To some people dressing/stuffing is an afterthought at Thanksgiving. It’s become one of those dishes that lead to conversations like this:
“Honey, why are you even making dressing this year? We always make it and no one ever eats more than a spoonful or two. Can’t we just skip it?”
“No, we can’t just skip it. It’s TRADITION. We’ve always had it and we always will. Plus, you know Gavin will eat it. He loves the stuff.”
“Well, alright. But I don’t want you killing yourself this year since you’re cooking the turkey and all the sides. Can we agree that you’ll just buy a box or bag stuffing at the store this year instead of making it yourself? I’m going to the store right now. I’ll pick up a box of Stove Bottom or Pepper Itch Farms, okay? Gavin won’t know the difference. No one EVER notices the stuffing. Besides, Gavin doesn’t have NEARLY the palate he thinks he has. I’ll bet he doesn’t say a thing.”
“Well…okay. But pick up two boxes, would you? We’re out of dog food.”
Well, not me. As the above couple points out, I do like dressing. And if I’ve never actually said anything about the stuffing from a box, it’s because my mother taught me manners. But trust me, I know. And it’s because I am a congregant at the Church of Thanksgiving Dressing, I have learned to make my own. I am, happily, related to several other parishioners who also worship at this altar of deliciousness. Both my mother and my mother-in-law make delicious dressing. In fact, it was my mother’s ability when I was a kid to make something so delicious out of little more than a loaf of Wonder Bread that got me hooked on the stuff.
As for my mother-in-law, well, a few weeks ago my son went off to serve his country in Americorps and we decided to have Thanksgiving dinner in early October as he won’t be able to come home until Christmas. And my mother-in-law made the dressing and she nailed it.
I point out these examples from these two very talented cooks because I want to give hope to people everywhere that dressing or stuffing can be a valuable addition to your Thanksgiving table and deserve to be treated more seriously than a box of breadcrumbs soaked in “bouillon” –flavored saltwater. I bring up the talents of my mother and mother-in-law because even with the pressure of their abilities setting the stage for me, the Thanksgiving dressing is something I have consistently requested the duty of making regardless of who is hosting the dinner. Again, it’s not because they can’t do it. It’s because I love to do it. Regardless of whether my wife and I are hosting Thanksgiving, going to my parents’ or my in-laws, I always ask to make the dressing and those kind, indulgent women always allow me that opportunity.
As a result, my Thanksgiving dressing, while simple, is a huge production. I would caution you to remember that “simple” does not mean easy. Losing weight is simple. If you eat less and exercise more, you will lose weight. But, as anyone who has ever tried to do it can tell you, just because the prescription for weight loss is elegant in its simplicity, it’s in the actual work that people tend to lose their way. I say that as a caveat to let you know that you do NOT have to adhere to the whole palaver I am about to describe and that I go through every year. Shortcuts abound and while I don’t take them when I make my dressing, I am both an idiot and manically driven to find the platonic ideal of Thanksgiving dressing. There is no reason for you to punish yourself the way I do and I encourage, no, I urge you to make your Thanksgiving dinner as trouble-free as possible. Still, it is my hope that by listing all the steps I go through to make dressing, you might find a few helpful hints or ideas that you can incorporate into your own Thanksgiving meal. Few things would make me happier than you and me cooperating to force the people at Stove Bottom into repurposing their factory made “stuffing” for use as mortar in public works projects.
