Brie & Mushroom-stuffed Meatloaf

To say that I’m excited for fall is a bit of an understatement. After stiflingly humid North Carolina summers, I am always eager for the relief that comes in mid-September. I can finally open the windows each morning to let the cool, fresh air permeate our space (at least until afternoon, when the temps rise back into the 90s), and my soul starts longing for all the culinary comforts of the fall and winter seasons—warm herbal teas in the evening, soups and stews that nourish us from the inside out, and the return of what I like to call the Sunday Supper.

This meatloaf is one of my very favorites, though calling it a meatloaf may not do justice to the elegance of the meal, especially if you go the extra mile to make the French Onion Gravy recipe that accompanies it on my plate.

No mashed potatoes necessary.

My first inspiration for this recipe came many years ago when I spotted a wedge of creamy, mushroom-studded brie in the specialty cheese section at Trader Joe’s. It was begging to be part of something special and so I incorporated it into my usual, plain-Jane turkey meatloaf and I never looked back. I have since seen the cheese branded by other companies as well, and I actually bought this one from another supermarket. If you cannot find brie with mushrooms, substitute any other brie, and preferably one that is sold in large wedges, as it is easier to slice evenly for the rollup.


There will be plenty of mushroom in the mix anyway, as I slice and brown nearly a whole package of “baby bellas” to layer with the brie. Oh, and sauteed mushrooms and onions also get chopped and blended right into the meat mixture as well. Yes, this is definitely a mushroom-lover’s meatloaf!


I like using a combination of ground turkey (93% lean) and ground turkey breast (99% lean) for this, because the turkey breast on its own tends to go dry during baking, and the other on its own is almost too soft to shape properly. I suppose this meatloaf could also be made with lean ground beef, but I love it with ground turkey, which has a lighter flavor and leaner calorie load—though I’m sure the brie filling that oozes out into every bite probably cancels out that second part.


To give this meatloaf a hint of Thanksgiving (we are already counting down at our house), I have used dry stuffing mix (which I crushed into crumbs) in the panade, and it forms a glue to hold it all together. Feel free to substitute your favorite bread crumbs. Use less milk for this one than you normally would in a panade, because the turkey meat mixture is fairly loose and it benefits from the sturdier, almost crumbly panade.

The richness of the brie demands a little balance as well, so don’t omit the fresh parsley. Putting this meatloaf together is not as complicated as it might seem. At the end of the post is a click-to-print recipe, but I’ll walk you through it so you can see how easy it really is.


Parchment paper is my best friend for the task of shaping the meatloaf, but waxed paper would work in a pinch. Take your time, be sure the long edge and ends are sealed, and bake it on a cookie sheet rather than in a pan, for a beautiful crust. Give it 45 minutes at 400° F, and let it rest for at least 10 minutes before slicing.


Look at that gorgeous crust!

As for the gravy, well, I probably had you at “French onion.” It’s simple enough to make, but it does call for a special ingredient in the Herbes de Provence, which is a blend of herbs well known in the south of France. If you don’t have or can’t find it, substitute a blend of thyme, rosemary, marjoram and lemon peel. It won’t be quite the same, but these flavors will help to highlight and complement the onions. Use sweet or yellow onions and your choice of chicken or vegetable broth.


Serve the meal by ladling a portion of gravy directly onto the plate, and top with thick slices of the brie and mushroom-stuffed meatloaf. This entree does not need mashed potatoes, but if you crave them, may I suggest my hubby’s fantastic Garlic Mashed? You won’t regret it. 🙂

Brie & Mushroom-stuffed Meatloaf

  • Servings: About 8 slices
  • Difficulty: intermediate
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Don't let the fancy swirl pattern in these meatloaf slices intimidate you! With a little patience and a sheet of parchment paper, you can make this delicious turkey meatloaf that literally oozes with comfort!


Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup dry herb stuffing mix (such as Pepperidge Farm), crushed into small crumbs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided (note directions for when to use)
  • 1/2 sweet onion, minced
  • 12 oz. carton cremini mushrooms, divided
  • 1 lb. ground turkey (93% lean)
  • 1/2 lb. ground turkey breast (99% lean)
  • 1 large egg
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Small handful chopped, fresh parsley
  • 6 oz. brie (with mushrooms, if possible)

Directions

  1. Make a panade, combining the dry stuffing mix with milk. You should have just barely enough milk to cover the stuffing mix. Let this rest while you prepare the rest of the meatloaf mixture.
  2. Clean and trim all the mushrooms and divide them, chopping enough into small pieces to measure about 1/2 cup. Slice the remaining mushrooms into thin slices and set aside.
  3. Place a non-stick skillet over medium heat with a tablespoon of olive oil. Sauté the minced onion until translucent. Season with Herbs de Provence, salt and pepper. Add the chopped mushrooms and sauté together until the mushrooms are soft and most of their moisture has evaporated. Cool this mixture and then process (or chop) into smaller bits.
  4. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the skillet and brown half of the sliced mushrooms until they are golden on both sides. Repeat with the remaining oil and mushrooms. Don’t be tempted to cook the mushrooms all at once, unless your pan is very large. If they are crowded in the pan, they will cook by steaming rather than browning, and you’ll lose the texture of the mushrooms. Transfer the browned mushroom slices into a bowl to cool.
  5. In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground turkey (both), egg, panade, mushroom-onion mixture and parsley. Toss in a generous pinch of salt and a few twists of black pepper. Use your hands to evenly combine these ingredients until they are uniform, but try not to overwork the mixture.
  6. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer the meatloaf mixture onto the parchment, using oiled hands to pat it into a rectangle about 9 by 12 inches, and about 3/4-inch thick. Layer the browned mushrooms evenly over the surface, leaving a 1-inch border around all edges. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate about 30 minutes to firm up. Use this time to preheat the oven to 400° F and to prepare the French onion gravy.
  7. Slice the brie cheese wedge into uniform thickness pieces, about 1/4-inch thick. Arrange the slices in a single layer all over the chilled meatloaf, keeping a 1-inch border along both sides, and at least 2 inches from the far, short end. This will help prevent the brie from melting out of the meatloaf during baking.
  8. Use the parchment paper to assist rolling the meatloaf, beginning with the short end near you. Bend the brie, if needed, so that it will roll easier. Keep the roll snug as you go, and pinch to seal all edges, finishing with the end seal on top of the roll. Sprinkle the surface of the meatloaf lightly with kosher salt and bake for 45 minutes, until the meatloaf is browned with a slight crust all over; internal temperature will be about 160° F. Remove it from the oven and allow it to rest about 10 minutes before slicing. The residual heat will continue to cook the meatloaf during this time.
  9. Serve with French Onion Pan Gravy.


French Onion Pan Gravy

  • Servings: 3 cups
  • Difficulty: average
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Ingredients

  • 1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced into crescent shapes
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp. Herbs de Provence seasoning
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 2 Tbsp. dry vermouth (or dry white wine)
  • 3 1/2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 1 tsp. bouillon paste (optional, for richer flavor)

Directions

  1. Heat a large skillet or shallow sauce pot over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil and saute the onion crescents until translucent. Season with Herbs de Provence, salt and pepper and continue cooking until onions begin to caramelize.
  2. Sprinkle flour over the onions and add the butter, stirring to melt the butter and evenly coat the onions in roux. Cook until the onions no longer appear dry from the flour, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add dry vermouth to the skillet and stir to deglaze any browned bits. The liquid will probably dissipate rather quickly. Add broth, about half at a time, stirring to distribute evenly. When sauce begins to bubble and thicken, reduce heat to low and cover the skillet. Let it simmer while meatloaf is in the oven.
  4. Just before serving, taste and adjust seasonings. For additional richness, swirl in a heaping teaspoon of bouillon paste.
  5. Plate a ladle-ful of gravy, and top it with slices of the brie and mushroom-stuffed meatloaf.



Vegan Mushroom Gravy

With so much to do in advance of Thanksgiving, it may seem a little nuts to make the gravy ahead but hear me out on this. There are two big reasons I like to make this vegan mushroom gravy, and neither is related to having a vegan guest at the table.

First, the final minutes before dinner are hectic—the turkey has to be rested before carving, and the oven braces itself for round two, as I shove a baking sheet of vegetables in to roast or a casserole for final re-heating. The warmed dishes all need to be brought to the table and you can’t really make the turkey gravy until after the bird has emerged from the oven. If something goes wrong with the turkey gravy (been there, done that), I love having the savory, earthy flavors of this mushroom gravy as a backup.

