Often regarded in the U.S. to be a food for St. Patrick’s Day, colcannon is traditionally enjoyed at Halloween in the old country of Ireland. Cooks there would hide coins or trinkets or charms inside, and legend said that what you found in your hearty spoonful was an omen for the coming season—be it riches or poverty, marriage or singlehood. The exact origin of the dish is disputed, but historians are certain that it has been enjoyed in Ireland since at least the mid-1700s, and there’s no arguing that it is creamy, satisfying comfort food at its best.
Well, did you ever make colcannon made with lovely pickled cream With the greens and scallions mingled like a picture in a dream Did you ever make a hole on top to hold the ‘melting’ flake Of the creamy flavoured butter that our mothers used to make
Oh you did, so you did, so did he and so did I And the more I think about it, sure the nearer I’m to cry Oh weren’t them the happy days when troubles we knew not And our mother made colcannon in the little skillet pot
Excerpt from The Auld Skillet Pot – Mac Con Iomaire
With fiber-rich potatoes, cabbage, onions and butter, colcannon could seriously stand on its own as a meal. My version subs in cooked kale and leeks for the cabbage and onions, and it is a gorgeous addition to our homemade corned beef and cabbage dinner.
2 1/2 pounds potatoes (mix of russet and golds), peeled and boiled until tender
2 fat handfuls fresh curly kale, washed and chopped
1 leek (white and light green parts), cleaned and sliced
8 Tbsp. good Irish butter (divided)
1 cup light cream, room temperature
Salt and pepper
While potatoes are cooking, melt 2 Tbsp. of butter in a skillet or small pot. Sauté chopped kale and sliced leeks until wilted and tender. Season with salt and pepper.
Drain potatoes, return to pot and add 4 Tbsp. of butter and light cream. Mash until soft and fluffy. Season with salt and pepper.
Add kale and leeks to the potatoes and fold to blend. Serve family style with remaining butter on top.
Somehow, this combination of random freezer leftovers worked itself into the dressing my husband, Les, declared on Thanksgiving to be his “favorite ever.” When we made the decision to scale back Thanksgiving for pandemic safety and change up the menu to experiment with new flavors, I thought immediately of the crudely labeled white butcher-wrapped package in my freezer. The venison sausage had been gifted to me a few years ago by a friend I knew from pool hall, where I played in a 9-ball league. Johnny does both bow and rifle hunting, and in a good season, he’d have venison to spare for lucky friends like me. And if you were in the right place at the right time, you’d be lucky enough to taste his venison jerky. Wow.
I’ve wracked my brain to decide how to describe the flavor of venison to any reader who has never tasted it. Texture-wise, it’s similar to beef, but extremely lean so it’s firmer and drier. The flavor is more wild than beef, but less gamey than lamb. Some say venison is an “acquired” taste, but I’ve been eating it since I was about 6 years old, so I can’t say for sure. My stepdad was a deer hunter, and it wouldn’t have been unusual for me to come home from first grade and find a deer carcass hanging upside down from a tree. In my teens, I’d enjoy a free day off as my rural high school was closed for the first day of deer season. Kind of hard to have classes with half of the upperclassmen (and the teachers) all out. I remember eating venison in soup and chili from such a young age, and once biting into a piece of overlooked buckshot. My enjoyment of this wild game meat is as old as any other food memory I have.
I have no excuse for not using the venison sausage sooner, except that I hadn’t felt inspired, and I feared that after four-plus years in the freezer, the sausage would be too far gone to use. But I may as well have a look, I thought, and when I finally was able to unwrap all five layers of plastic film, I found that it was not the total disaster I’d expected. The outer edges were browned and smelled like the freezer, but inside the meat was red, smelled sweet and was perfectly usable.
So use it I did. I cut away the freezer-burned outer edges and used them to make some homemade cookies for our dog (don’t worry, I researched to learn that freezer-burned meat isn’t dangerous, and Nilla loved them). And the rest of the venison sausage, about 10 ounces, became the star of my dressing.
With non-traditional flavors already at the center of our holiday table, I browned up the venison sausage and used it to flavor this dressing, which also included cubes of challah (also from the freezer) and kale with celery and onions. For a spicy kick, I added a few pinches of dried chipotle flakes. Butter and vegetable broth completed the dish, and—well, it was awesome.
10 oz. ground venison or venison sausage
1 or 2 slices of uncured smoked bacon, cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
Kosher salt and black pepper
1 fat handful kale leaves, washed and heavy stems removed
3 Tbsp. salted butter
2 1/2 cups vegetable broth (low sodium preferred)
4 cups challah cubes, dried in low oven
1 egg, lightly beaten
Crumble venison sausage and cook it with bacon slices in the cast-iron skillet. When browned, transfer sausage to a bowl.
