A Thanksgiving Letter from the Neighborhood Squirrels

I am grateful for my friend, Carol Fike, who sent me an anonymous (at the time) Thanksgiving letter from the neighborhood squirrels who reside in my backyard. The squirrels ate every tomato (24 plants worth) in my garden while they were all still green. My frustration was well-documented on Instagram. When they finished with the tomatoes, they got started on and ate the starchy, green, cotton bolls.

Trying to figure out who sent this lovely, funny, thoughtful, letter, with a gift attached (from the squirrels), was the highlight of my week. Everyone needs a Carol in their life. Thanks and love you, Carol.

The squirrels were well-mannered; they carried their food to various tabletops around the yard before eating them.

Wishing all my readers a Happy Thanksgiving Day!

Thanksgiving Day Grace
Bless the food between us,
The home around us,
The family beside us,
and the love between us.

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© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

How to Make Gorgeous Birdhouse Gourds

A few years ago, my maker friend, Mary Stone, grew squash vines loaded with pear-shaped gourds in her backyard vegetable garden. An idea was percolating in her head. She wanted to use the gourds to make birdhouses to give as hostess gifts to some friends.

Birdhouse, swan, and wide-bottle gourds, collectively known as bottle gourds, are all members of the squash family (Lagenaria siceraria) and were originally cultivated for their container shapes. Once dried, or cured, their shells became hard and were used as bowls, vases, rattles, pipes, and birdhouses. The first time I saw birdhouse gourds, they were strung across a Mennonite farm in Cerulean, Kentucky. Cured and painted by children, the white “martin houses” were used to attract purple martins, a small, darting bird known for its penchant for insects.

Mary’s version of the birdhouse gourd was quite different. The coloration of hers was GORGEOUS. There was no way this birdhouse, with a finish that looked like spalted wood, was going outside!

After her first batch of cured and varnished gourds, Mary made many more, sans holes, for decorative purposes. I have used my collection to grace the fireplace mantle on Thanksgiving Day for years.

One summer, inspired by Mary, I grew bottle gourds in my backyard. I thought I had purchased seeds for pear-shaped gourds, but instead got this lovely bottle-shaped squash.

As instructed by Mary, I harvested the gourds before the first frost and allowed them to dry on a baker’s rack in my screened-in porch. Surprisingly none of them collapsed from rot. Mary dried her crop, over a six-month period, on a rack in her garage. You will know they are fully cured when you can hear the seeds inside rattle when shaken. Think maracas. They will mottle as they dry creating beautiful and desirable markings on the outside.

One afternoon, Mary came over to show me how to prep and varnish them. She used a steel wool pad to lightly sand off the few rough spots on the surface. Then she sanded off some of the black mottlings, but not all of them. With her artist’s eye, she determined how much mottling to preserve and how much to erase.

She then rinsed them with water. We allowed them to dry for about thirty minutes before varnishing.

We tied strings on the stems of each and set up a drying rack.

Mary brushed on the varnish,

and hung them outside to dry. After about an hour, I applied a second layer of varnish.

Here is a before and after photo of the varnished gourds. I love how the varnish brings out the mottling.

Here is my collection of bottle gourds. They are a pleasure to own and behold.

To make a birdhouse, Mary drilled a 1.5-inch entrance hole into the base of the gourd’s neck, two drainage holes on the bottom, and two tiny holes at the top used to run a wire for hanging purposes.

Meanwhile, the Thanksgiving holiday is upon us!

Here are some tried and true recipes to cook for your guests while they visit. The desserts, named for family and friends, are heavenly.  May I suggest a Seventies breakfast favorite, Mom’s Monkey Bread, for a crowd-pleasing sweet treat?

 

 

 

If you are feeding people dinner on the evenings before and after Thanksgiving, consider these crowd pleasers. The Buffalo Chicken Chili is the most popular entrée on the blog and is a quick and easy one-pot meal to make. Bruce’s Gumbo is the most deliciously flavored “stew” you will ever eat. Yes, I speak in superlatives. Be sure to save the turkey carcass to make broth for the gumbo. If you want to sit around the dinner table and listen to people say, “This is good,” try this Italian favorite, Baked Ziti with Eggplant. Some people eliminate the eggplant and add ground beef. Either way, I love the way it drips with mozzarella.