Mmmm, mushrooms!

Secondly, the mushroom gravy is less heavy—both in flavor and in calories—than a typical turkey gravy. It more than satisfies my craving for gravy without cranking up my cholesterol levels. Besides being completely delicious and easy to make several days ahead of the holiday commotion, this gravy can do double duty as a sauce for green bean casserole. And when we do have a vegan guest at the table, I like to do just one version of that dish for everyone to enjoy.

Rave reviews from all around the table, made from simple ingredients and easy to do ahead; this is a winner no matter how you slice, er, pour it. 😉


Ingredients

8 oz. carton of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and diced or pulsed in processor

4 oz. shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced

4 Tbsp. mushroom and sage-infused olive oil (+ 2 Tbsp. more later in the recipe)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

A few shakes umami seasoning* (see notes)

A few shakes poultry seasoning

1 shallot, minced

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

3 cups low sodium vegetable broth*

2 Tbsp. dry white wine

1 bulb prepared roasted garlic*


*Notes

The umami seasoning is a Trader Joe’s product, and it gets plenty of use whenever I’m making a vegan dish. The ingredients are porcini and white mushroom powders, dried onions, ground mustard, crushed red pepper and dried thyme. It brings a depth of savory flavor to everything it touches, but if you cannot find it, I would recommend substituting with the flavors you do have and also use prepared mushroom broth in place of the vegetable broth. Look for mushroom broth in cartons in a well-stocked supermarket.

I always choose low sodium broths because it helps me control the overall sodium of a recipe. In this recipe, I specifically used a vegetable broth that does not contain tomatoes.

Roasted garlic is easy to make at home, and it gives a lot of depth and complexity to this mushroom gravy. If you have never made your own roasted garlic, please check out this post for step-by-step instructions.


Instructions

As usual, the photos tell the story better than written instructions. Please have a look at the slides and keep scrolling for a downloadable pdf for your recipe files.

  1. If you don’t already have your roasted garlic, go make that. Please don’t try to substitute with fresh sauteed garlic. The flavor will be too strong.
  2. Heat 4 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Sauté half of the mushrooms, tossing to coat them in the oil, until they give off their moisture and shrink in size. Repeat with remaining mushrooms. Season with salt, pepper and umami seasoning. Move the mushrooms to the sides of the pot.
  3. Swirl another tablespoon of oil into the center of the pot and add the shallots. Saute until slightly softened. Add flour and toss until absorbed into the oil. The mixture should look somewhat pasty, but not dry. Add a final tablespoon of oil if needed to reach this consistency. Cook the mixture for a minute or two.
  4. Add vegetable broth all at once and stir continuously for a minute or two to hydrate the roux. Bring to a slight boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes until mixture is thickened. Stir in wine and simmer over very low heat for about an hour.
  5. Squeeze in the entire bulb of roasted garlic, taking care to not drop the garlic paper into the pot. Use a whisk to ensure the garlic is fully blended, or use an immersion blender to whip the gravy into a smoother consistency.
  6. In a small skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil and sauté the sliced shiitake mushrooms until softened and slightly browned, then stir them into the gravy. Serve immediately or refrigerate up to three days ahead.
This gravy has so much rich, savory flavor, you’ll never miss the meat.

This gravy is delicious on a lentil mushroom wellington or use it as a substitute for cream of mushroom soup in any casserole you’d like to convert to vegan.



Lentil Mushroom Wellington

Thanksgiving is the favored holiday at our house. My husband, Les, and I both love preparing the traditional meal and we made an agreement early in our relationship to alternate responsibility for the turkey. We love having friends and family at the table and, more often than not, the friends outnumber the family members by at least two-to-one. I have no children, and Les’s two adult kids can’t always make it. His son, Alex, lives and works in Europe, and has only been here for one holiday season since I’ve known him. His daughter, Sydney, lives two hours away in the mountains of North Carolina, but she also sometimes has her own plans with her mother’s family or her friends. When she is able to join us, though, I have more than a few adjustments to make to the menu because Syd is vegan.

If the idea of having a vegan at the holiday table scares you, then I hope this recipe brings some relief. It most certainly will bring some big Thanksgiving flavor, and everyone at our table—vegan or otherwise—has asked for seconds. One of my friends, a regular guest at our Thanksgiving table, has been begging me for almost two years to share this recipe, so she is probably screaming right now to finally see it on my blog (you’re welcome, Linda). 😉

There’s so much texture and flavor, you will never miss the meat.

You might wonder, “why not just share it with your friend after the first request instead of making her wait?” Linda (who is not a vegan) has been asking the same, and the reason is simple—I didn’t actually have a recipe for it. As I have said many times about my way of cooking, I develop recipes by instinct (otherwise known as flying by the seat of my pants), and it has only been since I began blogging that I have bothered to write down how much of what goes into most of my dishes. The first time I made this lentil mushroom wellington, I couldn’t even quite remember all the ingredients so there was no possibility of describing it to someone else. But just after Christmas last year, I made the dish again when Syd came for a post-holiday visit—and on that occasion, I kept my notes—but I didn’t post it on the blog right away because the holidays were over at that point and I doubted that anyone would want to make a fuss over such a showstopper without a special occasion. It isn’t exactly a quick weeknight recipe.

In the spirit of full disclosure, this dish does take time and effort, though none of it is difficult. If you wish to make it for Thanksgiving, perhaps for a vegan guest at your table, the good news is that almost all of it can be done in advance. You will find most of the ingredients familiar—cooked lentils, rice blend, cremini mushrooms, kale, sweet potatoes and (vegan) puff pastry—and I’ll describe in more detail how I put the whole thing together and even gave it a faux “egg wash” before baking, to give it a golden crust while keeping it plant-based.

Now, with the holidays upon us, the timing is right and I have a written-down recipe to share. So for Linda, and anyone else who wants to enjoy a pretty, entirely plant-based meal that still captures the essence of Thanksgiving, here is my recipe for the lentil mushroom wellington. Enjoy!

Arrange the whole mushrooms inside the wellington for a beautiful sliced presentation inside the flaky crust.

Ingredients

1 cup uncooked lentils, rinsed and picked over* (see notes)

3/4 cup uncooked brown rice or rice blend

32 oz. carton low-sodium vegetable broth

1 or 2 bay leaves

2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into bite-size cubes

Extra virgin olive oil*

1 leek, cleaned and sliced (white and light green parts only)*

1 rib celery, strings removed and chopped

1 tsp. umami seasoning blend (Trader Joe’s “Mushroom & Company”)*

A fat handful of kale leaves, washed and chopped

6 to 8 large whole mushrooms, cleaned*

Liquid from a can of chickpeas (use low-sodium; reserve the chickpeas for another use)

1 Tbsp. milled flax seed*

1/4 cup pecan pieces, toasted

3 Tbsp. hemp hearts

A pinch (or two) of dried thyme leaves (or several sprigs of fresh thyme, if you have it)

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 sheet puff pastry (choose one with plant-based ingredients, such as Wewalka or Pepperidge Farm)

Flour to dust the countertop

Small handful (about 1/4 cup) of panko bread crumbs


For brushing, in place of egg wash:

1 Tbsp. plant milk, such as almond or soy

1 Tbsp. real maple syrup

1 Tbsp. canola or avocado oil


*Notes

I use a lentil blend, which includes green, red and black beluga lentils. If you choose a single type of lentil, I would recommend using the green ones. Cook the lentils in vegetable broth rather than plain water. Why miss a chance to add flavor?

My go-to olive oil this time of year is the wild mushroom and sage-infused oil found in specialty olive oil and balsamic vinegar stores. But any olive oil is fine, or substitute canola oil or a favorite plant-based butter, if you prefer.

If using leeks, be sure to clean them properly to remove all traces of grit between layers. Drain and pat completely dry on layers of paper towel before sautéing. If preferred, substitute 1 medium sweet or yellow onion.

The umami seasoning blend is a product sold at Trader Joe’s, and its flavors include dried mushroom, onion, garlic and red pepper flakes. If you can’t buy it, you can substitute with a combination of onion powder, garlic powder and a couple shakes of red pepper flakes, plus a pinch of salt. You might also want to mince up a couple of mushrooms to sauté with the kale or leeks to add earthy flavor to the lentil loaf.