Heat olive oil in same skillet, and sauté onions and celery until slightly softened. Add chopped kale and continue to cook until wilted. Season with salt, pepper and chipotle flakes. Transfer mixture to the bowl with the sausage. Refrigerate if working ahead or proceed to the next step.
Place a large saucepan over medium heat. Melt butter, then add vegetable broth and heat until butter is melted and liquid is warm.
In a large bowl, toss to combine challah cubes and half of the buttered broth. When moisture is mostly absorbed, add the remaining broth and toss again. Fold in beaten egg until mixture is uniform and fully moistened.
Fold in venison sausage mixture and blend to combine. Transfer dressing to a buttered casserole dish. Refrigerate until ready to bake.
Preheat oven to 350° F. Bake dressing, covered, for about 35 minutes. Remove cover and bake 15 minutes further, to crisp up the top.
Thanksgiving will be different for a lot of folks this year. Sure, some percentage will press on with their big gatherings, but between the pandemic, travel restrictions and general upheaval and uncertainty, many more of us (my husband and me included) will have lots of extra space at the table, and the menu will either be smaller, less elaborate or altogether different.
At our house, we have already opted for experimentation and wild cards with our menu. This will be the year we do a bourbon brine, or smoke a turkey breast or whip up a venison sausage dressing. I’ll be taking creative liberty with the side dishes, too, because, well, why not?
Over the next week, I’ll be sharing plenty of recipes—twists as well as classics from our personal recipe playbook. In the midst of the excitement, I’m also having fun creating new ways to enjoy the flavors that are so traditional for Thanksgiving, even if the dishes aren’t. If you missed the savory sausage mac and cheese baked in a pumpkin, you’ll definitely want to go check that out. It’s as tasty as it is pretty!
Today, I’m whipping up a batch of miniature meatloaves that have all the same flavors you’d expect for Thanksgiving. These little minis have a base of seasoned ground turkey, blended with sage stuffing mix and onions, a middle layer of sautéed kale and onions with mushroom seasoning, and a rich and fluffy top layer of Yukon gold and sweet potatoes. They’re conveniently portioned for sharing or freezing, and if you don’t have a mini loaf pan, you can make them instead in a regular or jumbo muffin tin.
Each bite of mini meatloaf delivers the Thanksgiving flavor that I’ve been craving every day since the beginning of November. Best of all, these are a snap to make, and they are ready for the oven in less than an hour.
1/2 cup Pepperidge Farm herb seasoned dry stuffing mix
1/4 cup whole milk
Extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped and divided between layers
2 fat handfuls washed kale leaves, chopped (heavy stems removed)* (see notes)
1 tsp. Umami seasoning (powdered mushroom flavor from Trader Joe’s)*
1 large sweet potato, scrubbed clean and baked*
2 large Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
I had a big bag of kale already in the fridge, but if you prefer, you could substitute spinach. I think shredded brussels sprouts would also be excellent here.
Can’t get your hands on the umami seasoning? No problem. Chop up a few mushrooms very fine and toss them into the skillet ahead of the kale, to give them time to sweat out their moisture.
I’ve listed the sweet potato as “baked” because I had one leftover. If you prefer, cut up the sweet potato and cook on the stovetop along with the Yukon golds.
If you opt for ground turkey breast, the mixture may be a bit drier than regular ground turkey. Consider adding a drizzle of olive oil to the meat mixture to make up the moisture difference.
Preheat oven to 350° F.
In a small bowl, combine the dry stuffing mix with the milk and allow it to rest a bit. Stir the mixture occasionally to ensure all liquid gets absorbed and the mixture becomes paste-like.
Place cut-up potatoes in a medium pot and boil gently over medium heat until they are just barely fork tender. Drain and transfer to a bowl. Add butter, egg white, parmesan and freshly ground black pepper. Stir to combine.
While potatoes cook, place a non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add a drizzle of olive oil and sauté half of the chopped onions until softened and somewhat translucent. Season with poultry seasoning, salt and pepper.
Remove half of the cooked onions to a large bowl, along with the raw ground turkey. Add egg, sun-dried tomatoes, stuffing paste, salt and pepper. Stir to combine, then set aside.
To the same onion skillet, add the chopped kale and sauté (use a bit more oil if needed) until kale is wilted and softened. Sprinkle with umami mushroom seasoning and stir to blend.
Time to assemble the mini meatloaves! Spray the cups of your mini pan with olive oil spray, then fill each cavity about halfway with the turkey mixture. Press down with a fork or spoon to ensure the meat is packed thoroughly to the edges. Next, divide the kale mixture over the turkey layer, and press down again. Finally, top the loaves with the mashed potato mixture.
Press the potato mixture with the tines of a fork to leave lines on top.
Bake the meatloaves for 35-45 minutes (depending on the size of your mini pan cavities—for muffin tins, check doneness after 35 minutes. My meatloaf pan had cavities for 8 mini loaves and it took 45 minutes).
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