bird, and the drippings can be quite salty on their own; having a stock that doesn’t amplify the sodium is very important. So, as odd as it seems for me to not suggest “season every layer,” in this particular case, I advise against it if you are also a brine enthusiast.

What does go into my stock is some roasted turkey flavor, and I get that by oven roasting a few turkey wings, seasoned only with black pepper and the slightest touch of salt. Let them go until they are golden brown all over, and then strip some of the meat off the bones—these turkey bits are excellent for spoiling any good dog or kitty you have around the house—and then simmer them down with a pile of chopped aromatic vegetables and some chicken parts.

I like to roast a whole chicken around the same time I make my stock, because I can spatchcock the chicken to remove the backbone and also use that, plus the giblet packet, in my stock mix.  Wait— have you ever spatchcocked a chicken? It’s sooo easy to do; just grab a pair of kitchen scissors.



Next week, I’ll share the wonderful recipe I made with the spatchcocked chicken. For now, let’s just take the backbone and get back to the homemade stock.

Load up the roasted wings, chicken parts, vegetables and spices into your stock pot and add enough water to cover it all, which should be about two quarts (or roughly two liters). Bring it to a slight boil and then put a lid on the pot and reduce the heat to a low simmer, checking on it occasionally to be sure it isn’t boiling down too quickly. It takes time to extract all the flavor from the poultry parts, so don’t rush it.


After about five hours, the vegetables will be nearly mushy and the turkey will have literally fallen apart—this ensures the most flavorful, collagen-rich stock, and it’s exponentially better than any store-bought stock you’d find. Pick out and discard the solids, and then strain the stock through a mesh strainer into a pitcher bowl. Let it cool for a few minutes, and transfer the stock to freezer-safe containers for storage up to two months. We rarely have more than eight people at our table, so this four-cup batch of stock is enough for our brood, including some gravy left over. Obviously, if you are cooking for a crowd, double all your ingredients for a larger batch.


One day before you’re ready to use the stock, transfer it to the refrigerator to thaw. Warm it in a sauce pan, and add it to thickened roast turkey drippings to make the best homemade gravy your Thanksgiving table has ever seen!

Make-ahead Stock for Thanksgiving Gravy

  • Servings: 4 cups
  • Difficulty: Average
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This is one of the most important make-ahead items for Thanksgiving, and you can get it done this weekend! Make the stock now and freeze it for a truly amazing homemade Thanksgiving Day gravy. Did I mention that it's also easy to do?


Ingredients

  • 2 fresh turkey wings, sprinkled with pepper and only a small amount of salt
  • Spine, neck and giblet packet from a fresh, whole chicken (see recipe notes about the spine)
  • 1 medium onion, cut into large chunks
  • 3 ribs celery (plus leaves), cut into large chunks
  • 2 medium carrots, unpeeled and cut into large chunks
  • 1 tsp. black peppercorns
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • Cold, filtered water

Notes: Plan to roast a chicken a few weeks before Thanksgiving, and purchase a whole one with the giblet package and neck included. Spatchcock the chicken, using heavy duty kitchen scissors, and reserve the backbone for this stock, along with the other chicken innards.

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Line a small baking sheet with parchment paper and arrange the turkey wings on it. Roast the wings for about an hour, until the skin is golden all over. You’ll know they’re done when the kitchen smells wonderful! Cool the wings to room temperature, then shred some of the meat off the bones for any other purpose you choose. Keep about 1/3 of the meat intact on the bones.
  2. Place turkey wings and all other ingredients in a heavy-bottomed stock pot. Add enough cold water to just cover everything.
  3. Bring the pot to a slight boil, then reduce heat and cover the pot. Allow the stock to simmer on low heat (no boiling) for about 5 hours, or until the meat pulls easily from the bones. Cool for about an hour.
  4. Remove and discard the large solids, and then strain the remaining stock through a mesh strainer into a pitcher bowl. Double strain as needed, to remove any fine bits of bone or solid pieces. Transfer to freezer-safe containers and freeze for up to two months. Thaw in refrigerator before using.

