Cornbread Dressing with Sausage and Pecans

cornbread dressing for ThanksgivingTalk about a tectonic shift. I have never made cornbread dressing for Thanksgiving. Then, all of a sudden, it was essential to me to make cornbread dressing. Perhaps it was nostalgia. Someone would bring cornbread dressing to my Grandma’s Thanksgiving, and I was always standing there with a crappy look on my face, like only a 10 year old can properly do, wanting regular bread dressing. “I don’t like it,” I would utter, having never even tried it. Perhaps my Grandma Katie made it. Perhaps my Papaw Virgil made it. Would that I could have those moments back in life, when I scoffed at the unknown. I’m better now. I could cry at the thought of so glibly insulting the gifts of such dedicated people. I knew nothing of life, then.

This is a slightly different beast than their dressing. I relish the chunks of bread and the large textural components like the sausage and pecans. I think I once felt that stuffing and dressing needed to be somewhat homogenous, appropriately wet cement that could also be used for brick making.

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Cottage Pie

I have a serious attachment to good mashed potatoes. There are very few leftovers that I feel compelled to see eaten, but mashed potatoes are one of them. They are a comfort food icon and once you decide on a method for cooking them that appeals to you, it becomes difficult to see people serve mediocre mashed potatoes. My mother-in-law would say that all potatoes are good, but some are better than others. I generally agree with that proposition, although I think that there are some grievously bad mashed potatoes to be found at restaurants…even very nice ones.

I am a simpleton when it comes to my mashed potatoes, though. I think simple is the key, in fact. I do want to make colcannon one day soon…but mostly, I like butter, milk, salt and pepper in my mashed potatoes. I do have one “secret” ingredient, however. I always use it, but just a little bit. It adds something to the texture more than the flavor. I use a handful of shredded parmesan cheese. In this particular case, having no parmesan on hand, I threw in a handful of gruyère…hence, the gruyère topping. But mixing a bit of parmesan or gruyère into your mashed potatoes lends a subtle bump in texture and flavor that is rather interesting. I’ve had a lot of compliments on mashed potatoes, yet I’ve never had anyone guess that I add cheese to them. That might give you a hint to how little I use relative to say, the heaping piles of butter. My only other “must” is adding the melted butter to the potatoes FIRST. It is a little trick I learned from Cook’s Illustrated at some point and it has served me well. The idea is that you coat the starch molecules with butter before adding the milk and it keeps them from being watery. Whatever the explanation, it seems to work.

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Sweet Potato and Black Bean Casserole with Tomatillo Cream Sauce

This is about as close as I get to a vegetarian dish. And if you have the notion that meatless meals will leave you hungering for more, think again. This casserole is dense and satisfying.

Cumin and cinnamon are very aromatic. A little bit goes a long way here and give the sweet potatoes a nice, confusing-to-the-senses, cross between sweet and savory. The beans and sweet potatoes are fairly unadorned beyond that and you will be surprised at how healthful this delicious casserole really is. There is a little bit of cheese, and a little bit of egg, to help hold the tamale/cornbread topping together.

Tomatillos are an interesting little fruit.  If you haven’t played with them, you should. The husks are lovely, and when you unwrap them, they make your hands sticky. Rinse the fruits and you are left with firm little orbs. When roasted at this high a temperature, they liquefy. Allow them to roast until that happens. I merely season them with salt and a little touch of cream and puree them. The result is a rather bitter cream sauce. That may sound odd, and you might be a little wary. But served on top of this rather sweet dish, it provides a wonderful balance.
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Will’s Texas Hash Brown Casserole

Everyone who knows about these potatoes calls them Texas Hash Browns or something of that nature. I call them Will’s potatoes, because it was my brother, Will, who first made them for me waaaaaay back when we were in college at SMU. A girlfriend of a friend of Will’s had made them for the boys on some occasion and it made an impression. He got the recipe and passed it along to me. I made  it a few times and then lost track of it. Pity.

I was leafing through a community cookbook over the new years holiday with my friend Courtney and saw a variation on the theme. All of a sudden I was overcome with the need to re-create it. Done in the traditional manner, it requires a bag of frozen hash browns and a can of the ubiquitous Cream of Chicken canned soup. Somehow, the convenience of the frozen potatoes works with me in this campy, cooking on vacation, feeding an army kind of a way. But, I still wince a little at using the “cream ofs”.

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Riverbend French Toast Casserole

Last week, I was invited to spend the weekend at a friend’s ranch outside of Waco, kids and all. My only contribution to the weekend was to handle breakfast one morning. The best solution for feeding a crowd, in my opinion, is a big breakfast casserole. I set about creating this one, and I have to say it is going to go into heavy rotation with my green chile and sausage breakfast casserole.  This was well received and got good reviews from the wee ones, teenage boys, and adults, alike. Riverbend is the name of the beautiful ranch owned by the Whitlows, our hosts, and thus this sweet breakfast staple will forever bear that name. It was a truly inspiring landscape.

In my initial French Toast recipe, which is as basic as it gets, I think I shot off about not liking French Toast Casseroles or other “gussified” French Toast creations. I’m now going to modify that statement to say…I love French Toast Casserole. I still don’t need gussified. But sometimes you need these dishes that can be prepared the night before. We all need them. We especially need them around the holidays.

In my “research” I decided to stay loyal to one of my favorite components of my French Toast which is Texas Toast bread. This is plain old grocery store white bread except that it is 1 inch thick. It is famous for its place in Texas barbeque joints and Dairy Queen baskets. Also, I am nostalgic because this is the bread my mother always used to make French Toast. Many opine that there are superior breads, like Challah, for French Toast Casserole. To that I will simply reply that I look forward to eating Challah bread French Toast Casserole the next time I am at your house. You may substitute it in this recipe if you like. But do notice how nicely my artificially square bread fits into my dish. I like the geometric perfection. No gaps.

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