Flax seeds are loaded with Omega-3 fats and very good for heart health, but you may not know that our bodies only reap that benefit when the seeds have been milled. You can buy flax seed already milled, but keep it fresh in a tightly sealed container in the fridge or freezer. I purchase bags of whole flax seeds and use my blade-style coffee grinder to mill it a little at a time as I need it. For this recipe, it’s essential for the flax to be milled because it will be used in place of an egg as a binding agent.

I chose a combination of cremini mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms for this recipe. Use the largest ones you can find; mine were each about the size of a silver dollar. Clean the mushrooms as suggested in the slideshow before sautéing them.

There are many components to this recipe, and I believe it is helpful to break it down into manageable tasks over two days, beginning with preparation of the lentils, rice, sweet potato and vegetable mixtures (steps 1-6). On the second day, you can relax and focus on assembling and baking the dish.

Helpful tools for this recipe: food processor or small blender, rolling pin, pastry brush.


Instructions

  1. Cook lentils according to package instructions, using low-sodium vegetable broth in place of some or all of the water. During simmer, add a bay leaf to the pot. Drain excess liquid when lentils reach desired tenderness. Transfer to a bowl and cool completely. Add salt to taste.
  2. Cook rice according to package instructions, using low-sodium vegetable broth in place of some or all of the water. Transfer to a bowl and cool completely. Add salt to taste.
  3. Toss the cubed sweet potatoes with enough olive oil to lightly coat all sides. Spread onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and season with salt and pepper. Roast at 400° F until they can be pierced with the tip of a paring knife and are only slightly firm to the bite. Cool completely.
  4. Sauté leeks (or onions) and chopped celery in a tablespoon of olive oil. Season with umami seasoning (or recommended substitute) and black pepper. When vegetables are tender and have given up their moisture, transfer to a bowl and cool completely.
  5. Swirl another teaspoon or so of oil into the skillet and sauté the chopped kale until it has softened and reduced somewhat in volume. Resist the urge to cook the kale together with the onions; it will be used as a bed for the lentil mixture, not as part of the filling.
  6. Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat with 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Arrange the mushrooms topside down, in the skillet, and then cook until the tops are browned and tender. Turn them over and sauté the underside. The mushrooms should give off a good bit of their moisture, but not to the point of shriveling. Lay them on layered paper towels to cool, allowing excess moisture to drain from the underside.
  7. To assemble the mixture, gather up all the prepared components from steps 1 to 6. In a small saucepan, heat the liquid drained from the chickpeas over medium low heat. Simmer until it is reduced in volume to about 1/4 cup. Transfer the liquid to a bowl and stir in the milled flax seed. Let this mixture rest for at least 20 minutes. It will thicken up into a gel-like substance.
  8. Transfer about 1/3 cup of the cooked lentils and about 1/4 cup of the cooked rice to the bowl of a food processor or blender. Add the flax mixture to the bowl and pulse a few times until the mixture has the consistency of a loose porridge.
  9. In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining lentils, rice, sweet potatoes, leek-celery mixture, toasted pecans and hemp hearts. Toss them all together. Give this mixture a final taste and adjust salt to your liking. Sprinkle thyme leaves and give the pepper mill a few twists over the mixture. Add the full amount of flax binder and fold to combine this mixture well. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour.
  10. Preheat oven to 400° F, with oven rack slightly lower than center, so that the wellington will rest squarely in the center of the heat.
  11. Thaw puff pastry (if using frozen) according to package instructions. *Note: when working with puff pastry, do your best to work quickly to keep the pastry from getting warm. Sprinkle flour onto the counter and use a rolling pin to smooth out wrinkles and slightly enlarge the rectangle.
  12. Spread panko crumbs over the center of the puff pastry, then layer the cooked kale on top of it. This will be a bed for the lentil mixture, and the crumbs will help absorb excess moisture so the puff pastry doesn’t become soggy on the bottom.
  13. Scoop about half of the lentil mixture onto the kale, shaping it into an oblong mound like a meatloaf. Arrange the mushrooms in a tight line down the center, pressing them slightly into the lentil mixture. Shape the remaining lentil mixture over the mushrooms.
  14. Use a paring knife to trim off the square corners of the puff pastry, leaving them rounded to match the shape of the lentil loaf. Use a cookie cutter on the scrap corners to make embellishments for the top of the wellington. Score the long sides of the puff pastry into strips, about 1 ½ inches apart. These will fold over the top of the lentil loaf, kind of like shoelaces over a sneaker. Turn up both ends of puff pastry to enclose the ends of the lentil loaf, then carefully fold the strips in alternating order across the top. Tuck in any loose edges.
  15. Transfer the wellington to a parchment-lined, heavy cookie sheet. In a small bowl, whisk together plant milk, maple syrup and oil. Brush this mixture evenly over all exposed puff pastry, including down the sides. This will produce a beautiful golden color on the baked wellington.
  16. Bake for 45-50 minutes, rotating pan once after 25 minutes. Cool on the baking sheet for about 5 minutes before transferring to a serving platter. Cut into thick slices and serve on individual plates with vegan mushroom gravy and tangy lemon-pomegranate Brussels sprouts. And don’t worry, I’ll have those recipes for you later this week.
Kinda makes you want to go vegan, right?


Savory Pumpkin Mac & Cheese

When push comes to shove on the whole “pumpkin spice” issue, you’ll find me squarely on the side of those who love the seasonal combination, and I made that obvious recently with my post for sourdough pumpkin spice waffles. But I get it—the flavor isn’t for everyone, or maybe it used to be but has become overplayed, kind of like any number of the classic rock songs that always seem to come up in heavy rotation on our music streaming services. Do I want music with dinner? You bet! But please, not “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Piano Man” for the 37th time this week.

And I guess, for many people, it is the same with pumpkin spice, and we can thank Starbucks and Trader Joe’s for that. But don’t blame it on the pumpkin, which is one of nature’s true powerhouse foods—full of fiber, low in calories, a good source of potassium and, like every other orange-hued vegetable, loaded with the antioxidant vitamin known as beta-carotene. You can still enjoy the benefits of pumpkin without the cliché cinnamon and nutmeg.

Today’s recipe is a perfectly savory example for using and serving this ubiquitous autumn gourd. I had a little better than half a can of pumpkin puree left over from the sourdough waffles I had made, and that was more than enough to flavor up the béchamel-based cheese sauce that wraps around the caserecce pasta in this dish. The other additions to this savory, meatless meal were inspired by the infused olive oil that is my go-to cooking agent this time of year.

My wild mushroom and sage olive oil does not have a brand because the stores that sell it are franchised from Veronica Foods. Look for it in a specialty store near you.

Every fall, I purchase a new bottle of this stuff and I use it in so many things, such as roasting vegetables, frying potatoes, amping up the earthy flavor in vegan dishes and even in some of my homemade sourdough bread recipes. For this mac and cheese, I used the mushroom and sage oil in the roux (along with real butter), but I used actual mushrooms and fresh sage in the final dish, too.

Tastes like autumn!

The color is vibrant and autumn-like, and the aroma of the sage is, well, intoxicating. The mac and cheese was easy to make, and you can skip the step of baking it, if you prefer a quicker stovetop version. Either way, I hope it gives you a chance to enjoy pumpkin without the overplayed “sweet and spice” aspect.

And for those of you sitting on my side of the pumpkin spice fence, don’t you worry! I’ll be sharing a fun new pumpkin spice recipe that covers my entire wish list for an easy, no-bake Thanksgiving dessert. It’s so simple, I even made it without a kitchen! Watch for it in the second week of November.


Ingredients

4 Tbsp. wild mushroom and sage olive oil* (see notes)

1/2 medium onion, chopped

3 Tbsp. salted butter

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

8 oz. smoked gouda (processed)*, shredded

8 oz. sharp cheddar, shredded

1/2 cup pumpkin puree (not pie filling!)

5 or 6 cremini mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed

Small handful fresh sage leaves, finely minced

1 lb. firm pasta shape*

2 Tbsp. melted butter or olive oil

1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

1/4 cup parm-romano blend (optional, see notes)


*Notes

The wild mushroom and sage-infused olive oil is available at specialty oil and vinegar shops. If you cannot get your hands on it, use any favorite olive oil or substitute butter.

The smoked gouda I used for this recipe was technically a “processed” cheese, similar to American in texture. In most of my cheese sauces, I use a processed cheese in the base because it provides a creamier texture. If you prefer, use regular cheese and expect a slightly less silky sauce.

Many of my mac and cheese recipes call for elbows, but when I intend for the dish to be an entree, I choose a sturdier pasta shape, such as caserecce, rotini or farfalle (bow ties). It adds a little more body and makes it more satisfying.

