Foolproof Make-Ahead Thanksgiving Gravy

I love nothing more than to sit around the dinner table with friends and family of all generations and enjoy a meal filled with storytelling, good food, and laughs. I particularly love Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve because of the traditions and feelings of anticipation and gratitude that go with them.

To get to the actual serving of the Thanksgiving dinner, I have to pass through a few cooking hurdles. For instance, I suffer from indecision everytime I cut into the turkey thigh to test for doneness.  Are the juices truly running clear, or are they still ever so slightly pink?

And then there is the gravy. So much mystery there.

If it’s not lumps, it’s blandness. Making a velvety smooth, full-bodied gravy has eluded me for years. It is the reason why, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the crazy hour before dinner, I nonchalantly ask, “Who wants to make the gravy?” as if it were an afterthought. Thankfully, there is always someone who volunteers, often, my husband Kelly and his mother, Catherine.

Earlier in the week, I was talking food with my good friend Karen Rolen, a joyful, spunky woman originally from Montgomery, Alabama. I asked her if she knew how to make gravy. She confidently and enthusiastically said, “Yes, I’ve been making it my whole life; where I come from, gravy is considered a BEVERAGE!”  Her written instructions arrived the next morning.

“Make a light brown roux* with equal parts butter and all-purpose flour. I probably use ¼ to ½ stick of butter.  Add hot turkey drippings and fonds** if you have them. Have two cups or so of heated chicken broth ready, and even if it’s good and homemade, have “Knorrs” or “Better Than Bullion” chicken base available for salt and seasoning later. Slowly, stir broth into the cooked roux and drippings mixture and boil on medium-high until you get the consistency you want. Season to taste with lots of ground black pepper and the chicken bullion. It’s usually good enough to drink!”

*To learn what a roux is, check out Bruce’s Turkey and Sausage Gumbo and learn why you might also want to consider saving the turkey carcass and trimmings this year.

**Fond is French for “base” and means the bits and pieces of browned meat or vegetables left in a pan after roasting or frying.

Make-Ahead Gravy

My goal was to tweak Karen’s instructions to create a make-ahead, flavorful and dependable gravy you could make a few days or hours before the holiday dinner.

Yield: Makes three cups (this recipe is easily doubled or cut in half)

Ingredients 

½ cup butter (1 stick)
½ cup all-purpose flour
4 cups (1 quart) heated boxed or homemade chicken broth
½ teaspoon ground pepper
¾ to 1½ squares of Knorr Chicken Bullion (for “seasoning to taste”)

Mise En Place

Instructions

Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat.

Use a whisk to stir in the flour.

Stir continuously over medium heat until the roux starts to change color, usually about three minutes, give or take a few seconds. The picture on the left was taken at 2½ minutes. The one on the right was taken at three.

 

Think of the roux’s darkening as “toasting” or cooking the flour. The roux should be medium brown in color when it is done. This cooking of the flour is what gives gravy its depth of flavor and that desired taste of nuttiness. I promise, if this is your first time making a roux, you are going to feel very accomplished as a cook once you make this gravy.

As soon as the roux changes color, add the hot broth to stop the roux from cooking any longer. Whisk in the chicken broth and simmer for about five minutes until the gravy thickens.

Stay with it, so the flour does not get an opportunity to stick to the bottom of the pan. Also, do not adjust the seasonings until after the gravy has finished cooking because as the liquid evaporates the flavors will concentrate.

“Salt and Pepper to Taste”

I add the pepper first because I think it is easier to adjust. Next, instead of adding salt, Karen and I both use Knorr’s bullion cubes for flavoring. The amount you will need depends on a few variables such as whether you use unsalted or salted butter and “no salt added” or regular chicken broth.

To successfully “season to taste,” I  cut the large Knorr bullion cubes into quarters. I add one small square at a time, tasting after each addition. Continue to add and taste until you hit that magical moment when the gravy suddenly tastes rich and delicious.

Notice how velvety smooth the gravy is.

Reheat the gravy in a saucepan just before serving. Feel free to add additional strained juices from the roasting pan to the gravy, if desired.

My friend, Renée, whose family likes to fry their turkey, reminds me there are no drippings for gravy-making when frying. This recipe would be a good solution for that situation.

If you wish to make your own chicken stock, consider these two posts to learn how: Chicken Stock from Rotisserie Chicken Bones and Rotisserie Chicken Soup, Revisited. I found little difference between using my homemade broth and the Pacific brand of chicken broth. Both are very rich in flavor.

Hope your Thanksgiving is filled with love and good cheer!

Epilogue

Once I got Karen’s recipe adapted for this post, I took a sample of gravy to my friends who I was meeting for coffee. They each tasted the gravy and agreed it was indeed yummy and sippable! Thanks, Mary, Susie, Corabel, Jane, and Mary, for being tasters.

