The stuff of tradition for a Thanksgiving meal

Whether it has corn bread or sourdough, oysters or sausage, stuffing is the highlight of many a Thanksgiving meal.

November 14, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN REPORTER

Today we continue our three-week series to get you ready for a no-fuss Thanksgiving feast. In the 1970 black comedy Diary of a Mad Housewife, Tina Balser's obnoxious young daughters rebel at the Thanksgiving dinner table because she has altered the stuffing recipe.

"This stuffing tastes different. Why didn't you make the old kind of stuffing we love?" Silvie whines.

While talk of politics, religion or old family feuds can spoil Thanksgiving dinner, nothing will ruin it faster than changing the stuffing recipe. There would be less of a squawk if mashed turnips were substituted for mashed potatoes.

"Thanksgiving is an iconic meal," said Crescent Dragonwagon, author of The Cornbread Gospels. She is a convert to corn-bread dressing, as it is called in the South.

"You can push the envelope beyond what you grew up with on some things. But do it with the stuffing and you will meet with rebellion."

Then how should stuffing (or dressing, depending on your ZIP code) be made?

Stuffing has essential ingredients -- a starch, aromatics, spices and a liquid to moisten it.

Decide to embellish your stuffing with nuts, fruit, meat or seafood, though, and suddenly there is a matrix of flavor and texture combinations from which to choose. With that in mind, we offer thoughts from the experts on how to build superb stuffing, from the bread up.

The starch

If the Pilgrims did stuff the birds, food historians say, it was probably with oysters, which were in abundance. But stuffing changed during the Revolutionary War, when scarcity of ingredients and patriotism combined to eliminate the elaborate meat stuffing recipes the colonists brought with them from England, according to food historians.

They were replaced with simple bread stuffings, enhanced by regional ingredients. As our ancestors learned, stuffing does not need to be complicated to be good. But, as Jack Bishop, editorial director of Cook's Illustrated magazine, warned: "Your stuffing is only as good as the bread."

Our mothers might have opened a loaf of store-bought white bread to dry overnight on the kitchen counter as the first step in making stuffing. We have so many more bread choices, and some of them reflect our geographic heritage.

Cookbook author Lou Pappas, who lives in Palo Alto, Calif., said the region's wonderful sourdough bread is the obvious choice, and it delivers just the hint of a tang to stuffing. She was tempted to make a wild-rice stuffing this holiday, but she has decided not to rock her family's world.

"So I will go with the classic sourdough bread, onion, celery plus my wonderful oven-dried apricots and Granny Smith apples," said Pappas, who will add hazelnuts, too.

Author Dragonwagon is all about corn-bread stuffing.

"Once you've tried corn-bread stuffing, honey, you aren't going back," she said. Make your own corn bread, she said, because store-bought mixes are too sweet.

Bishop likes challah or potato bread because they really soak up the butter, eggs and broth. Chef Tony Talucci, director of instruction at Baltimore International College culinary school, likes to use croissants or brioche as his stuffing base because they have a higher butter content.

Grace Parisi, senior test kitchen associate at Food and Wine magazine, likes to pair rye bread or pumpernickel with kielbasa.

The seasonings

About one thing there seems to be no disagreement: Stuffing must be seasoned with sage. The aroma of roasting sage is the quintessential smell of Thanksgiving.

More than 2 million ounces of sage are sold during November and December, according to Laurie Harrsen of McCormick Spices. That's 60 percent of a year's total.

But salt, pepper and fresh parsley have their place in plenty of stuffing recipes, as do thyme, bay leaf or marjoram. So-called poultry seasoning is actually a combination of many of the favorite stuffing spices.

The spices may be where cooks trying to replicate Grandma's stuffing falter. Because so many think of making stuffing only this one day a year, it is difficult to tweak the recipe until you have it right.

If you're using fresh herbs, the rule of thumb is to use twice as much as dried. BIC's Talucci advises adding the celery leaves that so many cooks discard. "They add sweetness."

The moisture

Stuffing requires moisture to hold it together and here, too, the choices are many. Should you use store-bought stock or homemade? Milk and eggs? Applesauce? The liquid from reconstituted mushrooms? Or, as Talucci suggested, chicken stock and port wine?

Stuff the turkey and the bird's juices will moisten the stuffing, so it is important that it be loose and not too damp.

If baking the stuffing separately, moisten it with chicken or vegetable stock -- choose a low-fat, low-sodium brand -- and then let it sit for 15 minutes to see if the desired moistness has been reached. Consider adding some juices from the turkey after removing both from the oven.

Some like their stuffing crispy. Others like it soft and cakelike. Milk and beaten eggs will achieve that consistency.

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