Here’s something interesting I’ve learned recently in my research and development of “meatless” dishes: there is no such thing as vegetarian parmesan. According to this article and many others I’ve found online, the process for making certain cheeses (including parmesan and pecorino romano) requires the use of animal rennet, and there is apparently no suitable substitute. Rennet is an enzyme found in the digestive system of animals, and it cannot be extracted from them while they are living. If you adhere to a vegetarian diet for reasons of animal welfare, omit my parm-romano blend from any of my otherwise “meatless” recipes, and always read labels on the cheeses you buy, just to be sure.


Instructions

  1. Heat 2 Tbsp. of the olive oil over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed pot. Saute the onions until soft, then transfer most of them to a separate bowl.
  2. Add butter to the pot until melted. Add the flour and whisk until the flour is absorbed and appears bubbly. Add the milk all at once, cooking and whisking continuously until the mixture is smooth and thickened, which could be 8 to 12 minutes. Add shredded gouda and stir or whisk until melted and creamy. Repeat with shredded cheddar. Stir in pumpkin puree until evenly blended.
  3. For the creamiest sauce, process with an immersion blender for about one minute. This step is optional, but I am sold on this technique, as my sauces turn out as smooth as velvet.
  4. Prepare the pasta to the al-dente stage, and proceed with the next step while it is cooking.
  5. In a separate skillet, heat remaining 2 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Brown the mushroom slices, working in batches if necessary to avoid crowding. Add the sautéed onions to heat through and sprinkle in the rosemary.
  6. Drain the pasta and add it to the cheese sauce, stirring until creamy. I generally add the pasta half at a time, to ensure that I have enough sauce. Fold in the mushroom-onion mixture. If you’re planning to bake the mac and cheese, transfer it to a 2 qt. baking dish and preheat the oven to 350° F.
  7. Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in the skillet used for the mushrooms. I had two extra mushrooms, which I chopped into fine bits and sautéed briefly. Toss panko crumbs in the butter mixture and sprinkle it over the mac and cheese before baking.
  8. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until crumb topping is slightly crunchy and cheese is bubbling up around all the edges. Cool 10 minutes before serving.

Savory Pumpkin Mac & Cheese with Mushrooms and Sage


Slow Cooker Elk Meatloaf

First of all, our kitchen remodel is going well overall. We are beginning to realize our dreams as it relates to having more storage, counter space and lighting. The quartz countertop was installed successfully last week, though they rattled something loose on a couple of the drawers which will require adjustment. I am already excited about this five-foot long stretch of counter space, which will likely become my husband’s primary spot for prepping when we work together in the kitchen. Everything about our new plan is designed to give us more freedom to be in there at the same time, without bumping fannies or otherwise getting in each other’s way. We especially can’t wait for Thanksgiving in this new kitchen!

Our microwave will be housed in the open cabinet above this counter, and the base cabinet is a pull-out trash/recycling station.

There have been a few snags, of course, many of which I suspect could have been avoided, but what do I know? As I write this, an electrician is spending a second full day working to achieve our wishes for under-cabinet plug molds and lighting, a tricky proposition because some of the old outlets and junction boxes were capped off and covered by new cabinets before these guys had a chance to do their “rough-in.” While they have wrestled with that, I’ve been holed up in our home office with our nervous-about-noises dog, Nilla, listening to the soothing intonations of Melody Gardot. If you have never heard of her, it’s time you did. Click play on the video below and you will understand at once why I play her music during high-stress situations. Go ahead and subscribe to her YouTube channel while you’re at it—you can thank me later.


One of the hardest things for me to endure amid the ruckus of this remodel is not anxiety for the renovation itself—our general contractor has been very responsive to our concerns—but mainly for not having enough time to keep my usual schedule of posting here on Comfort du Jour. I had more than a dozen completed recipes in archive that I wanted to share with you during this time, but I haven’t had time to write them up, send them to Les (my talented copy editor/husband), edit and caption the photos, format the whole thing on WordPress and hit “publish.” Whew. A lot goes into maintaining my blog, and I love every second of it, though I have not had enough consecutive seconds lately to manage it all. Unexpectedly, I have appreciated these two days of electrical work for giving me a bit of time to catch up. And breathe.

When I originally sat down to contemplate how to cook without a kitchen, I expected we would make a lot of soup-and-sandwich meals, and that has been true to some degree. But I also wanted to stretch myself to explore other methods of cooking, and this recipe is one of the resulting meals. My shopping list recently included ground beef, as I wanted to try making meatloaf in the multi-purpose slow cooker, otherwise known as my new best friend. But then, right next to the packaged grass-fed beef I was reaching for, this caught my eye, and I thought, “why not?”


Elk is naturally lean, and similar in flavor to beef but richer. It is not a strong flavor, as venison or lamb.

A few years ago, I tasted elk for the first time in a restaurant burger, and I found it delicious—similar to beef but richer and more flavorful. Elk is a very lean meat (91%, as noted on the package I bought), but I had a few ideas in mind for keeping the meatloaf moist and they all worked together perfectly. First, I used a more generous glug of olive oil than usual to sauté my onions on the “browning” feature of the slow cooker. Some chunky sautéed mushrooms created pockets of moisture throughout the mixture. The egg I used as a binder also added moisture, thanks to the natural fats in the yolk. Finally, the glaze on top helped protect the surface from drying out during baking, which is true for an oven meatloaf as well.

I can’t say for sure that meatloaf would be successful in every kind of slow cooker, but I’ve seen some evidence on Pinterest to support that idea, and most of those recipes involve lining the cooker with foil and pressing a double batch of meatloaf mixture into the shape of the cooker insert. Our Cuisinart slow-cooker, which is quickly gaining major respect in my eyes, also has a “roast” feature that is said to function just like any oven, so I gave it a try. See for yourself how it turned out—looking so sexy on our fancy Chinet plates!

My elk meatloaf sliced beautifully, and we served it up with simple steamed green beans and homemade applesauce that Les had made a few days before…also in the slow cooker! 🙂

Ingredients

1 lb. lean ground elk (or any other ground meat with similar fat content)

1/3 cup panko crumbs

1/3 cup whole milk* (see notes)

4 Tbsp. olive or canola oil

1/2 large sweet or yellow onion, chopped

About 5 cremini mushrooms, cleaned and chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 tsp. fresh rosemary leaves, minced

1 large egg

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup bbq sauce, chili sauce or whatever you like as a meatloaf topper*


*Notes

I used whole milk to moisten the panko crumbs, but if you are dairy-sensitive, I have also had good luck using aquafaba, the liquid drained off a can of garbanzo beans. The purpose of the milk is to help convert the crumbs into a sticky binder to hold the meatloaf together, and the aquafaba is a fine stand-in.

My sauce for this meatloaf was left from the kielbasa bites I made from that crazy “Chopped” challenge. It was chili sauce mixed with grape jelly, so it had a tomato base with a bit of heat, onions and spices, plus the sweetness and stickiness of the jelly. I enjoyed the combination so much that I saved the sauce after we finished the kielbasa. And of course, now I want to re-create it, just not with three pounds of kielbasa.


Instructions

  1. In a bowl large enough for combining the full meatloaf mixture, moisten the panko crumbs in the milk. I usually eyeball the amounts, but it is approximately 1/3 cup of each. Give the mixture (called a “panade”) enough time to hydrate, then push it to one side of the bowl.
  2. Crumble the ground elk meat into the other side of the mixing bowl, so that blending with the other ingredients will not require a heavy hand.
  3. Heat 2 Tbsp. olive oil over medium heat (this was 350° F on my slow cooker setting). Add onions and cook until softened. Add the rest of the oil, plus the mushrooms and garlic, and sauté until everything is golden and caramelized, but not so long that the mushrooms dry out. Turn off the slow cooker and transfer the mixture to a bowl to cool several minutes.
  4. Add the onion mixture to the bowl with the meat and panade. Add the egg and chopped rosemary, and season with salt and pepper. Combine everything as evenly as you can without mixing too heavily. My method is to plunge both hands into the bowl, twisting away from each other as if adjusting faucets or stereo knobs. It seems to get the job done quickly and it’s also a good way to work out any aggression you may have over your kitchen remodel. When the meat mixture is sufficiently blended, shape it into a log on a large piece of plastic wrap and twist the ends up like a sausage chub. Tuck it into the fridge (or a lunchbox with some ice packs, if you can’t sneak past the electricians that are taking for-freaking-ever) and let it chill for about an hour. I do this for any meatloaf because it seems to improve the structure and texture during baking. Plus, it gives me time to clean up my workspace before the next steps.
  5. Prepare your slow cooker if you’re using one, or preheat the oven to 350° F. The notes from Cuisinart suggested turning the insert rack upside down for roasting, and I laid down a piece of folded parchment paper to keep the meat from oozing through the mesh rack. Unwrap the meatloaf and place it on the parchment, tucking extra paper edges underneath.
  6. Spoon the sauce topper over the meatloaf. Bake on roast setting for one hour, then reduce temperature to keep warm until you’re ready to serve.