Thanks to Karen Rolen for teaching me how to make gravy. I’ll think of you every Thanksgiving when I make it.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

Pecan Picking in Mississippi (and recipes to go with them)

Years ago, my family and I were traveling in Sicily and came across a grove of nude trees surrounded by layers of stacked bark. We pulled off the road to examine the naked trees and figured out we were in a cork oak forest. Cork trees can be stripped of their bark every nine years to make products like wine corks. In fact, the next time you have an all-natural cork, count the number of lines on it, and you will know how many years the grower waited between bark harvests. I wrote a story about it here. Before seeing this grove, I had never considered where corks came from.

The same is true for pecans. Until recently, I never considered how pecans, or any nuts for that matter, were commercially harvested.

My curiosity was first sparked a few weeks ago when I saw a video on Instagram of my friend, yoga teacher Mary Thorstad, picking pecans off the lawn of her parents’ home in Georgia using a quaint collecting device.

Mary described how much she delighted in the idea of picking edible food off the lawn. She said the pecans were little treasures waiting to be found, like manna from heaven. It is a task she has enjoyed doing since childhood. I remember wondering if all pecans were harvested from the ground, or if this device was just a child’s way of picking up a few fallen pecans like you might do when gathering apples from under a tree.

This past weekend, my husband and I visited friends in Como, Mississippi. Como borders the Mississippi Delta to the west, Oxford to the southeast, and Memphis to the north.

We arrived late in the evening. As we drove up the driveway, my husband commented on the stately old oak and pecan trees that lined the moonlit driveway. Later, he asked our friends, Denise and Sledge Taylor, about the mature trees and whether they picked the pecans. They proceeded to tell us a few delightful stories about townspeople coming by to pick pecans over the years. Sledge said it was not uncommon to come home to find a sack of pecans on their front porch. It meant someone had come by and picked some for themselves and, as a token of appreciation, picked a sack for the tree-owners. Denise told us that once they came home to find homemade pecan pies on their front porch instead of the customary gunny sack. They were thrilled. I thought I’d be mighty pleased with a sack of pecans, but that was when I had the misperception that people harvested pecans by climbing ladders and using specialty pole-pickers to harvest them, a job I was not prepared to do.

Then I learned pecans were harvested off the ground even when grown commercially. Pecans grow in a husk in clusters at the end of branches. As the husk matures, it splits open, and the nut drops out. In commercial orchards, farmers use a mechanical tree-shaker to nudge the tree into dropping their nuts on the ground. After they fall, large-scale sweepers are brought in to collect them.

Sensing how taken I was with seeing pecan trees for the first time, Sledge drove us to a commercial pecan orchard with acres full of mature trees. The trees were planted on a grid. The oldest were planted in the 1890s on a 60 x 60 grid. The younger trees were planted in the 1940s on a 45 x 45 grid. Sledge said they plant them even closer now. We loved that whichever direction we viewed them from, the trees lined up, both in rows and on the diagonal. Truly, a marvel to behold.

Meanwhile, we harvested 8.5 pounds of nuts from Sledge and Denise’s driveway.

We used a sweeper device Sledge kept for harvesting nuts from his yard.

It looks and works a lot like a tennis ball sweeper.

Sledge said not to pick pecans that still had their husks on as the husk would keep the shell moist and the nut inside would likely be rotten.

After we arrived back in Nashville,  I immediately set to picking the pecan meat out of the shells. It took every bit of two hours to pick through our eight pounds of unshelled nuts. I ended up with almost two pounds of tender, tasty pecan meats. Manna from heaven, indeed.

It was tedious work. Granted, the tools I used were not for industrial use. They were more like cocktail party fare from the Fifties.

Today, except for my stained and scratched fingers, I’ve forgotten about the amount of work that went into cleaning out the shells. But man oh man, as I was shelling, I was thinking, I get it, now. I know why Denise was even happier to get the homemade pies!

Thanks to our hosts, Denise and Sledge Taylor who live on a beautiful farm in the “hill country” a place with never-ending vistas of pastures and planted fields. This photo was taken at their cotton gin. That’s a whole nother story!

Tried and True Recipes Calling for Pecans

Mrs. Walker’s Cranberry Nut Pie (served two ways)
 

Pumpkin Bread Pudding (served two ways)
 

Cranberry and Hot Pepper Jelly Brie Bites

Grandma’s Cranberry Chutney

Fruit and Nut Bread

Sorghum, Oats, and Cranberry Granola

Oat, Sorghum, Ginger and Cranberry Cookies

I thought about The Pecan Man, a novel by Casey Dandridge Selleck while writing this post. The story takes place in a small Southern town in Florida. The main character is a spunky, well-respected, and charming woman who tries to do right by a homeless man who picks pecans from lawns in the 1970s. The audiotape has an excellent reader.

