To stuff or not to stuff is not the only Thanksgiving dilemma. What about the kind of stuffing itself? Should it be sweet or spicy? Meaty or vegetarian? Made with day-old Italian bread or dry brioche or wild rice?
There is no one correct combination for a stuffing – almost anything goes. The common holy trinity is onion, celery and sage, but even that changes from cuisine to region. A Cajun style calls for onions, green peppers and celery while in the Southwest it is onions, corn kernels and chilies.
It doesn’t have to be strictly onions either, since they can be substituted with any member of their family such as shallots, scallions or leeks. They are then cooked with dry mix-ins such as sausage, mushroom, apple or butternut squash, or with creamy purees made with celery root or spinach.
Fresh parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, tarragon or oregano are added to emit an herb perfume, while walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts or almonds add a nutty texture.
The base of any stuffing is the bread. Dry white bread or cornbread are usually the staples but multigrain, sour dough, potato, rye and cinnamon-raisin bread work just as well. It’s important to use dry bread because this way the cubes will absorb the stock, or whatever else liquid is used, and turkey juices better. Also, when dry, the bread cubes retain their shape better and won’t turn into one big mush when mixed with the stock. Creative cooks sometimes dispense with the bread altogether and replace it with wild or arborio rice, and some even use tortilla corn chips.
Much as dried bread is crucial, it also is important that you don’t choke on a overly dry stuffing. Even though water would suffice, vegetable or chicken broth adds an additional layer of flavor in the dressing. For a richer taste and creamy bread mixture, whip eggs with half-and-half or heavy cream.
A basic stuffing is prepared by sauteing onion and celery, and then mixing them with parsley, cornbread, beaten eggs and chicken or vegetable broth, before being baked. But why not elevate it in the flavor pyramid by spicing or sweetening it up?
My recipe adds kick to a mushroom stuffing with garam masala (a blend of cloves, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, dried red chilies, mace, nutmeg and fennel) or harissa paste (chilies, garlic, caraway, cumin and coriander). It’s best to add the spice blend after sauteeing the onions and celery together so that the aroma lingers even after the stuffing is baked.
Likewise, a stuffing can be sweetened by adding dried apricots or cranberries with crystallized ginger and orange juice. Or mixing the onion-celery mixture with diced apples, golden raisins and crushed fennel seeds or dried cherries, pecans and fresh sage.
Since mix and match is the name of the game for any stuffing, other worthy combinations are pancetta, chestnuts and Parmesan; chorizo, apples, almonds, lemon zest and oregano; halved grape tomatoes, Kalamata olives and red pepper flakes; smoked oyster, crumbled bacon, sherry vinegar and thyme; and collard greens, currants and pine nuts.
With interplay of flavors like that, when the turkey gets a round of applause, don’t forget to give the stuffing a standing ovation.
MUSHROOM MASALA STUFFING
This assorted mushroom stuffing has a slight kick from the chili pepper flakes and a lingering garam masala perfume. Convert any leftover stuffing into masala patties. Shape the stuffing into patties and then pan-fry them in a little bit of oil.
3 tablespoons butter, divided, plus for greasing pan
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large onion, diced small
1 cup celery, diced small
20 ounces chopped mushrooms (cremini and portabella)
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon chili pepper flakes
Salt to taste, divided
1/4 cup parsley
8 cups (14 ounces) unseasoned white bread cubes
2 cups vegetable stock
3 large eggs
1 cup whipping cream
Grease 9-by-13-inch baking dish with butter.
In a large skillet, melt 2 1/2 tablespoons butter over medium heat and add oil. Add onions and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.
Add mushrooms, garam masala, chili pepper flakes and salt, and cook for 2 more minutes.
Remove from heat. Add parsley, and combine well.
Transfer vegetables to a large bowl. Add bread cubes and stock; combine well. Add more salt if needed.
In a separate bowl, whisk eggs and whipping cream. Add to the vegetable-bread cube mixture.
Transfer to baking dish. Dot with remaining 1/2 tablespoon butter.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cover with foil and bake for about 30 minutes.
Remove foil, and bake for another 10 minutes.
Serves 8 to 10.
HERBY APRICOT STUFFING
Adapted from “Family Cookbook” by Caroline Bretherton (DK Publishing; 2013)
Who says your Thanksgiving stuffing has to be savory? Dried apricots and crystallized ginger also pair well with moistened bread crumbs. For this recipe, PG food writer Gretchen McKay used thick white country bread, but says that she will use cinnamon-raisin bread the next time “to make it just a touch sweeter.”
Butter, for greasing pan
3 1/2 ounces dried apricots, finely chopped
Juice of 1 orange
1 piece crystallized ginger, finely chopped
1 cup fresh white breadcrumbs
3/4 ounce toasted pine nuts
3 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley leaves
4 sprigs fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
1/4 cup melted butter
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a medium ovenproof dish.
Place apricots, orange juice, ginger, breadcrumbs, pine nuts, parsley, rosemary, melted butter and beaten egg in a medium mixing bowl, and stir well to combine. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Spoon stuffing into prepared dish and bake for 30 minutes.
Serves 4 to 6.