I suppose that I should first point out that I use the word “dressing” whereas a lot of people use the word “stuffing.” My understanding is that “stuffing” is merely dressing that has been forced into the cavity of the bird to cook while it roasts. As I am polytheistic, I not only worship at The Church of Thanksgiving Dressing, but I am also a supplicant to the god Alton Brown. And Alton Brown, from his perch on Mt. Olympus, has decreed that Stuffing is Evil. Well, I’m also a (not very good) Roman Catholic and I’ve broken plenty of the rules set down by that church so if you want to convert your dressing into stuffing, it’s okay with me. Alton Brown does have a few good points, though, about how stuffing a bird with room temp breadcrumbs soaked with meat stock and fat is begging for food borne illness. For that reason, if you do choose to stuff your bird, do so at your own peril and at least do yourself the favor of microwaving the stuff to get it piping hot before you spoon it into the bird. Best of luck. In any case, you can take the stuff I’m about to describe and cook it in your bird or in a roasting pan and, as long as you cook it all the way through, it’ll be delicious.
Making dressing for me is an exercise in process. A lot of things have to be done in advance of the fourth Wednesday in November if you want to have good dressing for the fourth Thursday. However, each step is very simple and I promise will yield good results.
First, start by making your turkey stock. One of the many shortcuts you can take is to use prepackaged/canned chicken broth. I’ve done it and there is no shame in it. But, if you go to the supermarket right now, you will see turkey necks, wings and backs on sale so cheap you’ll think they’re giving them away. Buy two or three of each and go home and lightly coat them with a neutrally-flavored vegetable oil and put them in a roasting pan and set that in an oven set at 350. Roast your turkey bits, turning them over occasionally, until they’re golden and look like something you’d want to eat. Take them out of the oven and put them in a stockpot. If your roasting pan isn’t made of glass, deglaze it with a little dry vermouth (or just water) and pour all of that in the stockpot as well (if your roasting pan is glass or Pyrex, wait for it to cool down and do the best you can at deglazing it without putting it over direct heat). Now, take a yellow onion and cut off and throw away the root end. Chop the remainder of the onion, peel and all (the peel will help give a nice color to the stock) and throw it into the pot with a few sprigs of parsley, a few peppercorns, a couple of peeled and chopped carrots and a couple of washed and chopped stalks of celery. Cover this with cold water and slowly bring it to a simmer and skim off any scum that floats to the surface. Let it simmer a few hours until the turkey parts are literally falling apart. Scoop out everything from the pot and feed it to your dog (I am one of those guys who doesn’t typically give people food to my pets, but the vet says this is okay because all the fat had pretty much come out of the turkey and the bones, protein and vegetable matter is good for ‘em. If you disagree, throw it away.) Now, simmer down the stock until it is very rich tasting and a nice brown color. At this point you can add salt to make it taste right (if you add salt too early and then boil it down, you will concentrate the salt and that will throw everything out of whack). Let your stock cool and then strain it and refrigerate it for later use.
Now we go to the dried fruit. I don’t know when or where it was first suggested to me that fruit had a place in stuffing. It wasn’t something my mother did when I was a kid. But one year I decided to add some raisins and, I gotta tell you, it was fantastic. Since then I have come to the realization that plain raisins, while nice, are falling short of a great opportunity to add even more flavor to your dressing. Instead, what I do now is get a big handful of raisins, another handful of golden raisins, a handful of dried cranberries and, if I’m feeling like it, a handful of dried blueberries. Mix them all up in a plastic container and barely cover them with brandy. If you’re feeling extra-fancy, Armagnac is really nice here, but I find cheap California brandy is 99.9% as good at 1/10th the price. Set the dried fruit aside for a week or two, stirring every so often if you think about it and if all the brandy gets absorbed, add a little more.