Always check the website for the most current version of a recipe.

© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

What to Knit for a Baby: a Hat, a Sweater and a Blanket

My mother taught me to knit when I was ten. She worked full-time and I remember pacing the house waiting for her to get home to pick up my dropped stitches. The first thing I knit was a gray skirt for a Barbie doll. I remember it turning out like an hourglass-shaped pencil skirt. It was fraught with common beginners’ mistakes: added on and dropped stitches. Eventually, I got the hang of it and loved nothing more than to sit by Mom and knit.

By the time I found out I was going to be a grandmother, I’d been a lapsed knitter for many years. Not so any longer. I’m right back in it and probably for good this time. I love knitting for the baby.

Here are three things I love that I have knitted for my grandson.

The first item is my favorite blanket pattern, the “Mitered Square Blanket” from Mason Dixon KnittingI started the pattern when my daughter-in-law first told us she was pregnant. Because we didn’t initially know the sex of the baby, I made the first squares in shades of pink and blue.

Almost like my grandmother did in 1957 when she crocheted this baby blanket for me. I’m just now noticing that Grandma and I both liked two-toned geometric designs!

Next, I made quite a few of these quick and easy rolled edge hats.

After that, I made my favorite baby sweater pattern called Home-Team Player. It has three buttons on the shoulder which is helpful when slipping a sweater on and off a baby’s big head. I enjoy knitting to the rhythm of this pattern very much. It is also quite forgiving size-wise, meaning there is room for the baby to grow into the sweater, but still look okay while it is a little too big. I made at least a half-dozen of these for my children and friends.

This is a picture of my darling grandson wearing the sweater I knit for him. He has his favorite blankie, too.

A few weeks after finishing his sweater, I stumbled upon this picture.

It’s of my mother holding my son, Jesse, circa 1987. Jesse is wearing the sweater made from the same pattern I used for his son! Same color, even!

So which pattern should you try first? If you are a beginner, I’d suggest starting with the baby hat, then moving to the sweater, and then the mitered square blanket for an exciting and fun challenge.

The Baby Hat

We took a trip to New Zealand a few months before the baby was born and while traveling to Queenstown came across a fantastic handicraft store called The Stitching Post in the charming town of Arrowtown. They had so many adorable samples of baby items to knit and quilt that I had to tell my husband to go off and explore the village without me. I needed to soak all the gorgeousness in. For this hat, the Stitching Post recommended a soft superwash merino wool called Knitcol by Adriafil. I love it and left the store with quite a few skeins … and a set of size 6 needles … and their free pattern. No time like the present to get started.

The yarns I used for these hats.

The blue/gray yarn is Knitcol. On the Stitching Post’s website, they show how the Knitcol colorways look when knit up. Take a look.

The variegated pink yarn on the hat on the right is by the Sheep Shop Yarn Company. It is an old yarn made with a blend of silk and wool. It is no longer available.

The green/pink yarn is called Lichen and Lace and is a superwash merino wool sold through Mason Dixon Knitting. Because the yarn was a little thicker than the Knitcol, I cast on 64 stitches instead of 73 and bumped up the needle size from a US 6 to size a US 8.

A word about yarn choices for baby hats.

I like to use a non-itchy yarn for baby hats because their heads get hot and sweaty and sometimes itchy while wearing a woolen hat. Look for soft yarn with the words “superwash merino” on the label. Cotton doesn’t always work for this pattern because it doesn’t have “give” or enough stitch recovery to make the edges roll. Cotton hats need a pattern with a few rows of ribbing to grip a baby’s head.

For a good explanation of what “superwash” means check out this article from Lion Brands Yarns’s website.

The Baby Sweater

The Home Team Player sweater pattern came from the now-defunct Conshohocken Cotton Company and has been my favorite baby sweater pattern since the 1980s. The pattern is nowhere to be found for purchase on the Internet or in stores, so I’ve included it in this post. My pattern looks like an old family recipe. It is as well-loved as Mom’s Apple Pie! 

 

This sweater is knit on 6 and 9 needles with worsted weight yarn. I find that many baby patterns make the arm length too long so for this pattern, I shortened the arms by at least two inches. One tip I use when determining arm length is to measure the length of the arm from a baby sweater I already like. **I’ve added a bigger photo of the pattern at the end of this post.

The Mitered Square Blanket

Stardate April 17, 2006. This was the moment I fell in love with the Mitered Square Blanket made famous by my good friend, and neighbor, Ann Shayne and New Yorker, Kay Gardiner in their first knitting book, Mason-Dixon Knitting: The Curious Knitter’s Guide. This photo was taken at their Nashville book signing. I’ve been smitten by this blanket ever since. I’ve made five of them! The one pictured above is for a queen-size bed. It’s huge! The pattern is now available online. Here’s a link.