If you wish to make a lower fat stock, place the pitcher bowl in the fridge overnight, then scrape the solidified fats off the top before transferring the stock to your freezer containers. The stock will be gelatinized, which is normal. Reheat for a few minutes to return it to liquid form before freezing, if preferred.


Real Homemade Popcorn & a Halloween Playlist

Popcorn, like Halloween, screams nostalgia to me. I have vivid memories of enjoying popcorn as a kid, at home and on Halloween, and we even had a woman in my small hometown who handed out homemade popcorn balls to trick-or-treaters and nobody had a problem with that. Ah, yesteryear.

Trick-or-treating, like everything else, has changed over the years and though it is still (apparently) popular with the kids, we don’t see a lot of action in our cul-de-sac. Last year, we had a 50% decrease in costumed-kid turnout, and that means the doorbell only rang twice rather than the usual three times. Who knows what this year will hold (especially with rain in our evening forecast), but at least we can enjoy our memories of Halloween from our own childhood, and I’ll figure out some way to use any candy we have left over.

We will be lucky to pass out half of this candy.

Throughout my childhood, there were many ways to make popcorn, including Jiffy Pop, which was first introduced in 1958 (when my parents were kids) and the best way to make it was over a campfire. It would sputter a bit at first as the oil inside the crumpled foil pan heated up, and then it would puff up into a giant ball that you had to have an adult tear open because the steam would burn your hands. It was crazy fun, and they still make Jiffy Pop today but it has largely been replaced by the convenience of microwave popcorn. When that trend became the norm for popcorn at home, I lost interest.

But popcorn started to have a new moment in my life almost a decade ago. I was living by myself with my three fur babies in a tiny, post-divorce apartment, and there were some nights that I didn’t feel like making a meal, so I’d settle onto the loveseat with my kitties and watch a movie with real, oil-popped popcorn and a glass of wine. Hey, there was nobody else around to complain or argue about it and, in an odd way, it was kind of liberating. When Covid hit two years ago and going to movie theaters was impossible, my husband and I started making more popcorn at home as we streamed movies on Netflix or Prime. Quite frankly, I don’t care at all about movie theater popcorn anymore because it pales in comparison to what we make at home.

The greatest benefit of making popcorn on the stove top is that you miss out on the chemical aftertaste and “after-feel” that the packaged microwave stuff always offers—you know, that chalky, filmy residue that lingers? There have been many red flags raised about the chemicals used in the microwave bags, and please raise your hand if you have ever had one catch fire in the microwave, or ever had to wave a wet towel in the air to stop the shrieking of your smoke alarm when the microwave popcorn got out of hand. Yeah, it’s everyone.


Making your own microwave popcorn may not be the best idea either, as some food safety experts have raised concern about heating brown paper bags (especially those which may include recycled materials) in the oven or microwave. So, from a safety standpoint, perhaps the old-fashioned method of popping it on the stove is still the best. It is certainly the tastiest.

Hot-air poppers were popular for a spell, but the popcorn is bland without some kind of oil and, given that we only make popcorn about five times a year, one of those bulky unitaskers doesn’t make a strong enough case to earn a coveted spot in my pantry.

Popcorn made on the stove is easy. Grab a lidded pot, at least as tall as it is wide, and preferably one with a heavy bottom to prevent scorching. It helps to have a pot with a vented—or even perforated—lid, if you can find one. Today, I use this pot that my husband loves for easy draining of pasta and potatoes. I like it for popcorn because the steam generated by the popping kernels has an easy way out of the pan and that keeps the popcorn nice and fluffy. You might also consider using a mesh spatter screen over a tall pot, and use a slightly smaller lid to keep it in place during popping so steam can escape but the hot kernels don’t.

