Sunday, November 26, 2006

Stuff It

At our family Thanksgiving, the general consensus was that it was the stuffing that really makes the meal every year. There was a lone dissenting voice in favor of the sweet potatoes as being the vehicle that carried the essence of the meal and evoked the Thanksgiving feeling. But the stuffing won out by popular vote.

The stuffing my aunt made was pretty close to perfect. I might complain that the onion and celery weren’t chopped finely enough, and that it didn’t have any sausage in it, but it had good flavor, at least. And if I had been making stuffing enough for 15 people, I might have cut some corners in chopping the vegetables too. It was a little mushy and wet, but that had more to do with what part of the stuffing I got—I like to get mine from the casserole that’s cooked with the bird, as opposed to that which is cooked in the bird. That bit of browned crispness on top of it, softened with the gravy, is an experience I look forward to all year. This year I didn’t get it, but since my husband likes to make a separate bird for us as a family, I’ll get it in a few days.

My husband likes Thanksgiving leftovers and misses them when we have the meal at someone else’s house. So on the years when we’re invited out for dinner, he likes to buy a turkey and all the other ingredients and make a second Thanksgiving meal on the Saturday or Sunday of that weekend for us to have all to ourselves. Then we get the bird, stuffing, side dishes, rolls, and dessert exactly as we want them. Oh yes, and we get the leftovers.

I have heard of people eating cold stuffing for breakfast the day after Thanksgiving, and I can’t say I agree with this tendency. I do like stuffing for breakfast the next morning, but reheat mine, please. Oh, and don’t forget the gravy.

When it comes to stuffing recipes, everyone has their own ideas and naturally, I think mine are the right ones. Stuffing made with fresh bread generally disappoints me. Even day old bread doesn’t do it. It has to be dry as dust with every possible hydrogen-and-two-oxygen-molecule wrung from it, preferably by commercial equipment. Fresh bread (or day old fresh bread) is too moist for stuffing. It comes out like a damp sponge with herb seasoning. Corn bread isn’t the right stuff either. Although it’s naturally somewhat dry and crumbly, it doesn’t take well to the seasonings I like in my stuffing, and is therefore right out. I confess that I am perfectly content with Pepperidge Farm bagged stuffing. Add some seasoning and dampen it with some chicken broth and melted butter and holiday satisfaction is just a short turn in a 350 degree oven away.

As to what seasonings are used, I have very strong opinions and won’t budge. No weird stuff, say I. And by weird I mean nuts, dried (or worse, fresh) fruit, wild rice and/or things like oysters. Would you make stuffing out of fruitcake or Uncle Ben’s? Would you put tuna fish in stuffing? Then why would you put dried fruit, nuts, rice or oysters in bread stuffing? I have a friend who maintains that what everyone really wants is mushy bread drowned in gravy. Well, pretty much, yes. But if that was really all I wanted, I could go out and buy a loaf of Wonder bread and a jar of Heinz gravy and have “stuffing.” I want mushy bread with lots of seasoning and some sausage that has some crispy bits drowned in homemade gravy. That’s what I want.

If using the aforementioned Pepperidge Farm bagged stuffing (the blue bag, please), you actually don’t need to add herbs. There are herbs already in the mix and they’re perfect. However, if you want to make the stuffing from scratch (and have dried out your bread sufficiently), then this is one place that dried herbs are superior to fresh. Because the goal is to have the stuffing be as dry as possible before moistening it with the butter and broth, fresh herbs just don’t work texturally, and their flavor is too tentative unless you use whole cups of fresh sage, in which case you’re changing the texture of the stuffing and making it as much herb as bread. You really need the dusty, powerful dried ones (I’ll skip the rant on throwing out spices that are so old they’re turning yellow…we’ve all read it before). Since I always buy the Pepperidge Farm blue bag stuffing, I can’t really dictate what herbs go in there—thyme and sage for sure, but beyond that I can’t really say. I just stick with the bagged stuff and let the food snobs make the most of it.

Other than herbs, stuffing needs both onion and celery. These need to be chopped pretty finely. I’ve had many stuffings in which the onion and celery both were in pretty big chunks (such as that I had this year). Doing this means that the vegetables upstage the stuffing itself—not the idea of these ingredients. It’s hard when making for many people, but it’s really critical to the integrity of the stuffing that the pieces be smallish. I used to be convinced that my father thought that “diced” vegetables meant that the pieces were the size of actual dice.

Beyond butter or chicken broth (or a combination of the two) being used to moisten the stuffing until it just holds together, the other essential ingredient is a little cooked pork sausage. Not much—I used to use lots more, but sausage has an unpleasant effect on my husband, and I realized that it was pretty fatty stuff to be using too generously. But a little bit adds a wonderful savory flavor and a meaty component that works perfectly with the bready stuffing.

Once the ingredients are settled, preparation method is the other controversial topic. Some people insist that the stuffing has to be cooked in the bird. Others (mostly employees of the US Department of Agriculture, I’d imagine) cringe at the very idea, visions of Salmonella dancing in their heads. Although we’ve been being warned against stuffing turkeys for at least 10 years now, people are still doing it. It does add flavor to the stuffing in a way that a casserole in the oven never can, but it can also make the stuffing mushy and pasty. It’s not really possible to avoid it, but I think there needs to be some stuffing cooked in a casserole as well, so that there’s more crispy surface for those of us who want it. Otherwise the only crisp bits are those at the very back of the bird—hardly enough to go around.

We used to have a friend whose mother made something their family called stuffing balls. She’d take prepared stuffing and mold it into balls in her hands (not too firmly compressed—just enough to hold together) and then bake them in a 350 degree oven until hot and crisp. Thanksgiving was always at the mother’s house, and the stuffing balls were an annual tradition. Then came the year that our friend’s mom decided she was too tired to do the full family Thanksgiving at her house (this friend was the youngest of eight children, so his mother was both older and pretty tired by that time).

His sister-in-law offered to have the family to her house. This was nothing short of catastrophe to our friend and his wife—this sister-in-law was already pretty much a family pariah for a number of reasons (some food-related, some not), and had once served a pasta dish that included shrimp in whipped cream. Not shrimp in heavy cream sauce—shrimp in heavy cream that had been whipped (and, if memory serves, also sweetened). My friend and his wife (and all the other siblings and their respective spouses, with the possible exception of the hostess sister-in-law) begged the mother to make stuffing balls. I can’t recall if she did or not, but I remember thinking at the time that I understood perfectly their panic. Stuffing is what Thanksgiving is all about.

Turkey, after all, is pretty much turkey. Oh sure, you can baste it with various things—lemon juice, orange juice, chicken broth—or you can jam herbs under the skin or any of a number of other things, but basically it’s just turkey when you slice it up and serve it. And of course, most people have some version of sweet potatoes along with the meal, but so many people don’t like sweet potatoes that they become less controversial. Those who don’t eat them don’t care what recipe you use. Mini marshmallows? Brown sugar? Apple pie spice? If they’re not going to eat them in the first place, it’s all the same to them what you put in there.

Just about everyone likes stuffing, and just about everyone thinks their stuffing (or their mother’s stuffing, or the stuffing they’ve been eating every year since they were four) is the very best one. And for many people (me included) a Thanksgiving dinner without the “right” stuffing is a just a turkey dinner.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My step mom makes stuffing balls. They are good in that everyone gets a serving with the crispy top bits and no one gets all mush, but I also find it gets a little dry. BRING ON THE GRAVY!