It’s a winner!

Roasted Butternut Squash Lasagna

Today marks the beginning of something I’ve been looking forward to, and I don’t mean that my kitchen renovation is underway—we are still waiting, but we do at least have good news today. After a few false starts related to the delivery of our new cabinets, we finally got word from Matt, our contractor: “We have the cabinets!!” So that hurdle is cleared and now the real chaos (the tearing out of the existing kitchen) is slated to begin on Friday (Yay)!

The delay gave me enough time to whip up a few dishes that I would have otherwise missed, including this one, which is a flavorful shout out to the significance of this day.

What I’m referring to is Autumn Equinox, otherwise known as the first full day of fall, but affectionately known at my house as the start of soup and stew season, the unpacking of my favorite sweaters, the countdown to the first flick of the switch on the gas fireplace, and the return of the hot toddy, and I am loving all of the above.

In fact, it feels like the perfect time to introduce you to one of my favorite homemade autumn-themed dishes, this butternut squash lasagna, which I first started making almost 10 years ago. This comforting casserole is layered, not with Italian seasonings or tomatoes or mozzarella, but with flavorful, seasonal vegetables, including onions and kale, two kinds of mushrooms and oven-roasted butternut squash. Nestled between the vegetable layers you’ll find a lemon-scented ricotta, shredded fontina and a creamy, cheesy bechamel that is spiked with even more butternut squash. It is rich and satisfying, even without meat, and makes my taste buds very happy.

Layer upon layer of comforting fall flavor!

There is nothing complicated about this meal but, like any lasagna, it does take some time to pull together. My suggestion is to break it up into two days; prep the separate components ahead of time, so assembly and baking will be a snap on the second day. The other thing that is great about this dish is that you can customize it to increase the amounts of favorite ingredients and reduce any of the others that are not favorites. If you prefer more squash and less kale, just swap the amounts and change up the layering.


Ingredients

1 medium or large butternut squash, peeled and cubed* (see notes)

1 large bunch curly kale, washed and stripped of heavy stems*

12 oz. fresh mushrooms (I used a combination of cremini and shiitake)

1 medium onion, chopped

14 oz. whole milk ricotta, strained of excess liquid

2 cloves fresh garlic, minced

Zest of one lemon (organic is best)

1 large egg

4 Tbsp. butter (either salted or unsalted is fine)

4 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 cups whole milk

1 bulb roasted garlic

1 cup shredded gouda cheese*

A few shakes ground white pepper

Freshly grated nutmeg (about 6 passes on a microplane)

Enough lasagna noodles or sheets for three layers of it in your preferred pan*

2 cups shredded fontina cheese*

About 1/3 cup grated parm-romano blend


*Notes

Part of the squash will be cubed and roasted, and the rest will be simmered and mashed to be blended into the bechamel. I usually use the smooth neck part of the gourd for roasting, and the round part, which usually appears stringy after cleaning out the seeds, gets boiled and mashed to be added to the bechamel sauce. Keep this in mind as you prep the squash.

For this year’s version of my recipe, I went heavier on the kale than usual. It would be perfectly fine to use half as much, and perhaps double the mushrooms or increase the butternut squash to make up some of the volume. You could also substitute swiss chard or spinach; it all depends on your palate.

I chose Gouda and fontina cheeses for this dish because of their creamy, meltable texture and rich, nutty flavors. Some other cheeses would work well in this dish, including Havarti, Gruyere, raclette, mild white cheddar or Monterey jack. I do not recommend mozzarella, which has too much “pull.” 

Normally, I use a special square lasagna baking dish, but we are in the middle of planning for this remodel, and darned if I can find it! No worries, I pulled out a glass 9 x 13 and it worked great. The noodles do not have to be boiled first; I usually just moisten them for several minutes in hot water while I get everything else into place. If the noodles are layered next to ingredients with plenty of moisture, they will cook just fine.

We are still trying to trim down the pantry, so I used the random lasagna noodles we already had!

Prep the Squash

Divide the squash so that you have uniform cubes from the neck of the squash, which you will toss in olive oil, salt and pepper, and then roast at 350°F until evenly browned, about 40 minutes. Allow it to cool on the pan before transferring to a separate bowl. Set aside until you’re ready to assemble the lasagna.

Add the remaining squash (from the bulb end) to a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer until fork tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and set aside.


Prep the Kale

Strip the heavy stems and wash the kale leaves. Working in batches, pulse handfuls of the kale about six times in a food processor, until kale is a fine texture. Sauté in olive oil until wilted and lightly browned on some of the edges. Just before cooking the last batch, sauté the chopped onion in the skillet first, then add kale. Season this final batch with salt and pepper and combine with previously cooked kale. Set aside.


Prep the Mushrooms

Clean and dry the mushrooms, then trim the stems and slice evenly. Brown the mushrooms, about one-third at a time, in olive oil. Season the last batch with salt, pepper and a few sprinkles of dried thyme leaves. Combine all mushrooms in a separate bowl and set aside.


Prep the Ricotta Mixture

Drain the ricotta in a mesh strainer over a bowl. Stir occasionally to evenly strain the excess liquid from the cheese. Different brands will release varying amounts of liquid, but 30 minutes should do it. Discard the drained liquid. Add lemon zest, fresh garlic and black pepper to the ricotta. Stir in egg. Set aside for now if you’re working ahead.


Make the Bechamel

Remember, this is just a fancy French word that means “thickened cream sauce.” It’s easy to make! I prefer to make the bechamel just before assembling the lasagna, but if you are pressed for time, it’s fine to make it ahead and then re-heat in a pot until it is a smooth, pourable consistency. There are several steps for this component, and several flavorful add-ins, so I’ll describe it in pictures.

Heat a large sauce pot over medium heat. Add butter until melted. Whisk in flour and cook until it is bubbly, lightly browned and fragrantly nutty. Add the milk, about half at a time, whisking the first amount until smooth before adding the rest. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the sauce is thickened and bubbly. Whisk in about 2/3 cup of the mashed butternut squash and cook until heated through. Stir in shredded gouda, whisking until melted. Use an immersion blender, if you have one, to blend the bechamel sauce to a super-smooth consistency. This is not an essential step, but I love the silky texture that is achieved with the blender. Keep the sauce warm enough to be pourable and spreadable for assembling the lasagna.


Assemble and Bake

Ladle about 1/2 cup of the butternut-bechamel sauce into the bottom of a 9 x 13 glass baking dish. Then, layer the individual components as follows:


Cover casserole with plastic wrap or foil and allow it to rest for at least 30 minutes, to give the noodles time to absorb some of the moisture from the other ingredients. Preheat oven to 350°F, with rack in center position.

Remove wrap or foil and bake about 45 minutes, or until layers are bubbly throughout and cheese on top is browned in several places.

Let the lasagna rest about 10 minutes before cutting and serving.




Coq au Vermouth

Excuse me, where is the umbrella?

I spent two years in French class during high school, and that is pretty much all I remember how to ask—“excusez-moi, où est le parapluie?” I suppose it is a question that would have been essential had I become a world traveler (I didn’t), and in fact it was a common question asked among my fellow French club members when we took our senior trip to Quebec City, Canada—they don’t speak much English there, in case you didn’t know. It rained the entire three-day weekend, but it was still a glorious visit to a city rich with history and speckled with exquisite, copper-roofed buildings.

Spanish would undoubtedly have been a more useful class for me, given the increase of Spanish-speaking people in the U.S. since I graduated all those years ago. But there was something sooo sexy about the French spoken word, and well, my best friend signed up for French so I did, too. Our teacher was cool and we got to choose our own names for the class, which was good because there wasn’t a name on the list that was a literal translation for Terrie. My friend Debbie became Christine, pronounced CREE-steen, my friend Christine became Danielle and yours truly selected the name Jacqueline, which was fun to say—zhah-KLEEN, like the French fashion designer who steals Nigel’s dream job in The Devil Wears Prada.

