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Monday, November 16, 2009

A Touchy Subject

People are soooooooo funny about stuffing.

There are some people out there who believe the turkey is the focal point of the Thanksgiving meal.  They are so wrong.  It's really all about the stuffing, which is why everyone has an opinion about the stuffing.

Years ago, when we first started hosting the Thanksgiving meal, I was a bit of a, hmmm... (should I say it?) well, a bit of a maverick.  When it came to the side dishes and the stuffing, there were no rules.  It was our kitchen and we could, and did, try anything that sounded good.  The early years included a version using those little bread stuffing cubes that come in a bag.  (Brief shudder of shame.)  We tried a  stuffing with oysters.   (What a waste that was.  You'd never have known that a pint of freshly shucked oysters was even was as if they had evaporated.  Just now when I mentioned it to Steve he said, "What a shame.")  We tried simple, straightforward celery-and-onion based stuffings with no weird dried fruits or nuts.  (Can you say, boring?!)  Cornbread-based stuffings were attempted on numerous occasions, and met with lukewarm praise.  Wild rice was considered (and abandoned) as an idea.  Basically, we were all over the map.

We were living in Massachusetts in the early 90's, and for the better part of a year, there wasn't much I was cooking that didn't originate from the cookbook of a talented caterer and Silver Palate protege,
Sarah Leah Chase.  Based on recipes developed at her Nantucket catering shop, The Open-House Cookbook was my go-to cookbook at the time.  Mainly, summer-y in it's take on cooking, it did have a section called Thanksgiving-by-the-Sea, which was utterly charming.  I decided to give Nantucket Scallop Bisque and the Savory Apricot-Sausage Stuffing a try.

The soup was a smashing success...elegant, creamy and sophisticated.  But, little did I know that with the stuffing, I had just handcuffed myself to a recipe, for-EVER.  Truth be was outstanding.  (But really, any stuffing moistened with Cognac and chicken stock and butter has got to be good, no?)  It was everything you want in a stuffing.  Tangy apricot and pear made for perfect dance partners, waltzing sweetly with moist bread and bits of sausage, all delicately perfumed by fresh rosemary. It was heavenly.  The following year (maybe it was a cornbread year?) the family clamored for "that stuffing from last time". was like being David Byrne and having people constantly shout "Play Psycho Killer!!" at you.  Stuffing became Groundhog Day.  I rebelled every so often, trying something new, but the family was unforgiving.  "Are you going to make the apricot stuffing?" they'd want to know...weeks before.  And, in a way, they're right.  It's a winner.   I still like to take a break every so often and try a new stuffing.  Keeps them on their toes...and makes the return to The Stuffing all the more sweet.  The nice thing about "our" stuffing?  It's the one thing I can count on to produce complete harmony in the family.  Imagine!  You too can enjoy family harmony during a potentially stressful holiday.
It's all in the stuffing.

(And, yes, the leftovers are phenomenal.  Shown above with good ol' canned cranberry jelly...always good with leftovers, because, well, there are never any leftovers of the regular cranberry sauce I make each year.)

Shopping Notes:
The easiest thing to do with the chestnuts is to get yourself to your nearest Williams-Sonoma, or fancy grocery store and get the chestnuts in a jar.  They come from France and they're perfectly lovely.
Open jar.  Chop.  Done.  I roasted chestnuts for this one year.  Big...HUGE pain.

Savory Apricot-Sausage Stuffing
adapted from The Nantucket Open House Cookbook by Sarah Leah Chase

This recipe is designed to stuff a 22- to 24-pound turkey, with some extra baked in a dish on the side. 

3 cups dried apricots, diced
1/2 cup amaretto liqueur
1/2 cup Cognac or brandy
1 1/2 cups (3, 'yes, that's T-H-R-E-E sticks of unsalted butter)
1 very large yellow onion, chopped
1 bunch scallions, white bulbs and green stalks, sliced
6 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 pounds Pepperidge Farm's herb stuffing crumbs (don't knock it 'til you've tried it...)
1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
8 ounces bulk pork sausage (aka breakfast sausage)
2 cups chestnuts, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 ripe pear, cored and diced
3 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
3 1/2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
         (Right.  Go ahead and use your favorite brand out of the worries.)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1.  Soak the apricots in the amaretto and 1/2 cup of the Cognac for 2 hours.
2.  Melt 3/4 cup of the butter in a large saute pan or skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the onion, scallions and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes.  Transfer to a large mixing bowl and toss with the stuffing crumbs.
3.  Add the Italian and bulk sausage to the same pan and cook, crumbling the meat with a fork or the back of a large spoon, over medium-high heat until the meat is no longer pink.  Add the meat to the stuffing mixture and stir to combine.
4.  Add the chestnuts, pear, and rosemary to the stuffing and toss to combine.  Stir in the apricots with the liquid.
5.  Heat the remaining 3/4 cup butter with the chicken stock in a saucepan just until th ebutter is completely melted.  Pour the butter mixture over the stuffing ixture.  Mix the stuffing well and season to taste with salt and perpper.
6.  Store the stuffing in the refrigerator (overnight) until ready to bake.
7.  Butter a large baking or casserole dish* and spoon the stuffing into the dish.
8.  Bake in a preheated oven at 350 degrees F. for 40 minutes.

