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Wild Rice Dressing With Leeks, Mushrooms, and Candied Pecans

I am a devout lover of bread. In France, when I lived on the same block as a nice little boulangerie, I would often wake up in the early morning hours to the smell of bread baking. No matter how early I woke, it seemed the bakers had been up earlier, and the doors of that bright little bakery opened at 7 a.m.. As I recall, they made two rounds of baguettes--once early in the morning and again in the afternoon. The French know that the only thing more important than a well-made baguette is a fresh well-made baguette.

And now I find myself living on the same block as another outstanding bakery. This is perhaps coincidence and perhaps not. In any case, the whole block smells like singed toast early in the morning--a smell that I have come to associate with good things to eat.

To be honest, I mostly bake my own bread these days. They are large, golden loaves with a deeply crackly crust which I achieve with the help of a Dutch oven and high baking temperatures. Of course, this doesn't prevent me from frequenting the bakery downstairs all the same. But my point is that I adore bread. It is one of the finest examples of architecture in baking that I can think of--a golden crust and delicate crumb supported by a honeycomb of holes made by yeast and steam. I would sooner give up a lot of things than give up bread.

But do you ever feel that bread is horribly misused and overdone? That it gets used as filler and not as a dish in and of itself, which it is? That we take bread for granted because it's just bread? This is generally how I feel about most bread stuffings at Thanksgiving. On a day when so much good food is heaped upon the groaning board, it seems a shame to fill valuable stomach real estate with dry baked bread (usually of dubious origins to begin with) that has some celery and onion in it. Especially if there are good yeast rolls on the table, and let's hope there are.

All this is why, in spite of my passionate love for bread, I developed this simple but elegant recipe for wild rice dressing. We never bake dressing inside the bird, for numerous reasons (you can never fit enough inside the bird to feed everyone, so you inevitably have to bake more in a separate dish; it's a potential food safety issue; getting the turkey breast and thigh done at the same time without overcooking either is hard enough--why add stuffing to the equation?), and we like a stuffing that's more of a team-player anyway.

You can call this whatever you like. Some will doubtless take issue with my calling it a "dressing," so call it a grain salad or a pilaf or whatever makes you comfortable. No matter what you call it, though, it's simply delicious. Further, this is stovetop friendly, meaning you don't have to monopolize your oven with dressing when you need it for other things. You can also make some components of it days in advance, which is always good news at Thanksgiving.

I wish I could lay claim to the candied pecan idea, but my recipe for them comes from my (other) workplace. They're unbelievably delicious, and you can scale the recipe up and use pecan halves to make a nice snack to go with cocktails. Add more or less cayenne depending on your tolerance for heat.

Other articles you might enjoy: Chorizo Dressing, Cornbread Dressing With Oysters, Panzanella

Wild Rice Dressing With Leeks, Mushrooms, and Candied Pecans
Serves 8 to 10 or more, if other side dishes are plentiful

Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Toast until fragrant and golden, about 10 to 15 minutes:
           6 ounces pecans, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
Meanwhile, simmer, partially covered, in 3 to 4 cups water (start with the smaller amount of water and add more as necessary) until tender but firm, about 15 to 20 minutes:
           1 pound wild or black rice
When the pecans are toasted, remove from the oven. Melt in a medium saucepan over medium heat:
           2 tablespoons butter
            3 tablespoons brown sugar
            1/2 teaspoon salt
            1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
Add the toasted pecans and stir to coat them in the sugar mixture. Add:
           2 tablespoons white sugar
            1 tablespoon heavy cream
Stir until the white sugar starts to melt and the nuts are coated. Pour the nuts onto a baking sheet lined with parchment or a silicone baking mat. Reduce the oven to 300˚F. Bake the nuts until dry and crisp, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Trim, halve lengthwise, and clean:
           3 medium leeks
Thinly slice the leeks. Melt in a large skillet over medium heat:
           4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
Add the leeks and cook, stirring occasionally, until translucent and tender.
Clean and chop:
           1 pound mushrooms of your choice (I used shiitakes and button mushrooms)
Add the mushrooms and cook until they release water and the water evaporates. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Combine the cooked rice with the leek mixture. Season to taste. Place the rice in a serving dish and sprinkle the pecans on top.

*Note: You can make the candied pecans up to a week in advance, and you can cook the rice up to three days in advance.

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