I ripped the sheets off my son’s bed and unearthed a swath of relics from our morning trail walk: a dusting of playground sand mixed with bits of a red crunchy leaf that had been trapped in his hair. Tiny flecks of dirt intermingle with the leaf bits, strewn among his menagerie of stuffed animals and trapped among the crevices and folds of his sheets.
On our walk we encountered autumn in its descending form. Sweet rotting leaves crunched capriciously under our feet, blanketing every inch of the dirt trail. The trees, mostly naked, were devoid of mid-fall’s fiery crimsons and ochres, honey blonds and cinnamons. The once-bold landscape transformed: leaves, fallen en masse from the branches, besiege the ground; horse chestnuts hung from the low branches like baubles, dropping dangerously from the trees. Pine trees emanated a deeply smoky fragrance and the minty pine’s perfume converged with the sugary scent of fallen rotting leaves. In nature’s demise, the atmosphere felt so vibrantly alive, so full of movement.
Home from our walk, sheets clean and changed, I considered the glowing warmness of the milky clouds, the comfort obtained from the beautifully melancholy landscape; a global feeling of everything and nothing. At home, the crispy air fought with the pumping heat, a warm wool sweater and a cup of tea, all cozy renderings of November, worked to thaw my bitter skin, and I sat down to begin testing Thanksgiving recipes.
Stuffing is essential for Thanksgiving, but I usually stray from the stuffing casserole status quo with a mushroom bread pudding or stuffing muffins. This year, it will be stuffing waffles, crispy portable renderings of my favorite holiday recipe.
Loads of sage, the fuzzy green herb that is a marriage of citrus aromas and astringent eucalyptus, are necessary in stuffing. It subtly recalls the scent of evergreens, boldly unveiling an odor that is unmistakably fall. I always rub sage against my fingers before I begin chopping, the silvery bloom soft and velvety, the smell musty and tenacious, the oils clinging to the cracks of my dry hands.
I spend a lot of time chopping: leeks and onions and garlic, apples and crisp, almost-ripe pears, celery and sage. It takes time and lots of elbow grease, but as the aromatics begin to sweat in the butter and oil, as I shower the vegetables with a sprinkling of salt and pepper, as the sage and onions intermingle and marry and give way to the most intoxicating autumn smells, my stomach churns and I start to salivate. It is an unavoidable fate.
Once the waffle batter is ready- the cooked vegetables, soft and tender, mixed with the fruit, local bread, a pair of farm-fresh eggs- I pour it gently into the sizzling waffle maker and cook until the stuffing forms a golden crust.
We can barely wait to sink our teeth into the waffles, but I have to slowly dislodge them from the waffle maker, one at time, so they don’t disintegrate. Though they are crisp and architectural, they are delicate.
Once the waffles are stacked, which is a pretty quick process, we top them with warm cider gravy and orange and rosemary flavored cranberry sauce. A warming pre-Thanksgiving lunch on a cold, blustery day.
4 tightly packed cups sourdough or country white bread, cut into 1/2 –inch cubes
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
1 small leek, finely diced
2/3 cup finely chopped celery
4 medium garlic cloves, finely chopped or smashed with a garlic press
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage
1/2 small firm-ripe pear, peeled, cored and finely chopped
1/2 small tart apple (such as McIntosh or Granny Smith), finely chopped
2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 cup vegetable, chicken or turkey broth
Sea salt for serving
1 small sprig fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake the bread cubes for about 10 minutes, until toasted. Transfer the cubes to a bowl.
2. In a large skillet over medium heat, add the butter and olive oil. Add onion, celery, salt and pepper and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and sage and cook, stirring, about 1 minute.
3. Before adding the diced pear, let rest on a paper towel to draw out some of the moisture. This makes for a crispier waffle.
4. Mix the onion mixture, apple, pear, eggs and broth into the croutons. Season with salt and pepper. Let stand for 5 minutes.
5. Preheat a waffle iron according to manufacturer’s instructions and prepare with non-stick cooking spray. Spread a quarter of the stuffing mixture across the surface of the waffle iron. Cook until crisp on both sides, about 3-4 minutes total. Repeat with remaining mixture.
6. Serve warm sprinkled with sea salt and chopped fresh rosemary and leftover Thanksgiving gravy and or cranberry sauce.
Yield: Makes 4 waffles.