I generally use peanut oil for popping, and I sometimes mix it up with a touch of extra virgin olive oil or unfiltered coconut oil. Do not try to make popcorn using only extra virgin olive oil, because its low smoke point practically guarantees you’ll have a mess on your hands, or maybe even a kitchen fire. Stick with oils intended for frying at higher temperatures, and you’ll be good. Heat the pot over medium to medium-high heat, and start with only two kernels to help you recognize the optimal heat level. As soon as those two kernels pop, add the rest of the popcorn all at once and give the pot a little shimmy-shake to settle them into one layer, all evenly coated in the sizzling oil.


Let the popping commence! When you notice that two or three seconds elapses between pops, immediately turn off the heat and transfer your popped corn into serving bowls. At our house, we dive right into one large bowl nestled between us, and it’s especially fun when we reach for it at the same time. If you like butter-topped popcorn—and let’s be honest, who doesn’t?—then you can melt a couple of tablespoons in a dish in the microwave or a separate pan while your popcorn is popping. I like to transfer only part of the popcorn at a time into my giant serving bowl and toss it with melted butter and salt or seasoning in batches.


As for the seasonings, think outside the salt shaker for a moment, and consider what else is in your spice cabinet that might be tasty on popcorn. If you are sodium-averse, consider chili powder or garlic powder as a seasoning, or try one of the Mrs. Dash blends to add a little zip to your popcorn. Use your imagination, and leave a comment with your favorite!

That’s a lot of popcorn possibilities!

I promised a playlist for Halloween, and you’re welcome to borrow it for your own spooky enjoyment as you wait for the doorbell to ring. I’ve curated this list to include a little bit of everything—from classic Halloween “standards” to all genres of songs about witches, monsters, creepy-crawlies and devils. It helps to have the Spotify app, but you don’t have to be a premium member to listen. Just click the play button and enjoy!

Real Homemade Popcorn

  • Servings: Varies by pot size
  • Difficulty: Average
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Why subject yourself to substandard microwave popcorn, when you can make it on the stove top in minutes and get creative with the seasonings? All you need is a tall, lidded pot and a light oil for popping.The amount of each ingredient depends on the size of your pot.


Ingredients

  • Neutral oil, such as vegetable, peanut or canola oil
  • Whole kernel popcorn
  • Melted butter and salt or seasonings of choice

Directions

  1. Place a heavy-bottomed, tall pot over medium heat and add enough oil to just cover the bottom. Drop two kernels of popcorn into the pot and cover it with a lid until they both pop.
  2. When both kernels have popped, carefully add enough popcorn to completely cover the bottom of the pot in a single, dense layer. Immediately replace the cover and wait for the popcorn to pop.
  3. Popcorn is finished when 2 to 3 seconds passes between pops. Immediately remove the pot from heat and carefully transfer it to a large serving bowl.
  4. Toss with melted butter and sprinkle with seasonings of your choice.

Look for salt specially formulated for popcorn, as its ultra-fine texture helps it adhere quickly to your just-popped popcorn. Also, consider various types of seasoned salt to add interest, such as Old Bay, seasoned salt, chili-lime salt, or everything bagel seasoning.


Blackbeard’s Comeuppance – a smoked cocktail for Halloween

There are age-old tales of hauntings on the North Carolina coast, especially in the Wilmington area and along the Outer Banks. I thought it apropos to explore the legends as we inch toward Halloween.


Folks say that Wilmington, which is nestled in a triangle between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River, is particularly prone to hauntings because of an old superstition that says ghosts—or haints, as the Gullah people call them—cannot cross over water. The Gullah people, in case you aren’t aware, are direct descendants of formerly enslaved people brought over from West Africa, and though they once inhabited the coastline from the Outer Banks to the north coast of Florida, only a remnant of the subculture remains today in the Sea Islands near Charleston, South Carolina. The heritage of the Gullah people is largely Creole, and superstitions abound, especially in their folklore about the dead. Whether or not the water theory is true, people all across the South still paint their porch ceilings blue, presumably to keep the ghosts at bay.