Now, onto the bread. I am not a southerner. I love cornbread, but it may be my Free State roots that dictate that I really prefer a yeast-risen bread to cornbread. Fortunately, in the world of yeast breads, the choices are myriad. It seems that every year I go with something different, but my favorite is sourdough. Sometimes it’s fun to try two different loaves, like a sourdough and a whole wheat or a baguette. I usually go with two loaves and you should choose whatever you like. As I mentioned, I grew up eating dressing made with supermarket sandwich bread and there is nothing wrong with that. Still, I typically go for an artisan-style bread that has a good texture and a nice crumb. One advantage if you buy your bread at a place like Whole Foods is that they will cube your bread for you. They’ll take whatever loaf you buy and run it through the slicer and then run it through again cross-wise so that you get bread strips. You can work with those directly or, if you’re anal retentive about this sort of thing (like, ahem, someone who has already devoted 20,956 words on this subject), you can tear or cut those pieces into more aesthetically pleasing cube. Dump the bread in a bowl or on a cookie sheet at least a week before the big day and let it get stale. Again, this is a step you can skip, but stuffing was more than just a frugal way of using old bread. By letting the bread lose its natural moisture, you are creating a kind of vacuum where your more flavorful turkey tock can settle in. Fresh bread will hold less stock than will stale bread.
Alright, if you’re still with me, not too much longer to go. I’m probably already one-quarter through. I kid, I kid!!
Anyway, on Wednesday (one of the best things about dressing is that you can prep it a day ahead and relax on the big day, if you want) melt a stick of butter (relax, one stick over two loaves of bread isn’t going to do anything that would lead your cardiologist into paroxysms of rage) in a frying pan and dump in one diced largish yellow or white onion and 2-3 stalks (depending on the volume of your bread) of chopped/diced celery. Stir to get everything coated with the oil and sprinkle over a fat pinch of salt and let that gently sweat over medium heat until the veg is translucent. Over the top of the veg, sprinkle on some Scarborough Fair (parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme). I like using both fresh and dried sage. Chop the fresh finely and rub the dried between your hands, about tablespoon of each or to your taste. Add a similar amount of chopped fresh thyme and about twice as much parsley. As for the rosemary, well, it has a very strong flavor, so I go light on it, but, then again, you know your palate better than I do.
While that veg is sweating, peel, core and chop two apples. You want the apple pieces to be about the same size as the diced onion. I once did this with pears instead of apples and it was fantastic, but you need to use pears that are a bit underripe because ripe pears will turn to mush.
Now, dump everything, the bread, the sweated veg, the apple/pear and the dried fruit, EVERYTHING into your largest bowl. One other thing you can add if no one has any nut allergies is some pecan halves or pieces. My wife loves this and she loves it even more if I lightly toast the pecans in the oven on a cookie sheet. Again, leave out what you don’t like and keep what you do. Gently stir everything just to get it evenly mixed (I use my clean hands rather than a spoon).
Once it’s all mixed, start ladling on your turkey broth. Some people like their dressing really wet. Some people don’t. You don’t want it gloppy but you also don’t want it so dry that it’s falling apart (any leftover broth can be used for gravy or frozen for another purpose entirely). Once you get everything uniformly mixed, give it a taste. If it needs salt or pepper, go ahead but make sure you stir gently to get it incorporated. If you want to add more herbs, you can do so now, but remember, those flavors will be stronger when the dressing is piping hot.
You are now finished. Some people like stirring in a beaten egg or two as a binder and you can do that. I’ve done it before, but I never found it to be all that important an addition. From here, spoon everything into a casserole or roasting pan and put it in the oven until it’s hot all the way through. I like to take off the lid to the pan fifteen minutes or so before I pull it from the oven because it like the top to get a bit crunchy, but you can, again, do as you like.
I guess I should at least mention the fact that this week's challenge seems to be geared more toward exotic Thanksgiving fare, the stuff that falls outside the mainstream. I suppose I could talk about how my stepmother's Italian-American family spend every weekend in November leading up to Thanksgiving preparing small pasta purses that they call cappilletti. Certainly that would be more exotic than humble dressing; the stuff that will be on at least 80% of Thanksgiving tables later this month. Still, I like to think that good, not-from-a-box dressing is pretty exotic in its own right. Maybe everyone will have it, but will it be any good?
I know this was long but I hope I made an oft-overlooked dish gain a little appreciation. If you’re one of those traditionalists who serve dressing because you have to and not because you want to, try some of the things I’ve outlined here and I think you might end up wanting to too.