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Of all the sides that show up on the Thanksgiving table, only one merits a mention with the main course.

Not turkey and green beans.

Not turkey and sweet potatoes.

Not turkey and Brussels sprouts.

No, the Thanksgiving two-fer is turkey and dressing. Which means that this particular side dish needs to be a standout.

With Thanksgiving mere days away, we won't wade into the debate over stuffing and dressing. Suffice to say, the terms are virtually interchangeable and the term you use largely depends on what part of the country you live in. Here in the South, we generally call it dressing, even if we're stuffing the turkey with it. (Though cooking it separately generally produces a better result.)

To get an idea of how to make good dressing, we checked in with some of the restaurants whose dressing we like: Choo Choo Bar-B-Que, Herman's Soul Food and Dayton Coffee Shop. Not one of the cooks could easily supply a recipe — cooking for crowds makes it hard to do the math for a family-size serving. But they were happy to offer tips.

some text Melina Hammer / The New York Times / A traditional Southern cornbread dressing.

They agree the best dressing depends on its main components.

Rodney Billups of Herman's Soul Food says the binding power of eggs produces dressing that's moist and cohesive. Kim Dotson at Dayton Coffee Shop says the rich broth that cooks off the poultry adds the savory flavor. Eric Beaird of Choo Choo Bar-B-Que says, "You have to start with good cornbread."

Good cornbread, of course, depends on good cast iron, so we turned to the folks at Lodge Manufacturing, who supplied their family-friendly recipes for cornbread and cornbread dressing. For best results, make your cornbread a day ahead to give it time to dry out before you stir up your dressing recipe for the family feast.

 

ADVICE FROM THE EXPERTS

The place

Choo Choo Bar-B-Que, 900 Appling St. off Amnicola Highway, Chattanooga.

The cook

Owner Eric Beaird.

The lowdown

The Amnicola location of Choo Choo Bar-B-Que may be known as much for its daily specials as its barbecue standards. Beaird says he runs chicken and dressing as a daily special once a month, serving some 60 plates in a day. Chicken and dressing is also popular on the chain's catering menu.

Best advice

* Start with good cornbread, and supplement with other bread, such as white bread or biscuits. Beaird says he uses a mixture of cornbread and biscuits, broken into small pieces.

* "The second thing I would recommend is instead of using broth out of a can, use the actual turkey broth you cooked the turkey in," he says. "That to me makes it better than just the normal canned stuff."

* "Always use fresh ingredients — the onions and celery, make sure they're good and fresh," he says.

* "Always, when you mix your dressing, leave it moist," he says. "Don't make it real thick. If you make it thick, it's dry."

* Cook at 350 degrees, covered for most of the cooking time. In the last 15 to 30 minutes, Beaird says to uncover the dressing so it gets brown and crispy on top.

 

The place

Dayton Coffee Shop, 280 Second Ave., Dayton, Tenn.

The cook

Owner Kim Dotson.

The lowdown

This small-town diner, within sight of the Rhea County Courthouse, is the quintessential gathering place for locals looking for a meat-and-three lunch and a bottomless glass of sweet tea. At least six meats and 15 vegetables are offered weekdays and Sunday afternoons. Chicken and dressing is a Thursday and Sunday staple.

Best advice

* First and foremost, they go by the KISS principle: "Keep it simple, stupid," says owner Kim Dotson. "We make it in a big ol' tub," using basic ingredients — cornbread, onions, celery, eggs, salt, black pepper and plenty of broth.

* If there's a secret to getting it right, it's in the broth. "The broth is what makes it taste so good," says Dotson. "We use the broth from where we boil the pulled chicken, then we put the broth in the dressing. That's a whole lot of the taste of it."

* The final mix is not just moist but sloshy wet. "As a matter of fact, they spill it sometimes going from the prep table to the oven," Dotson says. "It's real wet."

* It cooks at 350 degrees in a convection oven. They bring it out when the top is crispy and the middle is moist.

 

The place

Herman's Soul Food & Catering, 3821 Brainerd Road, Chattanooga.

The cook

Owner Rodney Billups.

The lowdown

This meat-and-three mainstay has cemented its reputation as the place to go for Southern favorites seven days a week. Chicken and dressing is reserved for Sunday. "We probably sell 100 gallons of it every week," he says. Billups, 64, says he was 13 when he first started cooking alongside his dad, Herman Billups. His mother opened the restaurant after his father died, 28 years ago

Best advice

* Billups advises making your cornbread in a muffin pan to get more crust and making it a day or two ahead to give it time to cool and dry out. His cornbread recipe includes buttermilk and eggs, but no sugar.

* Once you start mixing up the dressing ingredients, he says to crumble up the cornbread, but not too fine. "Once you mix it, it's going to get finer," he says. Rather than using a mixing spoon or beater, he and his cooks turn the ingredients by hand, with gloves, to make sure everything is completely incorporated.

* Everything, even the reserved broth from the turkey, should be at room temperature before you start mixing, he says.

* He uses chopped celery, chopped onions, rubbed sage, poultry seasoning — "more sage than poultry seasoning" — and chicken base, a highly concentrated chicken stock available in powder or cube form. "The key ingredient," he says, "is enough eggs to hold it together."

 

some text Getty Images / Cornbread baked in a cast-iron skillet.

RECIPES

Simple Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread

Serves 6

Prep time: 10 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

This easy three-ingredient cast-iron skillet cornbread is as simple as it gets and makes a great base for adding more adventurous flavors.

1 cup white, self-rising cornmeal

1 egg

Enough buttermilk to make batter very thin (about 1 cup)

Oil a small cast-iron skillet, and place it in the oven as oven heats to 450 degrees.

Mix all ingredients together to make the batter. Pour batter into hot skillet.

Bake for 20 minutes or until nicely browned.

— Recipe from Lodge Cast Iron

 

Cornbread Dressing

Serves 8-10

Prep time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 1 hour

This recipe is all about butter distribution — onions lightly caramelized in butter and buttered toast are studded throughout soft cornbread in a generously buttered baking dish and topped with, you guessed it, more butter.

This recipe uses day-old cornbread to help create the perfect texture. We suggest cutting your cornbread into 1-inch cubes and setting it out overnight with the white bread to dry out. This cornbread recipe is one of our favorites, but feel free to use your own.

You can also substitute the clam chowder for cream of celery or mushroom soup if you prefer, but there's something nice about the brininess of the clams with the sweetness of the cornbread - an homage to New Orleans style oyster dressing without the expense of the oysters.

4 slices white bread

8 tablespoons butter, divided

1 yellow onion, diced

2 ribs celery, diced

2 batches day-old cornbread, cut into 1-inch cubes

2 tablespoons finely chopped sage

1/2 sleeve Saltine crackers, lightly crumbled

3 cups chicken stock

1 15-ounce can condensed clam chowder

2 eggs

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Melt 2 tablespoons butter, and brush on both sides of white bread. Toast until golden brown and very firm, 5-10 minutes.

While bread is toasting, add onion and celery to a skillet with 2 tablespoons butter over medium-low heat. Cook until soft and slightly brown, about 10 minutes.

Cut white bread into -inch pieces. Combine white bread, cornbread, vegetables, sage and saltines in a large bowl.

Mix together chicken stock, clam chowder and eggs. Pour over bread mixture.

Grease baking dish using 2 tablespoons butter. Pour in dressing, pressing down gently with the back of a spatula or spoon. Dot the top of the dressing with the final 2 tablespoons of butter.

Bake 45 minutes to an hour, until golden brown.

— Recipe from Lodge Cast Iron

Contact Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6281.

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