But the Cape Fear region has plenty to offer for adventurous souls who come seeking those ghostly encounters. And smart marketing teams have capitalized on the legends that persist there, with everything from ticketed ghost walks to haunted pool halls. Don’t believe in it? Suit yourself.


If you venture further north of Wilmington, especially toward the inlets along the Outer Banks, you might catch a ghostly glimpse of one Edward Teach— notoriously, the pirate Blackbeard. He is said to have made his home in those parts, probably for the cover it provided him in between his plundering of unsuspecting cargo ships headed for Port Wilmington. Some modern thrill seekers claim to have witnessed a mysterious light moving around in the waters there, or experienced a spooky wailing that sounded like someone crying out, “Where’s my head?”

They say it’s Blackbeard.

Now, if the notion of pirates conjures comical images of Johnny Depp in Hollywood garb and black eyeliner, well, you can forget that. Blackbeard was no such flamboyant, clever-tongued misfit. He was a badass—a wild, fearsome figure with a long, braided black beard. Some historians say that when he was about to attack a ship, Blackbeard would weave hemp cords into his beard and torch them to make it look like his head was smoking—a tactic to further terrify his unsuspecting victims so they would give up without a fight. Indeed, he was the bulliest of all the bullies of his time.

Image Credit: https://www.ncdcr.gov

Blackbeard’s reign of terror came to a violent end in 1718, when the governor of neighboring Virginia dispatched a military ship to take him out, and in the end, Blackbeard was shot, stabbed to death and decapitated. His gnarly head was hung from the mast of the military ship and later put on display atop a pole in Hampton Roads, Virginia—let that be a lesson to other would-be nautical thieves, I guess.

When my husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary on the North Carolina coast earlier this year, we didn’t find Blackbeard—OK, we weren’t actually looking for him—but I did find inspiration in a cocktail we enjoyed at End of Days Distillery in Wilmington. The distillery produces vodka, gin and rum—I’m cool with all three and ordered a frilly gin drink, and Les gravitates toward sweeter, dark liquor. He ordered the rum old fashioned, which is pretty much the same as a classic old fashioned, but with rum rather than bourbon, and a splash of cherry syrup in place of the usual sugar. It was delicious!

If you look closely at the top of the large ice cube, you’ll see that they have branded their logo into it!

We bought a bottle of the End of Days “Castaway” barrel-aged rum, and I promised Les I would re-create the drink at home, but it took Halloween and a deeper dive into the history of Blackbeard to properly motivate me. This cocktail embodies a few points of the Blackbeard story—rum, because we all know it was a pirate’s drink of choice—cinnamon syrup and spicy Jamaican Jerk bitters for a little bite, and cherry juice to symbolize the bloodshed of Blackbeard’s last stand.


Cinnamon simple syrup is easy to make at home, and I highly recommend having a jar or bottle on hand for the upcoming holiday season because it works with so many spirits. Combine equal parts water and cane sugar and heat to a slight boil, then add cinnamon sticks to steep a warm, spicy flavor into the syrup. The longer it steeps, the more intense the flavor. The bitters are a specialty item, and I’ve linked to the company’s website if you’re interested in checking them out. For this cocktail, I turned to Woodford Reserve’s brand of bourbon cocktail cherries, rather than my usual Luxardo, because I wanted the color more than the sweetness. Look for the Woodford brand in the mixers section of Total Wine or Bevmo, or the Tillen brand would also work in a pinch.

I combined all of the above with ice in my cocktail shaker and then poured it over a spooky, skull-shaped ice, drizzling in a little more cherry juice for effect, and a cherry as a garnish. Tovolo makes the skull mold for ice, and I found it on Amazon.


