Stuffing — or dressing — can be a touchy subject among holiday cooks. It’s an essential accompaniment to the Thanksgiving turkey, but few can agree on how it should be made. Each region and ethnic group serves its own version; ingredients depend on what’s local. Most families have a recipe they call their own, following long-held traditions inherited from past generations. The ability to preserve family history and the memory of a loved one makes good food taste even better.
Although it’s not a good time to mess with tradition, within the parameters of the basic formula — starch, broth and seasonings — creative cooks can embellish stuffing or dressing by adding their own special touches. Sautéed vegetables, sausage, oysters, shrimp, dried fruits, nuts, herbs (the favorite is sage) and spices are all options. After all, making this dish is an art, not an exact science. Stuffing or dressing is the perfect partner for a mild-flavored turkey, bringing personality to the Thanksgiving table.
If you are in an Italian mood, try the recipe in this article for Rice, Fennel and Prosciutto Stuffing. Add a Spanish touch with chorizo, olives, garlic and roasted red peppers. For a Tex-Mex version, crumble tamales and green chilies into a cornbread base. Vary the ingredients to suit your preferences and those of your family.
Forcemeat and Farce — A Bite of History
The word “stuffing” appears in De Re Coquinaria, the earliest extant recipe collection, compiled in 4th century Rome. Included are recipes for stuffed, roasted hare, sardines and dormouse — rodent packed with pine nuts, pork and fermented fish sauce (liquamen).
In the Middle Ages, stuffing was called farce, an Old French culinary word derived from Latin farcire (“to stuff”). Forcemeat became the anglicized version of farce. Straight forcemeat stuffing or filling is a highly seasoned, ground meat, poultry or seafood mixture (think pâté). Another type calls for partially cooked meats bound with a starch like breadcrumbs. English novelist Jane Austin (1775-1817) stuffed turkey with forcemeat made of 500 grams of pork mince and 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs.
The first “homegrown” American cookbook — American Cookery — was published in Connecticut in 1796 by Amelia Simmons. With a slant toward New England’s indigenous foods, she presented recipes for turkey, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. Her turkey “stuffing” calls for wheat bread, beef suet, eggs, sweet thyme, sweet marjoram, salt, pepper and a gill of wine. She advises readers to sew up the stuffed bird, hang it over a steady fire and baste with butter until done. Another stuffing recipe calls for mashed potatoes, butter, seasoning and sweet herbs.
Food historians say the word “dressing” was popularized in England around 1880 when the word “stuffing” became too suggestive for delicate Victorian sensibilities.
Some Sage Advice
For some, the perfect stuffing/dressing is fluffy and textured, made with toasted bread cubes just moist enough to stick together. Toasted or dried bread cubes absorb liquid best without becoming soggy. Others prefer a homogenous stuffing similar to a savory bread pudding and made with soft, untoasted bread soaked in extra eggs and broth. The proper texture for stuffing or dressing is a matter of personal choice since both taste delicious.
The best-tasting dressing and stuffing includes some turkey drippings and broth or stock. Turkey Broth with Giblets (on page 51) is essential to have on hand; save some for the gravy! It’s wise to supplement your supply with homemade turkey stock (using wings and necks), or homemade chicken broth (using meaty chicken parts) or low-sodium canned broth.
Many Southern cooks prefer cubed or crumbled, unsweetened cornbread for dressing and stuffing. Black Skillet Cornbread offers the right flavor and texture. It’s best made with stone ground cornmeal which offers more fresh corn flavor. Avoid package mixes, which are usually too sweet — buy quality stone ground cornmeal at local farmers’ markets, including the downtown Soda City Farmers’ Market. If you’re not a bread baker, quality bread from a market works fine; try white, wheat, oatmeal, pumpernickel or rye. Trim the crusts if you prefer. Extra crusty breads with open-hole textures don’t absorb liquid quite as well.
Innovative cooks depend on a variety of starchy ingredients, e.g., biscuits, soda crackers, cornflakes, rice, couscous, mashed potato, oatmeal … even Frito corn chips and Krystal hamburgers, strangely enough. Multiple starchy ingredients can be combined, but bread, rice and potatoes make the best base.
Susan’s Cornbread and Sausage Dressing
A casserole of cornbread dressing is an absolute must on many Southern Thanksgiving tables, including mine! You never get enough if it’s just stuffed into the turkey. It’s the perfect side dish for a roast chicken, too. This excellent holiday recipe offers texture as well as great flavor. Be sure to serve plenty of gravy on the side.