French class was always lively, and we were encouraged to play up the accent and the nasal sound as much as possible. We went through round after round of language exercises, covering the French words for common places, including the bookstore (la librairie) and the library (la bibliothèque) and reciting all the various tenses of the verb words, and for every kind of individual and group instance. For example: for the verb “go,” we would cycle through the French words that meant, “I go, you go, he goes, she goes, we go and they go.” Round and round we went, and after all that repetitious recitation, all I remember how to say is “where is the umbrella?”

Anyway, for me, there is still a lot of mystery and intrigue associated with the French language, and I learned during my short time working in the Pinch of Thyme catering kitchen that if you want people to swoon over food, call it something French! As luck would have it, I do at least remember some of the French words for certain foods, including poulet (chicken), champignons (mushrooms) and carottes (carrots, obviously). I was excited to find this recipe in my most recent digital edition of Imbibe magazine because I have used splashes of vermouth in a few dishes and found it more complex and vibrant than wine, which would traditionally be used for braising chicken in the classic coq au vin. But this recipe was more than a splash, it was a generous amount in a very French-technique kind of recipe.

I could not resist turning this into a Sunday Supper meal, with a side of buttered red bliss potatoes and sauteed spinach, and it was—how shall I say—très délicieux!

This dish was rich and succulent, exactly as it should be. The chicken thighs remained tender and moist.

A word or few about vermouth…

I have known about vermouth for decades, but it has only been the past couple of years that I have become more closely acquainted with it, and today I almost always have a bottle open in the fridge for an end-of-day gin martini. Vermouth is a fortified wine, which means other alcohol has been added to grapes during fermentation, and that results in higher alcohol by volume than typical wine. Any variety of botanical ingredients are thrown into the process as well, including herbs, bitter ingredients, bark, roots and spices. Vermouth may be red or white, dry or sweet or really sweet, depending on its origin and method, and it is commonly used as an ingredient for classic cocktails, including martinis and Manhattans. Vermouth, on its own, is also a popular apéritif (pre-dinner drink) in Spain, Italy, France and my house.

In a literal French-to-English translation, coq au vermouth would demand use of a rooster, but it is not every day that you’d find such a creature in your local market. Large hen thighs is what I used for the recipe, and it was tender, flavorful and oh so fancy. Don’t be intimidated, though, because despite all of the foreign language I’ve been throwing around, this was a very simple dish to make. All you need is a cast iron skillet, chicken thighs, bacon, mushrooms and mirepoix—oops, another French word that is simply a mix of carrots, onions and celery. All that, plus a decent amount of dry white vermouth. Don’t worry, vermouth is easy to find, wherever you might buy wine. To keep the recipe true to its origin, choose a brand from France. I used Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry, dry, in the green bottle. 😊

This is one of my go-to vermouth brands for Gibson cocktails:
2 oz. dry gin, 1/2 oz. dry vermouth, shaken or stirred with ice, strained into a cocktail glass and served with a pickled pearl onion.

Inspired by Coq au Vermouth – Imbibe Magazine

Ingredients

3 slices bacon, cut into thin pieces

4 large, free-range chicken thighs (bone-in and skin-on)

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 medium onion, sliced or diced

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into thick diagonal slices

2 stalks celery, cleaned, ribs removed and diced

3 cloves garlic, smashed and sliced

About 1 cup cremini mushrooms, cleaned and cut into quarters

1/2 cup dry vermouth (extra dry would be fine, also)

1/4 cup low-sodium vegetable broth

2 fresh sprigs of thyme

2 Tbsp. cold butter

Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon


Instructions

Let’s run through it in pictures first, and if you keep scrolling, you’ll find the instructions spelled out (in English), and I’ll also include a downloadable PDF for your recipe files.


  1. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Season the chicken thighs liberally with salt and pepper. Cook the bacon until the fat is rendered and the edges begin to crisp. Transfer the pieces to a paper-towel lined dish, keeping all the bacon grease in the skillet. Arrange the chicken thighs, skin side down, into the skillet. Cook them until the skin is crispy and golden, then turn the pieces and cook the other side about two minutes.
  2. Transfer the thighs to a plate and cover loosely with foil to keep them warm. Add the mirepoix (carrots, onions and celery) to the fond (pan drippings) in the skillet. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables begin to soften. Add the garlic and mushrooms, tossing with the other vegetables until slightly browned. Pour in the vermouth and vegetable broth, and simmer for about two minutes.
  3. Return the chicken thighs to the skillet, skin side up. Sprinkle the bacon pieces over the top and lay the whole thyme sprigs in a criss-cross fashion over the combination. Reduce the heat to low, cover the skillet tightly and simmer about 30 minutes.
  4. Remove and discard the thyme sprigs. Transfer the chicken thighs to a plate. Add the cold butter and lemon juice to the simmered vegetable mixture and stir until it is a rich, luscious sauce. Just before plating, place the thighs, skin side down, into the skillet to drench them in the sauce. Plate the chicken, then spoon the simmered vegetable mixture (a.k.a. mélange) over the thighs.
I love when an elegant dish is this simple!


Cajun Shrimp & Garlicky Cheese Grits

Take a road trip across the Southeast, and you’ll find a wide array of flavors and presentation in dishes that all claim to be “shrimp and grits.”

And they all are.

There is no right-or-wrong when it comes to this classic southern dish. Whether served with a lush and savory gravy, or piled high with onions, peppers and tomatoes, or spiked with spicy andouille or tasso ham, cheese or no cheese, you are guaranteed a flavorful experience. Over the 34 years that I’ve lived in N.C., I’ve developed my own recipe into what I believe captures the best of all the varieties I’ve tasted around these parts, though I can’t claim to make it the same every time. My “comfort du jour” usually depends on what ingredients are in the fridge, and many times, my decision to make shrimp and grits is a last-minute one.

I almost always have good quality, wild American shrimp in the freezer. I’m guaranteed to have some kind of pork product—ham, bacon, sausage or chorizo—and just about any kind of onion or pepper works, so whatever I have on hand can slide into place. I may or may not incorporate cheese, depending on the other ingredients. One thing that remains constant is my method of cooking the grits. You cannot rush them, and for goodness sake, don’t cheat yourself by using instant. It should take a minimum of 20 minutes on the stove, unless you have, you know, “magic grits.” I think we all remember how that played out in My Cousin Vinny.

If you have ever eaten grits and thought they were, well, gritty—the simple explanation is that they were not cooked long enough or with enough liquid. Grits (or polenta, which is nearly the same thing) are made of broken-down, dried corn. They are tooth-cracking hard straight from the package, and I have found that it takes a good bit longer than the package instructions suggest to get them right. They are kind of like oatmeal in that regard—you can have creamy, soft oatmeal that drips off the spoon, or sticky, gloppy oatmeal that sticks to everything it touches. The difference is all in the cooking process.

The other complaint some people have about grits is a common one—“they’re so bland.” And if you use only water to cook them, they certainly are. Grits do not have much flavor on their own, but you can coax the flavor out of those dry little kernels with the right technique and the right stuff. In other words, ignore the package instructions and use your own cooking instincts. There is no magic to it. 😉

Here’s my secret for perfect, creamy grits every time: treat them like risotto. Cook them low and slow, with plenty of broth additions and plenty of stirring, and finish them with a little cream or half and half. You’ll be rewarded with a silky, luxurious base for whatever you choose to pile on top of them.

These grits are perfectly creamy, with no clumps and no gritty texture.

For this batch of shrimp and grits, I used smoked andouille sausage, cut up and lightly fried until the edges were crispy, sautéed cremini mushrooms, a sprinkle of Cajun seasoning on the shrimp, and scallions on top to finish the dish. The grits, as always, were creamy and delicious, with a few cloves of chopped garlic in the broth and just enough cheddar cheese at the end, to give them some extra body, and a few shakes of RedHot sauce for tangy-spicy flavor.

This recipe serves 2, with a scoop of grits left over to go under your weekend eggs.

There’s so much texture here, beginning with the juicy shrimp and crispy sausage, and down to the creamy, cheesy grits. This is one of our faves!