Finally, the dramatic moment! This past summer, our friend, Bob, introduced us to a nifty cocktail smoking kit and I promised I’d be getting one to make a fun Halloween drink. Our kit included several varieties of wood chips—apple, pecan, hickory and oak—and I chose oak to echo the essence of that in the barrel-aged rum.


When the smoke cleared from the cocktail, it was far from spooky; the sweetness of the rum and cinnamon syrup were prominent, and the spicy bitters kind of sting the tongue. But just thinking of mean old Blackbeard as we sipped our cocktails made for a fun evening.

Blackbeard’s Comeuppance – a smoked cocktail for Halloween

  • Servings: 1 drink
  • Difficulty: Average
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A fun twist on a classic cocktail, dedicated to the memory of the infamous pirate who terrorized the North Carolina coast more than 300 years ago.


Ingredients

  • 2 oz. End of Days Castaway Barrel-Aged Rum (or another dark, aged rum)
  • 1/2 oz. cinnamon simple syrup (see recipe notes for details)
  • 2 bar spoons (about 1 teaspoon) cocktail cherry syrup (mine were Woodford Reserve bourbon cherries)
  • 3 drops Bitter End’s Jamaican Jerk bitters (or aromatic bitters)
  • Boozy cherry to garnish
  • Oak chips and cocktail smoking kit (optional, but fun!)

Directions

  1. Measure rum, simple syrup, cherry syrup and bitters into a cocktail shaker or mixing glass. Add one cup of ice and shake or stir vigorously until outside of mixing container is frosty. Strain over new ice in a rocks glass. Add a cherry to garnish, and drizzle in another spoonful of the cherry syrup to mimic Blackbeard’s blood.
  2. Place smoking accessory on top of glass and light the oak chips until smoke begins to appear. Cover the accessory until the smoke fills the open space in the glass. Remove the accessory and allow smoke to dissipate before enjoying.

For cinnamon simple syrup, combine 1/2 cup filtered water and 1/2 cup cane sugar in a small saucepan. Heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Rinse 2 sticks of cinnamon (about 3-inches each) briefly under running water. Add the cinnamon sticks to the simple syrup and heat just until the syrup begins to bubble. Turn off heat and cool to room temperature. Transfer syrup to a sealed jar or bottle (it’s OK to leave cinnamon sticks in it), and refrigerate for up to 2 months.

If you’re interested in the cocktail smoking kit, Aged & Charred is the company that made ours. We didn’t receive any payment or product for my mention of them, but I wholeheartedly recommend it!



Spooky Stuffed Peppers

Before the kiddos head out for trick or treating on Monday night, parents hope that they have a decent, balanced meal in their little bellies. You know, so that they aren’t just chowing down on sugar from all those Snickers, Reeses and Skittles that they get in their trick-or-treat bags.

In my limited experience with children, I learned one lesson loud and clear—a simple way to get kids interested in eating good-for-them food is to make it FUN.


With a little imagination, you can turn an ordinary bell pepper into a fun Halloween supper, and you can fill it with whatever your kids (or grandkids, great-grandkids, neighbor kids, friends’ kids, etc.) like to eat. Mine are stuffed with cooked ground turkey in a Mexican-ish flavor profile—a combination of onions, green bell peppers, celery, garlic and Rotel tomatoes, spiffed up with chili powder and tomato paste—but there’s no reason you couldn’t change it up and make it Italian. Or Greek. Or vegan with a kale and quinoa kind of thing. Or any other combination you think the kids would like to eat. For the big kids at our house (that would be me and my husband), I went in big for veggies and lean protein.

Use any combination of vegetables that makes sense for the flavors you like.

You could use another color of bell pepper if you’d like, but the orange ones are good here, not only for their impersonation of a jack o’lantern, but also because hungry trick or treaters may be more receptive to their flavor, which is sweeter than a typical green bell pepper.

Choose peppers with a good stem, and peppers that will stand up on their own.

