Is it superficial of me to want my Thanksgiving dressing to look good this year?
Because it seems as though a majority of my favorite foods…dressing, stuffing, meatloaf, gravy, mashed potatoes, marshmallow fluff, that part of a peanut butter-filled chocolate bar that melts to its wrapper…someone stop me here because I’m going too far…are anything but photogenic. And I do hope they’re covering their ears when I say- they’re lacking in the looks department. Try as I might to pretty them, and as tastefully intense as they are, even Tim Gunn is nodding. They just don’t make it work.
So this year I gave it one final go. I gussied up my dressing with even more color- the ruby red of cranberries, burnt orange carrots, the white cut sides of chopped walnuts, a rosy dice of pancetta…I was an inch away from up-ending the chocolate chip bag into the bowl, when sanity returned to my kitchen. Try a forkful first, Andrea. Taste and texture-wise, these additions made for an outrageously flavorful bowl of crisp-crusted mush. Because really, isn’t that what Thanksgiving dressing is- the most lovely of all soggy centerpieces?
Starting with a base of rich, almost nutty tasting cornbread, I added crispy bits of salty pancetta, moisture from buttery softened vegetables, the sweet mouth puckering from a handful of tart cranberries, and the deep roasted crunch of walnuts. One key to good stuffing or dressing, I find, is moisture. Yes, a nice crusty top is pleasant; but the middle, that inner belly of the casserole, should be soft and moist. The second key to good dressing is butter. Even just two tablespoons makes a pronounced difference in taste. There’s a richness that salted butter brings that no other substitute seems to replicate quite as well.
You might already have your favorite stuffing or dressing recipe. I hope you do. Maybe you have one that your grandmother passed down to you, given to her by her mother, and her mother before that. Perhaps I’m able to play around so much with my recipe because my maternal Nana couldn’t cook to save her soul. Unless, of course, we had been begging her to create a dressing involving cottage cheese, ginger ale, and cod liver oil, because then we would have been in business.
But back to the recipe at hand.
Cornbread Dressing with Pancetta and Cranberries
In a large pan, saute the pancetta over medium heat until it is crisp and browned, about 10 minutes. I used a nice, pre-cubed package that I found at Trader Joe’s (Citterio brand). Remove the pancetta from the pan with a slotted spoon, leaving the rendered fat in the pan. Return it to heat and add two tablespoons of butter; allow it to melt. Add the chopped onion, celery, and carrots.
Saute the vegetables for about 7-10 minutes, or until they have developed a nice brown crust and are softened. Add the garlic and stir constantly for 30 seconds, until fragrant. Stream in your chicken stock, scraping up any crispy bits that have crusted at the bottom of the pan. Add in thyme, sage, pepper, and a heaping handful of dried cranberries.
Now place your cornbread in a large bowl. I was sent this brand of dried bread stuffing by Olivia’s Crouton Company, for review. It’s a fabulous product- great texture, the proper balance of herbs and spices, and it has all natural, identifiable ingredients listed. Truly, I was very happy with how my stuffing turned out using this cornbread. Please feel free to use homemade stale cornbread though, as the dressing is designed for that.
Pour the chicken stock and vegetable mixture over the cornbread and stir gently to combine. Stir in two beaten eggs and a large handful of toasted chopped walnuts. Spread the mixture into a greased baking pan and cover with foil. Bake at 375°F for 20 minutes, covered. Then uncover and bake an additional 20 minutes, allowing the crust to brown and become crispy.
Cornbread Dressing with Pancetta and Cranberries
(serves 6-8, as a side dish)
- 4 oz finely diced pancetta
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup finely diced onion (1 medium onion)
- 1 cup finely diced celery (about 3-4 stalks)
- 1/2 cup finely diced carrot (about 2 carrots)
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 1/2 cups excellent quality chicken or turkey stock (may use more or less depending on preference)
- 3 teaspoons dried ground thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried ground sage
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 cup dried cranberries
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans, toasted
- 8-10 cups stale cubed cornbread- truly any kind would work, and if you don’t have cornbread, I recommend something crusty like french bread, sourdough, or ciabatta
- 2 eggs, beaten
Preheat the oven to 375°F. In a large pan, saute the pancetta over medium heat until crispy and browned, about 10 minutes. Remove the pancetta to a plate, keeping the rendered fat in the pan. Return the pan to the heat and add the butter; let it melt. Add the onion, celery, and carrot. Saute, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, or until the vegetables develop a nice browned exterior and are softened. Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds, until fragrant.
Stream in the chicken stock, scraping up any browned and crispy bits that have formed at the bottom of the pan. Add the thyme, sage, pepper, and dried cranberries. Stir the mixture to combine. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
Place your cornbread cubes in a large bowl. Pour the chicken broth and vegetable mixture over the top, stirring gently to coat all of the bread. Stir in the beaten egg and toasted nuts. The mixture should be very wet, but trust me, the moisture will dry up as it bakes.
Spread the mixture into a greased wide, shallow baking dish, like an 11×7″ or 13×9″ pan, cover with foil, and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake an additional 20 minutes, until the top has browned and crisped.