Ingredients

1 cup yellow grits, a.k.a. polenta* (see notes)

2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth

About 2 cups hot water, as needed for cooking the grits*

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

Salt and pepper

Frank’s RedHot Original sauce, to taste*

2 Tbsp. light cream or half and half*

1/3 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Extra virgin olive oil for sautéing

2 links smoked andouille sausage, cut into bite-size pieces

Handful of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

About 2/3 pound of wild-caught shrimp, peeled and de-veined

A few shakes of your favorite Cajun seasoning*

2 scallions (green onions), trimmed and sliced

*Notes

For the best results, and creamy grits, do not use anything packaged as “instant.” My preferred brand is Bob’s Red Mill polenta, which you can find in well-stocked supermarkets, including Super Walmart.

It’s helpful to heat the water in a teakettle or the microwave ahead of time and keep it on standby. When you add liquid to polenta or risotto that is already cooking, you want the liquid to be warm.

As always, you will need to adjust the salt amount to work with your other ingredients. I lean toward low-sodium versions of broth and seasonings so that I have more control of the overall salt in my recipes. Check your labels and taste as you go.

I love the flavor of RedHot sauce, but Texas Pete or Tabasco would also be good for a spike of flavor in the grits.

For readers abroad, “half and half” is a term used to describe a popular dairy product in the U.S. It is essentially equal parts light cream and whole milk, with about 12% milkfat.

We use a dry Cajun seasoning that my husband picked up in New Orleans, but there are plenty of options available in your supermarket. You could also make up your own, with some combination of garlic powder, onion powder, cayenne, black pepper and thyme.

Instructions

I’m a visual learner. If you are, too, then follow along with my slideshow or keep scrolling for written instructions and a pdf you can download for your recipe files.

  1. Place a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add vegetable broth, garlic, salt and pepper, and heat to nearly boiling. Add polenta, stirring constantly until it is fully mixed with the broth and no visible clumps appear. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, stirring frequently, until most of the liquid is absorbed.
  2. Add hot water, 1/2 cup at a time, and continue with frequent stirring until each addition is absorbed and grits take on a smooth, creamy appearance. This may be up to 2 cups of additional liquid, and may take as long as 40 minutes.
  3. When grits achieve desired consistency, add a few shakes of RedHot sauce and stir in the light cream. Stir in shredded cheddar until melted and smooth. Remove grits from heat and cover to keep warm until you are ready to assemble the dish with the shrimp and other ingredients.
  4. Season the prepared shrimp with a few shakes of Cajun dry seasoning, and toss to let the flavor meld with the shrimp.
  5. Place a large skillet over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and brown the andouille sausage bits until they have slightly crispy edges. Add the sliced mushrooms to the pan, tossing to brown them on both sides. Transfer sausage and mushrooms to a bowl.
  6. In the same skillet, again over medium heat, swirl in another tablespoon of olive oil. When oil is shimmering, place shrimp into the pan, one at a time. Allow them to cook, undisturbed, about one minute, then begin turning them, following the same order, to cook the other side.
  7. Add the cooked sausage and mushrooms back to the skillet and give the whole thing a few quick tosses to heat everything through.
  8. Spoon a generous amount of grits onto your serving bowls or plates, top with sausage, shrimp and mushrooms. Sprinkle dish with scallions and serve.

Time for dinner!


“Big Kahuna” Pizza

I didn’t have much notice to plan for it or I would have announced to all of you that this past Friday was “National Make a Ruckus Day.” My husband, Les, and I have been planning various improvement projects this spring, and we had no sooner made a final decision on the color of architectural shingles we liked for a roof revamp when his phone rang just after dinner Thursday night. The shingles were in stock and the weather was right, so the crew would arrive at the crack of dawn!

The crew arrived early, and there were either six or seven of them—it was hard to tell because they didn’t stand still long enough for a headcount, and I am still in a bit of shock that their work was completed in one day. The noise was non-stop, from the stomping overhead, to the ripping and peeling sounds of the old shingles coming off, to the banging of hammers and air nailers installing the new roofing materials, to the construction-grade boombox that was blasting lively mariachi music just outside my home office window. All day Friday, both entrances to our home were blocked, and tarps stretched out across the yard to catch the refuse that was being flung from above. Les was working from home that day, so we were sequestered into our own “zones” of the house. The dog, who is terrified of any noise she cannot see, spent most of the day crammed against my knees underneath my work desk, the cat was just plain pissed that she couldn’t go outside (she didn’t understand that her life might have been at risk), and I was so frazzled about all of the above that I started contemplating tequila shots at about 2 in the afternoon.

On top of what was happening at our address, the neighbors across the cul-de-sac had a contractor show up to replace flooring in their master bedroom, and our yard crew was running a day behind on mowing and trimming, so they showed up on Friday to pretty up the common spaces.

There were trucks and trailers and service vans everywhere, and full-on RUCKUS.

There was no way I could escape the house, even to take my daily walk, let alone to make a grocery run, and so I was thankful that dinner was already planned. The whole experience of chaos, Les said, was good practice for the excitement we will experience if we follow through on remodeling our kitchen later this year. I’ve been griping about our kitchen since I moved into the house with him a few years ago, and we are finally ready to apply solutions for our lack of counter space, poor traffic flow and shortage of pantry storage. But committing to the project is scary, not only for the cost, but the time involved. Each contractor we have spoken to has said, “plan for at least six weeks without your kitchen.” And it is true—no matter what Chip and JoJo seem to accomplish in one hour on HGTV—new kitchens take time, and that will be a big challenge. We will figure out how to eat, but how will I be able to sustain the blog?

There might be a lot of grilling recipes coming your way, or it could be a good time for me to catch up on the vast backlog of recipes I have made but not yet transformed into posts. Or I may turn my attention to other ideas I have had for Comfort du Jour, including fun furniture projects and artistic ventures. I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at upcycling tables and worn out chairs. Of course, I may also spend six weeks sharing nothing but cocktail recipes, which—given my low tolerance for ruckus—will probably be in hot rotation.

Anyway, we relaxed under our new roof Friday night with this pizza, our interpretation of one of our favorite take-out sandwiches. We have long enjoyed the “big kahuna” sandwich from Jersey Mike’s, which is a variation of a Philly cheesesteak, but with mushrooms and jalapenos thrown into the mix, and plenty of gooey white cheese. The sandwich is awesome (especially when we ask for extra jalapenos), but it’s so packed with ingredients that we knew that our usual N.Y. thin crust could not hold it all in pizza form.

This beautifully browned pie emerged from the oven with the most pleasing aroma.

We went with a deep-dish pie this time, beginning with the crust, adapted from a King Arthur Baking recipe. I followed the recipe nearly to the letter except for a partial sub-in of white whole wheat flour. You know I’m always going to share my honest opinion, and frankly, I did not love this crust. It was easy enough to make, and instructions were clear and complete, but the recipe called for oil and also quite a bit of melted butter, which I haven’t really seen before as an ingredient for pizza dough. It rose on schedule and baked up beautifully, but the end result, for me, was too similar to pie crust or biscuits, and not quite right for pizza. I would consider it again for some kind of vegetable tart, but for pizza I will stick with the formula offered by Jeff Mauro from Food Network. His recipe with all olive oil makes a wonderful, crunchy-but-soft crust that is so, so good on a deep-dish pizza.

As with most near-misses in our kitchen, this pizza was still delicious. And it was extra yummy after such an unexpectedly noisy Friday.


Ingredients

One deep-dish pizza dough—you choose: King Arthur Baking or Food Network’s Jeff Mauro

Extra virgin olive oil

1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced

1 green bell pepper, thinly sliced

5 or 6 cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2/3 lb. thinly shaved steak*

1/2 cup pickled jalapenos, patted dry and chopped

2 Tbsp. salted butter

1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

1 cup whole milk

About 4 oz. white American cheese, cubed

1 1/2 cups shredded pepper jack cheese

Let’s walk through it together:

Instructions

  1. Prepare the dough for your deep-dish pizza. This will take some time, depending on the recipe you choose.
  2. Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add a couple swirls of olive oil and saute the onions, bell peppers, mushrooms and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. Onions should be soft and translucent and mushrooms should be browned on both sides. Transfer vegetables to a dish and set aside.
  3. In the same skillet, over medium-high heat, swirl in olive oil to cover the bottom of the pan. When oil is shimmering, add the shaved steak, a few pieces at a time, and toss around to brown it all over. Don’t overcrowd the pan, or the meat will steam rather than brown. Transfer cooked steak to a dish and continue until all the steak is cooked. You may not use all of it on the pizza.
  4. Make the white cheese sauce, beginning with a butter and flour roux in a medium saucepan. Heat the butter until bubbly, then add the flour and whisk together until it appears foamy and the butter is browned. Add the milk all at once and whisk constantly until mixture is smooth, thickened and lightly bubbling. Add cubed American cheese and stir or whisk until melted. Reduce heat to very low to keep sauce slightly warm and pourable while you prep the pizza crust.
  5. Preheat oven to 450° F, with oven rack in the center of the oven.
  6. Place your prepared deep-dish dough into a 14-inch pan (or two 9-inch cake pans), and press gently to spread the dough out to the edges and up the sides about an inch. If the dough is very springy, cover the pan for 15 minutes, allowing the gluten to relax before proceeding.
  7. Scatter the shredded pepperjack cheese evenly over the pizza dough, and press down firmly to ensure good coverage.
  8. Load up your toppings, including the steak, vegetables and jalapeno peppers.
  9. Drizzle the white cheese sauce all over the top. If the sauce does not readily flow into the nooks and crannies, give it an assist with a spatula or spoon.
  10. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the cheese sauce is browned and bubbling, and crust is a deep golden brown. Check on it at the halfway point, and tent loosely with foil, if necessary, to prevent over-browning of the cheese. Rest finished pizza about 15 minutes before using large spatulas to transfer it to a cutting board or round pizza sheet.