To prep the peppers, carefully slice the tops off, taking note of how far down the stem extends so that you keep the top of the pepper intact. Clean out the seeds and excess membranes, and then place the peppers, upside-down, into a glass baking dish with about one inch of water. Put the pepper tops in there, too, and microwave them on high for about five minutes. This will steam and soften the peppers so that they don’t need as much time in the oven after they are stuffed.

When they are cool enough to handle, use the top of a sharp paring knife to cut out triangle eyes and a nose into each bell pepper body. If you’re feeling extra creative, you could also cut a toothy smile into the peppers, too, but be careful because you don’t want the filling to seep out of its whole face.


Preheat the oven, with a rack in the center position. Heat a little olive oil in a skillet and sauté the vegetables until they are just softened. Remember to season with salt and pepper, and then add the spice seasonings to bloom their flavors. Crumble in the ground turkey, a little at a time, and toss to stir until no pink color remains. Add the Rotel and a little tomato paste to intensify the tomato flavor, and a pinch of dried Mexican oregano.


Spoon the filling into the peppers, lay a slice of sharp cheddar over the filling, and then reposition the pepper tops before sliding it into the oven. At this point, all the ingredients are fully cooked, so the peppers only need to be in the oven long enough to heat through, finish softening and melt the cheese.


Serve the peppers right away with a few spoonfuls of cooked rice, and get those kids costumed up for their night of fun!

Spooky Stuffed Peppers

  • Servings: 4 peppers
  • Difficulty: Average
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This is a fun way to feed the little ones something on the healthy side before they go trick-or-treating for all that candy. Mix and match ingredients based on what the kids like.


Ingredients

  • 4 orange bell peppers (choose them for shape and size, plus strong stems)
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 sweet onion, chopped
  • 2 ribs celery, trimmed and chopped
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp. salt-free seasoning (I used a combination of chili powder, cumin and paprika)
  • 1 lb. fresh ground turkey (or other lean ground meat)
  • 10 oz. can Rotel diced tomatoes (there are many heat levels; choose what’s right for you)
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • A pinch or two of dried oregano
  • 4 slices sharp cheddar or other favorite melting cheese
  • Brown rice, for serving

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F, with oven rack in center position.
  2. Wash the bell peppers. Carefully cut the tops off the peppers, low enough to keep the stems intact. Remove seeds and membranes and place the peppers upside down in a microwave-safe dish. Add about an inch of water to the dish and microwave on high for 5 minutes, or longer if needed until peppers are somewhat softened. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
  3. While the peppers are cooling, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add oil to the pan and sauté onions, green bell pepper and celery for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add garlic, salt and pepper, plus salt-free seasoning of your choice. Cook another minute.
  4. Crumble ground meat into the skillet, about half at a time so it doesn’t overcrowd the pan. When meat is no longer pink, add the Rotel tomatoes, tomato paste and dried oregano. Cook until mixture is bubbly, then turn off heat and cover the pan.
  5. Use a sharp paring knife to carefully cut out triangle eyes and noses in each of the bell peppers (toss the bits into the pan with the rest of the filling).
  6. Spoon the filling into the peppers. Arrange a slice of cheddar over each pepper, positioning the slices so that they will not melt to cover the eyes on the peppers. Replace the pepper tops and bake (uncovered) for 25 minutes, until heated through and cheese is melted. Serve immediately with brown rice.


Sourdough Pumpkin Rye Sandwich Loaf

With the cool, crispness of fall in the air, I have been giving my stove and oven a serious workout. Many of my recipes have been reruns of things I’ve already posted, but I have made a few exciting new things, too.

Last week, I opened a can of pureed pumpkin for another recipe (I can’t remember what), and I had just a little bit leftover—at exactly the same time I needed to feed my sourdough starter to make a new loaf of bread for my husband’s lunchtime sandwiches. Why not add the pumpkin to a bread dough? My first inclination was to make a cinnamon roll-type thing, but I remembered how delicious pumpkin is without the spice and sugar, so I took it in this savory direction instead, using my favorite sourdough sandwich bread recipe as a template.