 

 

 

 

 

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© 2014-2019 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Roasted Rosemary Sweet Potatoes

Every Saturday morning, my husband, the dog and I head over to Richland Farmers Market, a happening and energetic place to shop in Nashville for organic vegetables and locally made food products. I am drawn to this market by both the variety of vegetables offered and the enthusiastic farmers, bakers, butchers, beekeepers, and fromagers who show up every weekend.

Last week, while visiting Corner Spring Farm’s booth, owner Marianne Cameron suggested I try the Japanese sweet potatoes she and her husband had grown. She told me they had a creamy and moist interior when cooked. The potatoes are oblong and have smudgy-red skin and white flesh.

I roasted them with an equal amount of regular sweet potatoes, chopped rosemary, salt, garlic pepper, and olive oil. Marianne was right, the interior of the Japanese potatoes was soooo creamy and delicious. I couldn’t get over the texture. I served them for dinner with Mom’s Meatloaf and blanched thick and meaty green beans — my favorite kind of dinner.

Yield: 6-8 servings

Ingredients
1 pound sweet potatoes, unpeeled
1 pound Japanese sweet potatoes, unpeeled
2 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon McCormick’s California Style Garlic Pepper
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Instructions
Preheat oven to 425º

Scrub potatoes. Do not peel. Cut into 1½-in chunks. Arrange on a parchment-lined rimmed, sheet pan. Strip rosemary leaves from stems and chop. Sprinkle over potatoes. Add olive oil, salt, and garlic pepper. Toss ingredients together until well blended. Roast for 45 minutes on the middle rack of oven.

The Japanese sweet potatoes were so yummy, I went to Whole Foods to look for another popular variety I had been reading about, Stokes Purple Sweet Potatoes. I thought, together, the color combo would be exciting. Stokes Purples look like Japanese sweet potatoes on the outside, but the interior is solid purple. I cooked them using the same recipe as above. The colors were beautiful.

Sadly, I wasn’t as wild about the flavor of the roasted Stokes Purples. With the remaining three pounds of purple potatoes I had bought, I had another idea: make mashed purple sweet potatoes!

They were delicious. I used my recipe for Old-Fashioned Mashed Potatoes, substituting the Stokes Purples for the all-purpose potatoes. The mashed sweet potatoes were sweet, buttery, creamy, and eye-poppingly colorful and would sure look different on the Thanksgiving Day table! Speaking of which, Thanksgiving is eleven days away. Take a look at the list of recipes I’ve put together here!

Today is the fourth anniversary of Judy’s Chickens! It all started here!

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© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Foolproof Make-Ahead Gravy

I love nothing more in life 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 instead of a worry. Thankfully, there is always someone who volunteers, often, my husband Kelly and his mother.

This 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 on. Slowly, stir broth into the roux and drippings and boil them on medium-high until you get the consistency you want. Season to taste with lots of ground black pepper and 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 should save 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.

My goal was to tweak Karen’s instructions to create a 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”)

Instructions:
Melt butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Using a whisk, 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 color as “toasting” the flour. The roux should be medium brown when 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, whisk in the broth to stop the roux from cooking any longer. Whisk and simmer for about five minutes until the gravy thickens.

Stick with it, don’t let the flour 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”
Add the pepper first because it is easier to adjust. Next, instead of adding salt, Karen and I use Knorr’s bullion cubes for flavoring. The amount you need will depend on variables such as whether you use unsalted or salted butter and regular or low-sodium chicken broth.

To successfully “season to taste,” cut the Knorr bouillon cube into four quarters. Add one quarter at a time until you hit that magical point where the gravy suddenly tastes beautifully rich.

Notice how velvety smooth the gravy is.

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

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

My friend, Renée, whose family likes to fry their turkey every year, reminds me there are no drippings for gravy-making when deep frying a turkey, so plan accordingly.

Epilogue
Thanks to Karen Rolen for teaching me how to make gravy. I’ll think of her every Thanksgiving when I make it. Once I got Karen’s recipe adapted for this post, I took a sample of the gravy to my friends. They each tasted it and agreed it was indeed sippable! Thanks, Mary, Susie, Corabel, Jane, and Mary for being taste-testers.

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© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.