Back to yesterday and yesteryear, the stuff of stuffing emerges. Most of us, it seems, just know what is supposed to go in the roast bird. Our grannies or other family cooks did the perfect version — in our hazy memories. Anything different or less fails.
I too grew up with plugged up and trussed turkeys, ducks, chickens and geese. I am honestly indifferent to stuffing on my own and really prefer the control over the appearance, flavor and cooking times with an empty carcass. If you really want the best flavors and looks, cook a hollow bird.
However, do not delude yourself; holiday food fans want to see and smell (and in a perverted Proust madeleine moment) fully recall and relive stuffings of childhood. I advise acquiescing and producing the expected here. You can be creative with the rest of the bird and meal. At the least concentrate on a groaning board of beautiful, memorable appetizers.
Yesterday was the Christmas feast for a dozen. We did not go to mass on Christmas, rather massed for languid frivolity, gift and jest swapping and popping Christmas crackers.
As I prepared stuffing for the too-big turkey, I thought back to a Thanksgiving nearly 50 years ago in an alley in Cambridge, MA, with the grandiloquent address of King Place. It is a quarter block long, dead ended and perpetually shabby.
Oh, 10 or a dozen of us college types shared this narrow house of four tiny apartments in a brick building cheek to jowl with the next. We did not know each other except in pairs or small subgroups before moving there, but heck it was Thanksgiving away from family and friends. We’d make our own communal feast.
Then as now I was the primary cook. Our house consensus though included two essentials. First, we needed a sizable turkey, and second, it had to come from the oven extruding bread stuffing. Then democracy and family became obvious. We were all WASPy types, but our family and regional differences became pronounced. Each of us knew exactly what was necessary for a proper stuffing.
We had outlying votes for oysters, chestnuts and other favorites from other homes. We ended up agreeing as youth are wont on too many, just to make sure everyone would fork through to find the right bites. As I recall, in addition to the requisite cubed junk bread, stuffing stuff included celery onion, walnuts, prunes AND raisins, onion, poultry seasoning, pepper, salt, sausage and more and more.
I finished prep with far more than the turkey or any bird short of an ostrich could have held. Hence came the trays of patties, morphing from stuffing to dressing. My companion of the period loudly dubbed the patties buffalo turds. She was born in North Dakota, but more to the point, she was charming and attractive enough that she could and did get away with such vulgarities. I am sure to this day there are a few from the house who will refer to dressing patties that way.
We were all happy with our democratically derived stuffing and dressing.
Back to fewer than 24 hours ago, our Christmas feast benefited from that memory. I relented and decided to stuff the gigantic bird.
I’m not much for too easy and quick. Those result in bland or worse. I think Stop Top stuffing is more like wood wool, a.k.a. excelsior, than food. I fell back on childhood, King Place, restaurant, and previous stuffing goes. Still I was surprised as virtually all at the table went on about the stuffing.
- The previous day, I cubed two family sized, thick sliced loaves of junk white bread into a huge bowl.
- I added things that wouldn’t go bad, including 12 ounces of chopped walnuts, two teaspoons of kosher salt, a teaspoon of black pepper and a teaspoon of powdered sage. I mixed these and left the lid off for the cubes to harden up a little.
- I cooked the turkey neck and giblets to death, removed the neck meat and minced everything. to this, I added a pound of smoked ham run through the food processor. These meats rested overnight in the fridge. Separately, two cups of turkey broth from giblet cooking cooled overnight.
- I minced two medium onions, one long celery stalk, the celery core including the fine leaves, and a half cup of fresh parsley. Those too rested in the fridge.
- Early in the morning, I ran about 12 ounces of rinsed baby bella mushrooms, stems included, through the food processor.
- I got the broth from the fridge and microwaved a cup of golden raisins in it on high for two minutes. The idea was to pre-plump the raisins before stuffing the bird.
- I heated a stick of unsalted butter and softened the onion mixture, and added the mushrooms.
- All the ingredients went into the jammed bowl (I have some huge bowls) in the sink to permit an occasional errant lump. When all were squished by hand, I pressed as much as possible into the body and neck cavities of the dry-brined turkey. Six hours and one turning later, the bird received much praise.
To me, stuffing is merely a side dish. Yet, it got the level of compliment a well scrubbed, smelling and looking deb would have at the ball.
We should not overlook or deride simple pleasures. As one of Robert Frost’s poems concludes, “One could do worse than be a swinger of birches. ”