It even looks like autumn!

The go-to recipe I modified came from Maurizio Leo, a pro baker whose passion for naturally leavened bread shines on such sites as Food 52 and King Arthur Baking Company. He understands and explains all the science of breadmaking (which I love) and though I keep saying I want to make some of the other Insta-worthy recipes on his blog, The Perfect Loaf, I keep coming back to this one. It relies on an unusual method of pre-cooking a portion of the flour—a technique which locks in much more liquid that you’d otherwise get into a sandwich loaf—and this initial step ensures a super-soft, tender bread with a perfectly chewy edge on every slice.

I’ve experimented many times with Maurizio’s original recipe, first to split it in half because we can’t finish two loaves that quickly, partly out of necessity on days that I didn’t have honey or whole milk, but also out of curiosity to see how far I could push it in the direction of more whole grain. This time, I wanted to see how the loaf would fare with a half cup of fiber-rich pumpkin puree, and as you can see, it turned out quite good.

My big test for any new loaf is toast, and this one was divine!

I love toast so much.

To make my pumpkin sandwich bread even more rustic and autumn-like, I swapped out a good amount of my usual white whole wheat flour in favor of whole dark rye and played up that rye infusion with a spoonful of caraway seed. I swapped in molasses for honey because I love the deep, earthy flavor of molasses with rye. It all worked beautifully, and the aroma of this loaf as it emerged from the oven was nothing short of fantastic. Sometimes it pays to experiment.

Let’s get baking!

Inspired by Sourdough Sandwich Bread with Pre-cooked Flour | The Perfect Loaf

Fair warning, my recipe is written in metric measurement because that’s the way I bake. Scaling a recipe by volume measurements is a near-impossible task, and I will say honestly that my cheap digital kitchen scale is one of the items I would never go without today.

This loaf depends on a portion of ripe sourdough starter. “Ripe” means it has been refreshed within the past 8 to 12 hours, so it is fully fermented, active and ready to use. If you don’t have a sourdough starter, you could try a swap-in of canned pumpkin for about half of the water called for in your favorite yeast-based recipe, and then add about 2 tablespoons of extra water. It would be best to experiment with a recipe that you are very familiar with, so you have a better sense of when the dough looks and feels “right.”

Here’s how it went down in my kitchen, beginning with the flour and milk paste, which are whisked together and cooked over medium heat until it looks like a roux. This stage needs constant attention, so don’t look away even for a moment, and be ready to switch from whisk to spoon when it starts to get thickened so you don’t get it all caught up in the whisk.


Next, combine the pumpkin and warm water, whisk in the molasses and olive oil, and then combine it with the sourdough starter and the cooled roux paste in the bowl of a stand mixer. Use the beater blade for this and blend it for several minutes, until it’s smooth and evenly mixed.


Whisk the flours together—here I used a combination of dark rye, white whole wheat and bread flour, which is high in gluten for a strong rise—and stir in the salt and caraway seed. Add a spoonful of these dry ingredients at a time to the mixing bowl while it’s running, until the dough begins to look like batter. Then turn off the mixer and add the rest of the flour ingredients all at once. This is not an essential step for the recipe, but my technique for reducing the splash that usually happens when I start my mixer with wet and dry ingredients in the bowl. I hate the mess, and this really helps!


Continue mixing until all the dry ingredients are completely incorporated. Stop the mixer and scrape the dough off the beater blade into the bowl. Cover the bowl and let the dough rest for at least 20 minutes, up to an hour. This is a departure from Maurizio’s recipe; it’s my own trick for making the dough more workable, as the rest time gives the grain time to fully hydrate. Fit the mixer with the dough hook and knead the dough until it’s smooth, soft and shiny. Resist the temptation to add more flour—yes, the dough will seem too soft, but the next step of stretching and folding will increase its strength. Trust the process. Transfer the soft dough to a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover it and stay nearby for the next step.