1/2 recipe Black Skillet Cornbread, cut into 1-inch cubes, about 4 cups (recipe included)
4 wide slices country-style or farmhouse-style white bread, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
1/2 pound bulk sausage with sage
2 to 3 tablespoons butter
1 medium to large onion, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, diced
1 medium red bell pepper, diced
2 medium tart apples, peeled, cored, small-diced
1/2 cup toasted pecan or walnut pieces
1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning
1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 extra large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups homemade turkey broth or chicken broth (more if desired)
Paprika, to taste
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly toast cornbread and sliced bread cubes 15 to 20 minutes, turning 1 or 2 times. Cool and put into a large mixing bowl. Cook sausage in a large, heavy skillet until crumbly; scoop out and add to bread. Heat butter with sausage drippings then sauté onion, celery and red bell pepper until tender. Cool slightly; stir into bread mixture. Mix in apple, pecans, herbs, seasoning, salt and pepper. Taste to adjust seasonings, if desired. Mix in eggs. Drizzle in broth, lightly stirring, to moisten. Dressing should be light with some texture. If preferred, additional broth can be added (up to 1 cup) for moister dressing. Spoon into a large buttered casserole dish. Sprinkle top lightly with paprika. Cover and bake 30 minutes; uncover and bake an additional 10 minutes until top is crispy. Serve warm with gravy. Serves six to eight.
Black Skillet Cornbread
Serve wedges of the warm cornbread with butter, but reserve half for making Susan’s Cornbread and Sausage Dressing. To double the dressing, use the entire pan of cornbread. I bake the bread in a well-seasoned, 75-year-old black cast iron skillet to create a beautiful, crunchy, golden brown crust. Cast iron skillets are now available pre-seasoned and ready for use. Optional ingredients for the cornbread include two or three twists of freshly ground black pepper or three slices crisp, chopped bacon.
1 1/4 cup white or yellow stone-ground cornmeal
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
5 tablespoons vegetable oil or bacon drippings, divided
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a large bowl, whisk together first six dry ingredients. In another bowl, whisk together eggs, buttermilk and 3 tablespoons of the vegetable oil. Pour buttermilk mixture into dry ingredients; blend just until combined. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons oil in an 8 1/2- to 9-inch cast iron skillet on medium-high heat. (Or heat oil in a sturdy 9-inch square baking pan in the oven.) When the oil is hot, pour in cornbread batter then bake about 25 minutes or until golden brown and the edges shrink slightly. Cut in wedges and serve warm or cool for use in cornbread dressing or stuffing.
Wild Rice and Pecan Stuffing
Nutty-tasting wild rice is an indigenous American food with a slightly chewy texture. It is actually an aquatic cereal grain that is hand-harvested by Native Americans. This rice mixture can be stuffed into a turkey or four Cornish hens. Additional ingredients might include sautéed mushrooms, cooked crumbled bacon or cooked sausage. The recipe can be doubled.
1 cup uncooked wild rice, well-rinsed in a strainer
4 cups water (half can be chicken broth)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons butter
1 celery rib, diced
1 medium red onion, finely chopped
1 cup chopped fresh, stemmed shiitake or cremini mushrooms
1/4 cup Malmsey Madeira
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves, crumbled
Zest of 1 medium orange, finely grated
1/2 cup toasted pecan or walnut halves, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup dried sour cherries, coarsely chopped
1/3 cup minced parsley
About 1 cup hot turkey, chicken or vegetable broth
In a medium saucepan, bring water to a boil. Add rinsed wild rice, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low; cover and simmer 40 minutes or until tender and the grains begin to split. Remove lid, fluff with a fork. Simmer to evaporate excess liquid. Set aside. In a large skillet, melt butter then sauté celery, onion and mushrooms until tender. Add the Madeira; simmer and stir until excess liquid evaporates. Scrape mixture into a large bowl. Stir in cooked wild rice, thyme, pecans, cherries and parsley. Mixture should be slightly moist; drizzle with hot broth, as needed. Taste to adjust seasonings. If served as stuffing, spoon mixture at once into the body cavity of an 8 to 10 pound turkey for immediate roasting. Or spoon into a large buttered casserole dish; cover and cook in a 350-degree oven for 30 minutes. Uncover and cook an additional 5 minutes. Serves six to eight.
Rice, Fennel and Prosciutto Stuffing
This stuffing has a slight Italian accent, but in any language it’s a delicious stuffing or side dish for game birds and the Thanksgiving turkey. I like to vary the recipe, substituting ingredients like dried apricots, pine nuts, pecans or country ham for those used below. Fennel, or “sweet anise” has a mild licorice taste (the addictive flavor in Italian sausage) that compliments oysters. (Oysters and Pernod — anise-flavored liqueur — are flavor partners in Oysters Rockefeller.) Oysters and fresh tarragon would be a good flavor-match in this rice stuffing. For more information, read Oyster Dressing — Taste of the South on page 51.
