Growing up, I loved the Thanksgiving stuffing--or dressing, as we call it in Kentucky--more than any other part of the meal, even the pie. Whether it was my Granny's version, loaded with celery and sage (never enough celery and sage, she'd say), or my Dad's version, studded with oysters, or the cornbread and sausage version we started making in the later years, I loved it all. Eaten hot and covered with gravy at the Thanksgiving table or cold out of the refrigerator late in the evening or as an accompaniment to eggs the next morning, Thanksgiving dressing is the ultimate comfort food. Starchy, fatty, and salty with a soft center and coveted crispy edges, it hits all the points for food nirvana. At least my version.
So, when I first heard about my friend Mataio's version of stuffing--a Thanksgiving Panzanella--I eyed the recipe skeptically. We were joining the Gillis family for a Friendsgiving at Ciao Thyme, all cooking together in the commercial kitchen. I was on stuffing detail, but secretly mourning the lack of traditional dressing as part of the Thanksgiving meal.
I should have known. Mataio wouldn't make anything that wasn't perfection, especially for Thanksgiving. This Thanksgiving Panzanella gives you all the herby and deeply savory flavors that you want in a stuffing, but in a better way. It's delicious and just as cravable as the traditional version, and it has become the Thanksgiving dressing/stuffing/Panzanella on our table.
The base of this stuffing is a mountain of vegetables, roasted with sage and thyme until browned and delicious. Those are tossed with herby parmesan croutons, crispy bacon, toasted pecans, dates and fresh herbs. If you like, you can coat the whole thing in gravy right before you serve it, but I find that the gravy is optional. It's still delicious without it.
All of the components of the stuffing can be prepped in advance. Make the croutons a few days ahead and store them an airtight container. Fry the bacon ahead of time and reserve the bacon fat for the brussels. Cut up all of the vegetables the day before and then just roast them on Thanksgiving morning, before you put the turkey in the oven. This stuffing tastes just as good at room temperature, or you can warm it briefly in the oven before serving or toss it in warm gravy. You choose. It's all good. Just add the nuts, dates, croutons and fresh herbs right before serving, to keep that crunch and freshness.
So, if you're willing to take a risk, make Thanksgiving Panzanella this year. I don't think you'll regret it. The recipe I'm sharing here is my version of Mataio's recipe, simplified just a bit. I hope you love it. But, whatever you plan to serve this Thanksgiving, I hope you're surrounded by the people you love. Because that's really the best part of Thanksgiving.
Serves about 8
*Since I'm gluten free right now, I used the Camper brand of gluten free bread for the croutons, and it was delicious.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Start by making the croutons. This can be done several days in advance. If you want a lot of croutons in your stuffing, use the whole loaf. In the one I make (pictured), I used a half of a loaf of bread. You choose. Just increase the amount of butter, parmesan cheese and salt according to how much bread you use.
To a large bowl, add the cubed bread, melted butter, chile flakes, parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon of fresh thyme and 2 tablespoons of fresh sage (minced). Season with 1/2 - 1 teaspoon of sea salt and freshly cracked black pepper and toss everything together. Place the croutons on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake for about 10 - 15 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and the croutons are nicely browned and crispy. Remove from oven and let cool completely. If you're making these in advance, store them in an airtight container.
In the meantime, prepare all of the vegetables. Cut all of the vegetables (except the brussels) in approximately the same size. Peel and dice the carrots, parsnips and butternut squash. Dice the fennel. Peel the onion and cut into thin wedges. Stem the shiitake mushrooms (compost stems or save for stock) and tear mushrooms into halves or quarters. Add all of the vegetables to a large bowl and season with sea salt (about a teaspoon) and freshly cracked black pepper. Add the remaining fresh thyme and sage with the olive oil and toss everything together. Divide the vegetables between two baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Place in the oven (still at 425 degrees) and roast for 20 - 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are soft and have have begun to caramelize, with crispy edges. Depending on your oven, you may want to rotate your baking sheets halfway through, for even roasting. When they are done, remove from the oven and set aside.
While the vegetables are roasting, cook the bacon. Add all of the bacon slices (lardons) to a cast iron skillet (or heavy bottomed skillet) placed over medium-low heat and slowly render out all of the fat and then cook until the bacon is crispy. Remove the crispy bacon to a plate lined with paper towels. Pour all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat into a glass jar and reserve for another use.
Trim the brussels sprouts and cut each in half. After you have cooked the bacon, return the same skillet with the bacon fat to medium heat. Lay the brussels sprouts in a single layer and cook until that side is well browned. Turn them with tongs and cook briefly on the other side. Be careful not to overcook. Brussels are better slightly underdone than overdone. Depending on the size of your skillet, you may need to do this in several batches, adding more bacon fat, if needed. Add the cooked brussels sprouts to the sheet pans of roasted vegetables. (Note: I don't season my brussels sprouts in this recipe, because they are cooked in bacon fat and everything else is highly seasoned. If you want to add a little sea salt, by all means, do so.)
When you are ready to serve, add all of the vegetables, including the brussels to a very large bowl, along with the bacon. If you're going to add the gravy, add it here, tossing everything together. Then add the dates, pecans, fresh parsley, fennel fronds and reserved croutons. Toss everything together and transfer to a serving dish.