I was working alone in the kitchen on this day, so the stretch and fold pictures I’m sharing below are borrowed from an earlier post for a different bread (notice the ugly old counters?), but the process is exactly the same. Do this at least twice (three is better), about 30 minutes apart during the first part of the ferment time. This may not seem like much, but this step builds a great deal of strength in the dough so it rises big in the oven.


After about three hours, the dough will be puffy and stretchy. Turn it out onto a lightly floured countertop and gently press and stretch it into a long rectangle. Beginning on the short end nearest you, roll it up tightly into a cylinder shape, tucking in the sides as you go. Pinch the ends of the roll closed and seal the long edge. Place the loaf, seam side-down, into a greased (or non-stick) bread pan. Cover with plastic wrap and place the pan in a draft-free zone in your kitchen—tucked into the microwave is a good bet—until the dough rises to one inch above the rim of the pan.


Preheat the oven to 400° F with rack in center position and another rack in the lowest part of the oven, which you’ll use for a steam pan. Fill a second, shallow baking pan with hot water and place the pan on the lowest rack while the oven preheats.

Bake 22 minutes with steam, then remove the steam pan and rotate the bread to bake more evenly. If the loaf is already brown on top, place a loose foil tent over it to prevent burning. Bake 22 minutes more, until bread is golden brown all over and internal temperature is around 205° F.


Turn the finished bread out onto a cooling rack immediately and cool at least four hours—preferably longer—before cutting into it. That is, if you can stand the wait. 😊

Sourdough Pumpkin Rye Sandwich Loaf

  • Servings: 16 slices
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
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This bread is rich with the rustic flavors of fall, and well worth the wait!


Ingredients

  • 148 g whole milk
  • 37 g whole dark rye flour
  • 106 g sourdough starter, recently refreshed
  • 100 g pureed pumpkin (NOT pie filling)
  • 85 g filtered water, heated 30 seconds in the microwave
  • 18 g unsulphured molasses
  • 30 g extra virgin olive oil
  • 285 g bread flour
  • 60 g white whole wheat flour
  • 28 g whole dark rye flour
  • 2 tsp. caraway seed (optional)
  • 1 1/4 tsp. salt

Directions

  1. Combine milk and first amount of rye flour together in a small saucepan. Whisk them together over medium-low heat until flour is thickened into a paste-like texture. This will take about 10 minutes. Let the mixture cool to room temperature.
  2. In a measuring cup with a pour spout, combine pumpkin, water, molasses and oil. Whisk until smooth. Combine this mixture with the sourdough starter and rye-milk paste, using the beater blade, until the mixture is evenly blended.
  3. Whisk remaining flour ingredients together with salt and caraway seed. Add flour ingredients and continue mixing with beater blade just until the mixture comes together and pulls away from the sides of the bowl. Scrape dough from blade, cover the bowl and let it rest at least 20 minutes, up to one hour.
  4. Attach the dough hook to the mixer and knead on medium-low speed for about 8 minutes, until dough is smooth and shiny. Transfer dough to a large, lightly oiled bowl. Cover and rest for up to three hours. Perform a few stretch-and-folds during the first hour and a half. These folds will help build strength in the dough.
  5. When the dough has puffed considerably, shape it into a loaf and place it in a greased pan, seam side down. Cover and let rise for about two hours, until dough has risen about one inch above the rim of the pan.
  6. During the end of the rising time, preheat oven to 400 F with rack in center position and another rack near the bottom of the oven. Prepare a shallow pan with hot water and place it on the lower shelf during preheating time. This will provide steam for the first half of baking.
  7. Bake 22 minutes with steam, then carefully remove the steam pan. Rotate the bread pan and cover with a loose foil tent to prevent over browning. Continue to bake 22 more minutes, until bread is deep golden brown and internal temperature is in the 200-205 F range.
  8. Turn bread out immediately onto a cooling rack and cool completely before wrapping.