Friday, November 19, 2010

Tried and True - Stuffing

Homemade stuffing is a lot of work but worth it.  There are zillions of stuffing recipes out there using all manner of ingredients - sausage, oysters, various kinds of bread or crumbs or rice or other grains.  I read one the other day using figs.  The combination sounded excellent to me but if I tried to make that for my family on Thanksgiving there would be hell to pay.

I don't know about your family, but in mine we like to stick to the familiar when it comes to Thanksgiving.  There is a time for risk taking and a time for caution.  Thanksgiving, culinarily speaking, is a time for caution.  (There are exceptions to this rule.  Like when you are expecting both a vegan and a gluten avoider at your table.  Which is why I have some curried pumpkin and chickpea soup in my refrigerator.  And why tomorrow I am going to make a second stuffing with wild rice and pecans and no butter.)

If you are a Thanksgiving risk taker looking for new stuffing possibilities - you could try Marilyn Monroe's stuffing recipe.  It is pretty involved. but if you have the time and like the idea of including Marilyn in your celebration, then give it a try.

This article recipe has engendered quite a vigorous online discussion.  I liked the comments of one writer for the Boston Globe, who agrees with me that Thanksgiving is not a time for menu experimentation.

So today we are going to learn about basic bread stuffing with celery and onions and a few herbs.  This is not my grandmother's stuffing but it is pretty close.   I have already consulted with three of my special kitchen friends - Marion Cunningham (Fannie Farmer cookbook), Marion Rombauer (The Joy of Cooking) and Beatrice Ojakangas (more cookbooks than I can name.)  None of their recipes were quite on target - so this one is my version.  You of course can vary it to please yourself and your family.

Stuffing principles
While there are many stuffing recipes and ingredients - there are key elements that must be present for a dish to be a "stuffing":
1.  The carbs -- usually this is some kind of bread but it can also be rice or other grains like barley.
2.  The  aromatics -- Most stuffing includes onion and celery or the equivalent.  You could use shallots or leeks or celeriac or even fennel.  The idea is to include a few highly flavored vegetables as a flavor and texture accent.
3.  The fat -- Oh yes.  You need some fat.  Butter, oil, chicken or duck or goose fat -- something to add flavor and moisture and richness.  You don't need huge amounts - but you do need some.
4.  The herbs and spices -- The most common stuffing herbs are sage, parsley and thyme.  Spices are basic salt and pepper.  You can vary these - but put some thought into this before you start opening jars.  Less is more.  I could imagine a rice based stuffing with mint, dill and parsley, for example.  Or a corn bread stuffing with cumin and chili powder and cilantro.
5.  The liquid -- I don't like stuffing too wet or too dry.  I like it "just right".  You will need some kind of poultry or vegetable stock or white wine or water or a combination thereof.

Stuffing policy decisions
In or out?
So if a dish is called "stuffing" you would think that means it is prepared inside of something else, right?  How could something be a stuffing if it is not stuffed?
Well, this is just one of those things that does not make any sense.  You can bake stuffing outside of a bird.  I do it all the time.  It saves time (bird cooks faster, less hassle to get stuffing in and out) and you don't have to worry about getting little pieces of bread out from between a turkey rib cage.  You still want some of the poultry juices in the stuffing, for flavor.  I just use a baster to draw up some of the cooking juices and squirt them into the stuffing casserole dish during its final baking.
On the other hand, the flavor of a stuffing cooked in a bird is the best and if you have the time, definitely try it this way.

Homemade bread v. store cubes?
If you want first class stuffing, either make the bread yourself or purchase the best homemade type bread you can find.  Day old is best.  It is pretty easy to stack up bread slices and cut them into little cubes.  (Let the bread sit out for a few hours or bake slices in the oven at a low temp for a short while so it dries out a bit.)

If you must purchase pre-made cubes, please get them plain and not pre-seasoned.  It is easy to add your own herbs and spices and then you avoid that strange fake flavor that storebought industrial croutons all seem to have.

Smooth or chunky?
I love texture in stuffing and if it was up to me I would chop the celery and onion coarsely and add dried fruit and nuts besides.  However, I am cooking for 18 people next Thursday and I know several of them WILL NOT EAT stuffing if they can discern even the slightest nugget of celery.  So I chop onions and celery in the food processor to the point of mushiness.  The flavor is still there and everyone is happy.

Fruit and nuts
The recipe in this post does include some chopped fresh apple.  I like the flavor, moisture and nutrition it adds to stuffing.  Apples are a safe choice if you want to go at least one step beyond basic bread stuffing.  Otherwise, it is up to you.  Raisins, pecans, walnuts, pears - all can be very good in a stuffing.

Other stuff in the stuffing
Oysters, sausage and mushrooms often show up in stuffing recipes.  So do olives, capers and a host of other items.  My advice - use caution.  Now is not the time to use the kitchen sink approach to cooking.  On the other hand, there is Marilyn Monroe's recipe to consider.  Sometimes more is more.

Grandma Peggy's stuffing for a Thanksgiving turkey (about 15 servings)
2 cups chopped celery AND 2 cups chopped onion (If you want to finely chop in a food processor you will end up with about 1 1/2 cups of each)
1/2 cup (1 stick butter) or a bit more (I added a few tablespoons of chicken fat I had from making stock)
18 cups of bread, cut into 1/2 cubes or torn into small pieces (note - three slices of bread equals about 2 heaping cups cubes)
1/4 cup dried sage (you might want a bit less.  I like sage.  If you use fresh sage you can use more because the flavor is not as concentrated. )
2 t. dried thyme (more if using fresh)
1 t. dried rosemary (optional)
2 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper
1 cup loosely packed parsley - chopped
2 cups chopped apples (no need to peel)
1-2 cups chicken broth or other flavorful stock.  You can add a little white wine if you want.)
Use good bread.  It helps to have a good bread knife.  I use crusts - why not?

Three slices of bread equals about 2 heaping cups of cubes

You will need a great big bowl if you are working with 18 cups of bread cubes.  Once you add the broth, the amount will shrink down.  You have lots of nice fresh sage in your CSA box - this is a great way to use some of it.

Saute celery and onion in butter on medium heat about 7 minutes - until it is softened.  While that cooks, prepare the bread cubes.  I stack about 4 slices and slice strips and then cut those into cubes.  It goes pretty fast. 
Stir together all ingredients except the broth in a large bowl.  Then add broth in desired amount.  At this point you can refrigerate the stuffing for up to a few days until you are ready to bake it.  Bake at 325 degrees, covered, for about 30 minutes.  If you have pan juices, add them during baking.  Uncover and bake 10-15 minutes more. 
If desired, you can also put this stuffing into the bird.  Don't pack in too tight - leave some room for expansion.  Always take all the stuffing out of the bird before you refrigerate the leftover carcass.

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