I've long believed that the Thanksgiving turkey should be defined as "an oddly shaped baking dish designed to hold stuffing."
While you can tease the palate with a few bites of stuffing in the center of a pork loin or tucked into a boned fish, that's not enough to matter. To revel in more than a mouthful, you need to stuff a bird -- preferably a big bird.
Stuffing has been around since Roman times and exists in all cuisines. What we would recognize as stuffing comes from Anglo-Saxon tradition dating to the 16th century. It is called dressing in some parts of the country; the name was changed to assuage the ruffled lace collars of Victorian prudes who objected to the graphic accuracy of stuffing as a dish name.
When correctly prepared, stuffing is a rich blend of some form of bread or other starch flecked with spices, onions and celery saute'ed in lots of butter until silky, and moistened with stock and perhaps an egg or two.
But a truly sybaritic stuffing does not stop there. There are regional traditions to consider -- adding chestnuts in New England, pecans in the South, oysters in the Middle Atlantic states and green chilies in the Southwest.
I've added saute'ed fennel, fresh shiitake mushrooms and Italian sausage to a goose stuffing. I've used plumped dried fruit, citrus zest and apples in a corn bread base. It's possible to give either a savory or sweet character to a stuffing, or mix the two. Stuffing Savvy
Figure on one cup of moistened stuffing per pound of bird. If you want more, which I always do, then bake the remainder for an hour or less in a casserole in a 325-degree oven. Add some additional stock since the casserole will not be absorbing juices as it bakes.
There are some health considerations that must be observed with stuffed poultry. Stuffing should always be chilled or at least cold, when it is placed into the bird. Never stuff a bird until right before it goes into the oven, or it could become a fertile breeding ground for bacteria.
The same is true for the baked bird. Remove the stuffing as soon as it comes from the oven. Never refrigerate a turkey carcass with the stuffing remaining inside.
Unlike proper pommes souffle's, which require skillful frying, or creamy risotto, which requires laborious stirring, making stuffing is actually easier than pie. Good stuffing results from the careful handling of the ingredients before they enter the bird.
To have stuffing that's fluffy rather than mushy and wet, start with bread that is dry. This can be in the form of cubes, bits or crumbs, but they must be toasted to hard crispness before absorbing fat and stock.
I like the texture of stuffing when it is made with small cubes. You get the visual diversity of some browned edges, and the centers of the cubes retain texture when baked. Use white bread or corn bread (in fact, any bread) and break or cut it into small pieces. Bake in a single layer in a 350-degree oven until toasted, totally dry and crispy. This should take about 7 to 12 minutes, depending on the size of the cubes.
While the cubes are toasting, saute' the onions and celery. Melt the butter over low heat, and saute' the vegetables for at least 30 minutes, or until the celery is very soft. Keep in mind that stuffing does not actually cook in the bird, it really just heats. So the texture of vegetables will not be greatly altered.
Combine the vegetables and dried bread, as well as whatever additional flavorings you want. If you're using fresh sage or garlic, you may want to saute' them with the celery and onions.
It's also not necessary to dirty more than one skillet. After the celery and onions are saute'ed, you can fry up bits of sausage or saute' mushrooms in the same pan.
Merely Moisten A pitfall in the making of stuffing comes from fearing the stuffing will be dry, so it gets drenched rather than moistened before it is packed into the bird. While stuffing baked in a casserole should be sprinkled with a few extra tablespoons of stock, the juices from the meat will augment any stock or eggs added before the stuffing in the turkey is baked.
Merely moisten the stuffing. It will feel a bit crunchy and dry, but that will turn into softness and fluffiness as it bakes. Leave It Loose
Another common mistake is stuffing the bird too tightly. This will not only produce a stuffing with a less than great texture, it is possible that it will actually split the bird.
Stuffing expands as it heats and the bread absorbs liquid. So the stuffing should be loosely spooned into the cavity, and never jammed in. If it is not stuffed too tightly, it is really not necessary to truss a turkey; the stuffing should naturally stay inside. Exciting Additions
I don't think there's any such thing as too many things to add to a stuffing, but the goal is to balance flavors without one dominating. A guideline is to add about 1 1/2 cups of sundry additions per eight cups of bread cubes. Possible additions:
Other vegetables: Saute'ed mushrooms, thinly sliced fennel bulb, or carrots; steamed peas; diced roasted and peeled chestnuts (it's easier with canned or vacuum-packed ones); sliced water chestnuts.
Herbs: A few tablespoons of chopped parsley help boost the flavor of all stuffings. In addition, try a few teaspoons of sage, rosemary, thyme or a combination of all three.
Nuts: Toast chopped nuts along with your bread cubes. Pecans, walnuts and pine nuts are especially good and retain texture.
Meats: Bits of browned sausage, crisp crumbled bacon, julienne of country ham or prosciutto (if using cured pork, you won't need very much salt, if any).
Fruits: A combination of fresh apples or pears, saute'ed for the last 10 minutes with the onions and celery, and some dried fruit. Dried fruits should be hydrated for 15 minutes in a bowl filled with boiling water. Dried currants, raisins, chopped dried apricots or apples are excellent. I've never like candied fruit in stuffing.
Miscellaneous: I think oyster stuffing is best served as a side dish rather than cooked inside the bird, since I've never really grown fond of turkey that tasted like fish.
If adding fruit, use part orange or apple juice with the stock, or perhaps a shot of brandy or bourbon.
MY FAVORITE THANKSGIVING STUFFING (Makes about 14 cups, enough for a 14-pound turkey)
8 cups 1/2-inch bread cubes (from white bread or whole wheat)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups diced onions
1 1/2 cups thinly sliced celery
2 teaspoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
1/3 cup dried currants
1/2 pound bulk pork sausage
3/4 cup diced cooked chestnuts
1 cup turkey or chicken stock
Salt and pepper to taste
Spread bread cubes on a baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven until toasted and dry, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove to a bowl.
Melt butter a large skillet over low heat. Add onions, celery and garlic and saute', stirring occasionally, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until soft. Add parsley and sage, and cook for 5 minutes. Add to the bread cubes.
While the vegetables are saute'ing, cover currants with boiling water, and soak for 15 minutes.
Saute' sausage over medium heat, breaking up any lumps, until browned. Add to the bowl, along with the chestnuts. Sprinkle with stock, tossing as you sprinkle, and then season with salt and pepper to taste.
Note: The stuffing can be prepared up to two days in advance and refrigerated, covered.
Per 1/2-cup serving: 108 calories, 3 gm protein, 11 gm carbohydrates, 6 gm fat, 3 gm saturated fat, 14 mg cholesterol, 205 mg sodium.
Ellen Brown is a Washington-based food writer and prize-winning author of "The Gourmet Gazelle Cookbook."