Southern cornbread chicken and dressing with gravy

There is a difference between comfort food and comfort cooking, though sometimes the two marry to result in a quiet afternoon in the kitchen, followed by a glorious meal well worth the effort. 

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    This recipe is involved, so split the work up over more than one day. The results will be well worth it.
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My life sometimes requires comfort cooking. Not comfort food, but comfort cooking, though the two are not mutually exclusive. Comfort food for me is old classics that bring back happy memories, sometimes bittersweet, or that make a down day worthwhile. Often, that means food prepared by someone other than me.

Comfort cooking is me, in the kitchen, alone. Usually silent but for the gentle whirr of the refrigerator, sometimes music in the background. My favorite kitchen tools around me. Absolute surety in what I am doing. No complicated techniques, no ingredients I am hoping to understand better. No attempt to deconstruct or decipher a dish created by someone more skilled than me. No worries about how others will perceive the end result. No concerns that it might not turn out how I’d hoped. Sometimes it’s a dish I want to share with my nearest and dearest, but I may not, just savor it comfortably, happily in splendid seclusion.

Chicken and dressing is comfort cooking for me. In fact, I rather suspect that when this is seen by others, my friends and family may call to chide that I have never made chicken and dressing for them. It’s not a dish from my childhood, in fact I may have first had a pallid version in a school cafeteria and later only in meat-and-three joints. But it has all the elements of comfort cooking and comfort food for me. Simple tasks – making stock, dicing vegetables, baking cornbread, mincing herbs. A lot of steps, but none difficult or distracting.

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I can stand at my post at the kitchen counter, my favorite spot in my beloved home, and work the knife or stir the stock, the fragrance of real cooking around me, and think. Just think and feel and be. I don’t watch the clock or worry about what’s next. Because what’s next is something simple and wonderful. Every step, every element made by me. I don’t even care that the sinks are full of dishes, or there is cornmeal dusted on the floor. Problems for another day.

The recipe may seem lengthy, but it can be done in gentle stages. Your home will fill with the wonderful aroma of the stock simmering, the cornbread baking, the vegetables softening and the whole cooking together. That alone is worth the effort.

Southern cornbread chicken and dressing with gravy
Serves 6 

The stock and chicken

3-4 pound chicken, giblets removed

2 carrots

2 celery stalks

1 small onion

2 cloves garlic

1 leek

2 bay leaves

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1. Place the chicken and all the stock ingredients in a 7 quart or larger pot and add 12 cups of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, skim off any scum that rises. Reduce the heat to medium low and cover. Simmer for 4 hours.

2. Taste the stock, it should be nice and rich. Simmer a bit longer if needed. Remove the chicken to a plate, then strain the broth through a colander lined with cheesecloth or a thin tea towel into a large bowl. Discard the vegetables. Pull the meat from the chicken and discard the skin, bones and any unpleasant bits. Refrigerate the meat and the stock for several hours (I frequently do this the day before). Skim the fat from the top of the stock. Reserve the chicken and the stock to complete the dish.

The cornbread

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1 cup all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk

1/4 cup vegetable oil

1 egg

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place a 9-inch cast iron skillet in the oven to heat.

2. Stir the cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl until completely combined. Add the milk, egg, and oil and stir just until the batter comes together and there are no visible dry ingredients. Remove the skillet from the oven using an oven mitt and carefully spread the batter in the hot pan. Return the skillet to the oven and bake for 20 minutes until the cornbread is golden and dry. Cool completely in the skillet.

The dressing

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter

2 carrots, finely diced

2 celery stalks, finely diced

1 small yellow onion, finely diced

2 cloves garlic minced

3 sprigs sage, finely minced

2 stalks rosemary, finely minced

3 sprigs thyme, finely minced

1/4 cup parsley, finely minced

The reserved chicken meat

1 cup milk

2 eggs

3–4 cups reserved chicken broth

Salt and black pepper

1. Break the cornbread into large chunks in a large bowl.

2. Melt the butter over medium-high heat in a skillet. Add the diced carrot, celery, and onion and cook until the vegetables are beginning to soften and the onion is translucent, but not browning. Add the garlic and cook for a further minute. Add 1/2 cup of the reserved chicken broth and cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are soft. Stir in the minced herbs and cook about a minute until fragrant. Scrape the vegetables into the bowl with the cornbread. Stir to combine and begin breaking the cornbread into smaller pieces.

3. Chop the chicken meat into small bite-sized pieces. The tender meat will fall apart, but I think it is best when there are discernible pieces of chicken in the dressing rather than shreds. Stir the chicken into the cornbread and vegetables to distribute evenly.

4. Measure the milk in a 2-cup jug, then add the eggs and beat well. Stir into the dressing, then add 1 cup of chicken broth and stir until the dressing is evenly moist. Spread the dressing into a deep 8-inch square baking dish. Do not press it down, just spread it in a nice, even layer. (At this point, you can cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight.)

5. When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Pour 1-1/2 cups of stock over the dressing. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and bake a further 20 minutes until browned on the top. If the dressing looks dry when you remove the foil, drizzle over a bit more stock.

The gravy

1/4 cup bacon grease

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup flour

2 cups chicken stock

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Melt the bacon grease and butter together in a medium saucepan. Stir in the flour until it is smooth and combined. 

2. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, for 3–5 minutes until the foaming subsides and you have a light toffee brown roux, like a fraternity boy’s khaki pants or a roasted peanut shell.

3. Reduce the heat to medium low and slowly stir in the stock. Cook until the gravy is smooth. If you like a thinner gravy, add more stock to reach your preferred consistency. Season to taste with salt and black pepper (I like a lot of pepper).

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