1 (6-ounce) box Uncle Ben’s Long Grain and Wild Rice Blend, cooked with 1 3/4 cups chicken broth or water (without seasoning packet)
1 teaspoon sea salt
4 cups (1/2-inch) bread cubes (from Black Skillet Cornbread using yellow cornmeal, or a round Italian loaf, or polenta bread), toasted
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup onion, finely chopped
1/2 red, orange or yellow bell pepper, finely diced
1 cup fresh fennel bulb, finely chopped
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
4 to 6 ounces thin-sliced prosciutto, finely chopped
1/2 carrot, thin-sliced, cut in julienne strips
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves, crushed
2 teaspoons dried oregano leaves, crushed
2 teaspoons dried rosemary, crushed
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup toasted hazelnuts, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup dried cranberries
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 to 1 1/4 cups warm turkey or chicken broth (more if needed)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook rice following package directions except omit seasoning packet and add 1 teaspoon salt. Put into a large bowl. Add bread cubes to rice. In a large skillet, heat olive oil and butter over medium heat. Cook onion, bell pepper, fennel and fennel seeds 5 to 7 minutes or until soft, stirring often. Add to rice. Mix in prosciutto, carrot, herbs, hazelnuts, cranberries, salt and pepper. Taste to adjust seasonings, if desired. Blend in eggs and then the broth to moisten the mixture. Butter a 9 by 12 or 13-inch casserole then spoon in rice mixture. Sprinkle with paprika. Cover and cook 35 minutes. Uncover and cook an additional 5 minutes. Serves six.
The unique flavor, texture and richness of chestnuts will turn this stuffing recipe into a memorable holiday dish. If you don’t feel up to the challenge of preparing fresh chestnuts (it’s worth the trouble), purchase 12 to 14 ounces of peeled, cooked chestnuts in jars or vacuum-sealed packs. The poultry seasoning in this recipe is an aromatic blend of thyme, sage, marjoram, rosemary, black pepper and nutmeg.
1 pound fresh chestnuts (about 2 cups nutmeats)
12 wide slices country-style or farmhouse-style bread, or 1 pound challah, cut in 1-inch cubes, toasted
1/2 pound bulk sweet or spicy Italian sausage
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 celery ribs, diced
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, finely diced
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning
1/3 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 large eggs
About 1 1/2 cups warm turkey broth or chicken broth
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Using a small, sharp knife, score each chestnut on the flat side with an “X” mark, cutting through the chestnut shell and inner brown skin. Put chestnuts on a large, heavy rimmed baking sheet. Roast 15 to 20 minutes, turning once. Shake the pan occasionally. The shells will begin to peel back. Chestnuts are easier to peel hot; if desired, roast in two batches. Use a small paring knife to remove the chestnut shells and inner brown skins. (If using jarred chestnuts, simmer in water 2 minutes to refresh and soften; drain well.) Put chestnuts in a large bowl. Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Add bread cubes to chestnuts. In a large skillet over medium heat, cook sausage, breaking up big pieces. Add to chestnuts. Wipe pan and melt butter. Cook celery and onion until soft, 6 to 8 minutes. Add apples, poultry seasoning and parsley; cook 2 minutes more. Add to the chestnut mixture; season to taste. Mix in eggs and broth to moisten. Bread cubes should retain their shape. Stuff turkey with the mixture or bake in a large, buttered casserole dish. Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Uncover and cook an additional 10 minutes. Serves six.
Turkey Broth with Giblets
Turkey broth and giblets add rich favor and texture to dressings, stuffings and giblet gravies. Giblets — vital poultry organs — are usually stored inside the bird’s cavity in a small package, waiting to be cooked. Many new brides have admitted to serving their first holiday turkey with the little bundle still intact!
Giblets include the gizzard, heart, liver and very rarely, the kidneys. The turkey neck is usually included too. Simmer the giblets and the neck in 5 to 6 cups water with 1 coarsely chopped onion, 1 chopped celery rib, a few peppercorns, a bay leaf and parsley and thyme sprigs. (You can sauté in a little butter first for even more flavor.) Simmer the liver separately since it can make the broth taste bitter. When the giblets are tender, remove from the broth, cool, and chop finely with a sharp knife. Remove as much of the cooked meat from the neck as possible, then discard bones. Strain the broth for use. Giblets are high in protein and nutrients but also cholesterol. As an occasional part of the diet, they are welcome and tasty treat.
Oyster Dressing — Taste of the South
Oyster dressing is a culinary star in the South, especially along the coastal waters. The weather is getting cooler and it’s the perfect time to add seasonal oysters to the menu. To make oyster dressing, choose a recipe like Chestnut-Apple Dressing or Rice, Fennel and Prosciutto Stuffing or another favorite.
Some cooks like to stir 3 to 4 cups freshly shucked (or jarred) oysters into the stuffing/dressing mixture before it is cooked. Some of the oyster liquor (natural juices) is added for even more flavor.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends cooking the oysters first. This seems especially important with stuffed turkey since the inside cavity doesn’t always get hot enough to properly cook stuffings and turkey juices.
Food Styling by Susan Fuller Slack, CCP