Les is so good at this part! He uses a large spatula and a fish turner to move the whole pie.

In case you are curious about the outcome… Wow, what a difference a day can make!

Before and After!


Scallops with Spinach on Bacon Risotto

Seafood has snagged the spotlight here on Comfort du Jour, and today’s post continues that trend, with a scallop and risotto dish that is both elegant and simple (yes, really).

If you have ever watched “Chopped” on the Food Network, there’s a good chance you have seen the elite panel of judges gasp collectively in sheer horror when a contestant announces an attempt to make risotto. Honestly, I gasp as well—not because risotto is complicated or difficult (it isn’t)—but because risotto is a tricky proposition in the very limited time the chef contestants usually have to complete their culinary challenge. Those chef-judges know from decades of experience that risotto in 20 minutes will not likely be successful.

The soft, creamy texture of risotto is achieved by the breakdown of the starch inside the rice grains. There’s a lot of science to explain why, but the upshot is that you need to cook it gradually, stirring all the while, so that the starches release and become a thick, slurry-like coating. Eventually, the grains are softened and the rice seems to be floating in a creamy sauce that doesn’t depend on cream at all, though most cooks add a little at the end. This kind of perfection doesn’t happen in a hurry.

Find an hour to spare this weekend and you can be successful with risotto. I’ve jazzed up this version with smoky bacon and mushrooms, and I also added a touch of cream. Then I draped it with a layer of sautéed spinach and topped it with perfectly seared sea scallops (also easy). It looks and tastes like it came out of a restaurant kitchen, but I’m going to show you how to whip it up in the cozy comfort of your own home.

Time for dinner!

Gather up your tools—you’ll need two skillets and a medium saucepan, plus a ladle and a wooden spoon. See? Not complicated at all. 🙂

Serves: 2
Time to make: 90 minutes
Leftover potential: Oh, yes! (at the end of the post, I’ll show you how we enjoyed the leftover risotto)


Ingredients

3 slices smoky bacon

3 to 4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth (most of a standard carton)

1/4 cup dry white wine* (optional, see notes)

1 cup Arborio rice* (see notes)

1/2 smallish sweet onion, minced fine

Handful of cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

Fat handful of fresh baby spinach leaves, washed and chopped

1/4 cup half and half or cream* (optional)

2 Tbsp. unsalted butter

2 portions sea scallops, patted dry

2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend, for serving


*Notes

A typical risotto recipe uses a few ounces of wine to flavor the broth, but that isn’t critical. Make up the difference with additional broth, if you wish. If using wine, go with something dry, such as Pinot Grigio. I frequently substitute dry vermouth, as I have a bottle in the fridge all the time. This particular day, I poured in the remnants of a champagne split. Whatever works.

Arborio rice is specifically used for risotto because of its starch makeup. You will likely find it specially packaged in the rice section of your supermarket. In a pinch, choose any white rice labeled “short-grain,” and follow the same instructions. It may not result in the same level of creaminess, but it will be close. It is unusual for me to choose anything other than brown rice, but I will share honestly that I haven’t yet found success with brown rice risotto, although some internet resources suggest that soaking it overnight may help. I’ll save that challenge for another day. 😉

The addition of cream at the end is not absolutely essential, but I love the softness it lends to the finish of the dish. If you are trying to eat lighter, you might try substituting an equal amount of low-fat evaporated milk. It has similar consistency with lower fat and calories.

Before you begin…

Risotto is best served immediately after reaching perfect consistency. This recipe also requires cooking of mushrooms, spinach and scallops. You may want to employ a helper for these additional tasks, unless you are confident you can manage to cook them simultaneously while tending the risotto. You might also choose to cook the mushrooms and spinach in advance, and re-warm them at plating time. Either way, it’s best to have every ingredient, tool and utensil ready to go before you begin.


Instructions

As usual, the images tell the story, but I’ve offered written instructions below, plus a PDF version you can download for your recipe files. Enjoy!

  1. In a skillet large enough for cooking the risotto, begin by cooking the bacon until crisp. Transfer to a paper towel to cool, reserving the bacon fat (or drain the fat and substitute butter or olive oil for the next step). When cool, crumble or chop the bacon into small pieces and set aside.
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat vegetable broth over medium-low heat, and keep it simmering. I usually begin with the full amount of broth, but if you prefer to heat it in batches and use only what you need, that’s OK. Begin with 3 cups, plus wine (if using). Season it with salt and pepper.
  3. In a second skillet, brown up the mushrooms in a bit of olive oil. Transfer them to a bowl, and then sauté up the spinach leaves and transfer them to a separate bowl. If you’re uncomfortable multi-tasking, you can do this work ahead, or ask a helper to work alongside as you cook the risotto.
  4. To the same skillet used to cook the bacon, add the dry Arborio rice to the fat (or butter or olive oil) in the skillet. Over medium heat, stir the rice around with a wooden utensil until it’s completely coated in the oil. Continue to cook until rice has a lightly toasted aroma, which should be only a couple of minutes.
  5. Add chopped onions to the rice and continue to cook and stir another minute, just long enough for the onions to appear translucent.
  6. Use a ladle or small cup to scoop about 1/2 cup warm broth into the skillet. Stir it around in the rice, scraping any browned bits of flavor off the bottom of the pan. When most of the liquid is absorbed, add another 1/2 cup of broth and repeat. Continue this effort until the broth is nearly gone. After about 30 minutes, give the rice a taste. It should feel creamy but slightly firm, similar to pasta that is cooked just beyond al dente. For me, risotto usually takes about 40 minutes total. You may end up using the full 4 cups of broth—I usually do.
  7. In the second skillet, melt the unsalted butter over medium heat. Arrange the sea scallops, allowing a bit of space between them for easy turning. Do not move them around, but allow them to cook several minutes until browned. Turn scallops (only once) to cook the other side. Season them with salt and pepper.
  8. To the finished risotto, add the bacon crumbles and cooked mushrooms. Add half and half (if using) and stir to blend.
  9. Plate a mound of risotto onto serving plates immediately; top each portion with sautéed spinach and parm-romano blend, then scallops.

You’ll probably have extra risotto after plating, and that is not necessarily a bad thing (see below).

Time for dinner!

Want to make this easy-at-home recipe?


Here’s what I cooked up with the leftover risotto

As risotto cools, the starches gelatinize and the mixture becomes somewhat clumpy—similar to the way cold oatmeal sets up, and it isn’t necessarily delicious. Rather than trying to “loosen” it up again (which doesn’t work, by the way), I took a chance on the waffle iron. And wouldn’t you know? It was fan-freaking-tastic.

We had about 1 1/2 cups of cold leftover risotto from our scallop dish. I added 1/4 cup panko crumbs and 1/4 cup parm-romano blend, and stirred until the mixture was uniform. It had a thick, clumpy consistency that was similar to cold cookie dough.

I preheated our waffle iron to 400° F, and scooped the risotto mixture into it and pressed the lid closed. A few minutes later, voila! We had crispy exterior and smooth, soft and creamy interior. It reminded me of arancini, but in waffle form.

I made a quick onion-herb gravy with chunks of leftover roast chicken, and another fab 2.0 dinner was served!

I couldn’t have planned it better than this! And now, I always have a fun way to use up leftover risotto. 😀