Stuffing is a dish steeped in tradition

Cornbread stuffing (cornbread and cubed white bread, red bell peppers, scallions, onions, garlic, toasted pecans, sausage and seasonings) plus cranberry relish (made with oranges, apples and cranberries). BY JACK CLEMONS
November 21, 2011

With barely a week until Thanksgiving, many of us are planning our strategy for turkey day. If you’re lucky enough to be dining at the home of friends or family, you’ve probably been asked to bring a side dish, dessert or a bottle of wine – the easy tasks. If you’re the host, you’ll have several days of kitchen duty to prepare the main course and mandatory accompaniments.

According to magazine ads and supermarket displays, everyone should be serving sweet potatoes with marshmallows, green bean casserole topped with onion crisps and canned turkey gravy. For most people, their traditional menu is a repeat of the previous year and the year before, perhaps unchanged since childhood. Regardless of the array on the table, the one dish that seems most steeped in tradition is stuffing, or as some call it, dressing or filling.

What’s the difference between names? To start, they’re all filling (in title and effect). They’re also made with similar ingredients: some kind of bread or soft starch, a savory element, a sweet hint, some crunch and seasonal spices. The cooking step is where they diverge: dressing and filling are baked in a pan while stuffing is literally stuffed into the bird. While the terms are used interchangeably, regional tastes define signature ingredients.

The most common version of stuffing is based on stale or toasted white bread. Even the grocery stores understand, offering dozens of types of dried, seasoned bread cubes. Californians start with tangy sourdough and the Amish include potatoes and milk. Wild rice stuffing is popular in the Great Lakes region of the country, where the nutty-flavored grain is widely grown.

Southern stuffing features cornbread supplemented with cubed bread. For the stuffing in the photo, I tossed cornbread chunks into a skillet with sautéed red bell pepper, scallion, onion and garlic. Cubed whole grain bread and toasted pecans add texture with crunch and sturdiness; savory notes come from crumbled sausage and sage.

When we were growing up, Mom always made two types of stuffing: one for Dad and one for the rest of us. He loved the giblets, while we cringed at the thought of eating slimy organ meats that arrived packaged in a paper tube crammed into the bird’s gullet. She chopped and sautéed the tiny pieces and stirred them into a mixture of cubed bread, butter and seasonings. Only when I moved to New Orleans did I realize she’d created a version of “dirty rice” stuffing, made with bread instead of rice.

Oyster stuffing is another New Orleans favorite, often paired with crumbled cornbread and flavored with the oyster “liquor” from the package of shucked bivalves. This dish and the standard version of dirty rice dressing are difficult recipes to include at Thanksgiving because they need last minute attention. Dried fruit is also challenging as an ingredient; you want a hint of sweet and tart, not a cloying assault. Apples, dried apricots, chestnuts and cranberries are all good choices when you’re looking for fruits that hold their shape and add subtle flavor notes.

But no matter what you call it, my recommendation is to skip the stuffing step for both health and taste. You’ll avoid potential food safety concerns associated with placing the mixture inside an uncooked bird and your dressing won’t absorb added fat while the turkey roasts. Bob Lamorte’s Unstuffed Stuffing, is an example of classic bread stuffing. His recipe can be easily adapted for vegetarian or vegan tastes and the mixture of spices create a delicious flavor profile.

I’ve included recipes for some different varieties of stuffing and dressing, just make sure you’re not trespassing on any Thanksgiving dinner traditions if you decide to make something new this year!

Bob LaMorte’s Unstuffed Stuffing
1 large loaf white bread
3 T olive oil
4 medium onions, chopped
2 T minced garlic
1 tsp dried rosemary
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried parsley
1 tsp dried basil
15-oz can chicken stock
1 egg, whisked

Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat the inside of a baking pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside.

Cut bread into half-inch cubes and place in a very large mixing bowl; set aside. Heat the olive oil over medium-low in a large skillet. Add onions, garlic and herbs; sauté until the onions become translucent. Scoop onion mixture into the bowl with bread cubes; toss to combine. Pour in stock and egg; mix well. Place dressing in prepared pan and cover with aluminum foil. Bake for 30 minutes; remove cover and bake an additional 10 minutes. Yield: 6 servings. NOTE: for vegetarian version, replace chicken stock with vegetable stock; for vegan version, omit egg.

Cornbread Stuffing
1/2 lb bulk sausage
2/3 C chopped pecans
2 T butter
1 diced onion
3 sliced scallions
1 diced red bell pepper
3 pressed garlic cloves
4 slices whole grain bread
4 C cornbread
1 T parsley
1 t sage
1 t savory
1/2 t thyme
1 t salt
1 t pepper
1/2 t paprika
2 eggs
2 C chicken stock

Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat the inside of a large casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Remove the sausage from its casing and place in a heavy skillet. Cook over medium high, crumbling into small chunks, until well browned; drain and set aside. Toast pecans in a dry skillet until fragrant, about 5 minutes; set aside. Melt butter in a large skillet; sauté onion, scallion and pepper until softened. Stir in garlic and cook another minute; remove from heat. Cut bread into one-inch cubes and place in a large mixing bowl. Crumble cornbread into same bowl. Stir in vegetables, seasonings, eggs and stock. Toss to combine thoroughly. Transfer stuffing to prepared dish and bake for 30 minutes. Yield: 6 servings.

Wild Rice Stuffing
3 T butter
2 C diced onion
1 C diced celery
1 C chopped pecans
4 1/2 C chicken stock
1 1/4 C wild rice
1 C brown rice
2 C dried cranberries
1 t thyme
1 t marjoram
1 t sage
1/4 C chopped parsley
salt and pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 F. Coat the inside of a 9 x 12-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Sauté onion and celery until softened, about 5 minutes; set aside. Toast pecans in a dry skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 5 minutes; set aside. Bring stock to a boil in a large saucepan over high heat. Stir in wild and brown rice, return to a boil then reduce heat to very low. Cover and simmer for 50 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients along with sautéed onion and celery. Simmer for about 5 minutes. Scoop stuffing into prepared baking dish; cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Yield: 8 servings.

Dirty Rice Dressing
1 1/2 C rice
3 C chicken broth
1/2 lb chicken gizzards
1/4 lb ground pork
1/4 lb ground beef
1/4 C olive oil
2 T flour
1 C chopped onion
1/4 C chopped celery
1/2 C chopped red pepper
1/3 C sliced green onion
2 T minced parsley
1 t salt
1 t pepper
1/8 t cayenne
2 T chicken stock

Bring chicken broth to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add rice, cover, reduce heat to very low and cook until tender, about 20 minutes. Chop the gizzards finely and pass through the coarse blade of a meat grinder. Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium. Add chicken, beef and pork; cook until meat begins to brown. Add flour, vegetables and seasonings; stir to combine. Cook until vegetables soften, about 5 minutes. Add stock and continue cooking for 10 minutes, stirring constantly. Combine vegetable mixture with cooked rice and serve immediately. Yield: 4 servings.