The morning after the book-signing, I beelined it over to Ann’s house so Kay could give me a private tutorial on how to knit the squares. Mitered squares start out as a straight row of stitches, and then through a series of decreases up the middle, the sides are drawn inward to create a square. You will feel so excited the first time you see the square emerge from the horizontal row of stitches. It’s magical.

The next thing that will excite you is the thrill of choosing colors and seeing how beautifully the squares come together when seamed. After a while, I started to think of the hanks of Tahki Cotton Classic yarn as tubes of paint. I honestly felt like an artist after making just three squares! Knitting the squares becomes addictive, I promise!

You might even find yourself carrying a little baggie with a mitered square in progress for when you have downtime. I used a short round needle for portability.

Finally, a sweet ending to a long yarn: a picture of my great-grandmother, MamaNika, knitting on the patio of my grandparents’ home. You can read all about her and the other beautiful, female role models in my life, all domestic goddesses, here.

Blog Favorites: Recipes from My Family
Grandma’s Italian Fried Cauliflower
Baked Ziti with Eggplant
Italian Ricotta and Lemon Cookies
Mom’s Apple Pie (with a cheddar streusel topping)
Judy’s Mom’s Meatloaf
Mom’s Pumpkin Pie
@judyschickens Everyday Salad Dressing
Mom’s Monkey Bread, circa 1970
Aunt Bridget’s Chicken Soup with Little Meatballs
Rachelle’s Italian Sausage, Onions, and Peppers

© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

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Applesauce or Apple Pie?

It’s apple season! There are so many beauties out there right now that every time I go near a farm stand, I pick a few more to add to my stash.

Have I mentioned how much I adore color and texture? It doesn’t matter if it’s in food, as in a bowl of apples

or tomatoes.

Or yarn, as in this painting of my yarn stash created by my friend Kim Barrick. It makes no difference to me. I love it all. They each bring me joy.

Unlike yarn, which can last beyond a lifetime as in the case of my adorable mother’s yarn stash,

when I get too many apples I’ve got to act. Pie or applesauce? If the skins have started to wrinkle and the bruises have started to show, I make applesauce. Otherwise, it’s Mom’s Apple Pie with Cheddar Streusel Topping. No contest.

Even the ingredients are photogenic!

Apple Sex

The core of an apple is actually the apple’s ovary. It is usually divided into five chambers containing two ovules (where the female DNA is stored) each. If the ovules are pollinated with male DNA in the form of pollen grains, the apple will mature into a well-developed fruit. A fully pollinated apple will contain ten seeds. The number of seeds is directly related to how many grains of pollen have traveled from the stigma, down the style to the ovum in the ovary on the apple’s blossom. The apple needs a minimum of 6-7 seeds to set fruit, or it will not grow to maturity. The pollen is carried by pollinators from other nearby varieties of apples in the orchard.

Mother Nature ensures the survival of the apple tree species by making the flesh sweet and tasty so squirrels and deer will want to eat the fruit and disperse the seeds widely.

While in Hasting’s New Zealand, we had the pleasure of visiting our friends Annette and Rufus Carey’s Longland’s Fruit and Vegetable and Christmas Tree Farm.

I loved seeing their neat system for growing rows of apple trees.

Having an apple orchard is on my bucket list.

How to make Apple Sauce

The following kitchen tools might be helpful:

To make applesauce, peel three pounds of apples and remove brown spots. Three pounds of apples equal about 9 medium apples or 7-8 cups sliced.

Use an apple corer (ovary remover – ewww) to prep the slices.

Or, if you have a spiralizer, use it.

Add the apple slices to a saucepan with about 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove lid and simmer 10 more minutes. Use a potato masher to pulverize the chunks, if desired.

   

You could leave the peel on, but know that it will separate from the apple as it cooks and has a tendency to stick to the roof of your mouth. That’s one of the reasons I always peel apples for my grandson, the skin can be a choking hazard for babies.

You can add cinnamon and sugar if you’d like, but applesauce is plenty sweet and flavorful unadorned.

Consider putting aside ½ cup of applesauce to use in Marion’s Crazy Good Pumpkin and Chocolate Chip Bread.

One More Seque!

How about a great book to read this Fall about an American pioneering family in the 1800s who struggle to plant an apple orchard in Ohio? At The Edge Of The Orchard, by Tracy Chevalier, is such a book.  I love how John Chapman (aka Johnny Appleseed) plays into the story as well as the science of bark-grafting apple limbs. I’m grateful to my dear friend, Gayl Squire, a teacher in Napier, NZ, for buying me a copy of this book to read while we were visiting them.

Always check the website for the most current version of a recipe.

© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.