*I do not bake stuffing inside the bird.   Typically for a 10- to 12-pound bird, I halve this recipe and it fits in a large, rectangular glass baking dish.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Farewell Dinner

Last month Conde Nast announced the closing of several of their publications, one of which was Gourmet, and the news left me genuinely stunned and somehow...bereft.  Sure, I didn't quite know what to make of the magazine over the past several years and I had even let my subscription lapse for a year around the time Ruth Reichl was named editor.  But, don't laugh, I've been reading Gourmet since I was a geeky teenager.

My collection spans decades and was probably the main reason the weight the moving company calculated for our belongings was in tons.  I have issues I nabbed from my mother when I was in college.  I have the years from the late 60s to early 70s which belonged to my husband's grandmother.  Gourmet introduced me to one of my favorite food writers of all time, Laurie Colwin, for which I will be eternally grateful.  It's difficult to put into words the genuine shaping influence it had over the way I think about cooking, eating, travel, entertaining...and about life really.  

How could a publication that had been such an enormous part of my life education simply go away?  It felt wrong.  I needed to mourn.  The answer was to cook...(but of course!) and to cook with people who might somehow understand.    So, the big cartoon light bulb over my head turned was time to "walk the walk".

*     *     *

In recent years, Gourmet had, uh, let's say "evolved".  Into what, I'm not really sure.  Where there used to be highly styled photos of food on tables laden with lavish dishes, silver and flowers in empty dining rooms, or on deserted terraces, there were now attractive models with great clothes enjoying the food and cavorting (does that make me sound Victorian?) in festive, Elle Decor-like settings.  The colors seemed extra-saturated and the photos not too brightly lit.  For the most part, issue after issue, there was rarely anything that I actually wanted to cook.

There were a couple of which was the November 2008 issue.  Last year, having just completed the big move from Chicago, we gave up our usual Thanksgiving hosting duties and instead drove down the coast to Santa Monica to spend the holiday with Steve's brothers.  And, wouldn't you know it?  I bring along my November issue on the trip, and there, in the main menu...the "centerfold" meal, as I like to call it, was something I wanted to cook.  It was a menu featuring twelve dishes that integrated "bold Latino flavors" into a traditional Thanksgiving feast.  Chipotle Meatballs and Mango Pomegranate Guacamole with Plantain Chips kicked things off.  There was a Clementine Jicama Salad... turkey marinated in a chile and spice paste...Corn Bread and Chorizo Stuffing...and the clincher:  a potato gratin layered with roasted poblano peppers.   Mouth watering and mind racing, I was consumed with an almost greedy cook all of it and to taste all of it.  But how?  Ha!  Why not host a Thanksgiving dinner in the off-season, so to speak?  When no one is expecting roast turkey and the trimmings?  I marked the pages and thought "I'll just do July!"  (It's freezing in San Francisco in the summer, so it would have been perfectly fitting.)

July came and went.  August and September too.  Work was busy.  Who had time to figure out how to cook twelve, count 'em, TWELVE, dishes?!  And then.  The News.  As, I was time to "walk the walk."

Luckily, I had shared my wacky idea back in the summer with three very dear friends.  It may even have been on the evening we all went to see Julie & Julia together, and then came back to our place for Seafood Quiche straight from the pages of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  My friends--all supremely talented cooks--were intrigued.  They thought it would be fun.   And, here's the most wonderful part...they wanted to help cook.

The announcement of Gourmet's demise provided a perfect opportunity.  A date was quickly agreed upon, I dug out my post-it covered issue and sent photocopies to the group.

So, a few Saturday's ago, we all convened in my kitchen and put together a feast of epic proportions, that looked just like the pictures!!   It was a magical, delightful way to spend an evening together and I say that as a genuine skeptic when it comes to gourmet clubs and pot-luck dinners.  We created a meal both gorgeous and delicious.  T., who normally creates recipes, brilliant cook and trained chef that she is, followed recipes in this case, with stupendous results.  F.  who insists she is not a dessert-baking type created pies that were phenomenal and picture-perfect.  And, J. whipped up magazine-worthy perfection, effortlessly.  We all cooked in ways and with ingredients we'd never tried before.  In some way, this all made me even more sad that the magazine is no longer around.

But wait a second...
there is that lovely springtime Menu for a Pool Party from April 1972...

Thank you, Gourmet.

*    *    *    *
Here's the full menu (yes--all twelve dishes!) with links to the recipes on Gourmet's web site, which is still up, as well as some cook's notes on each. 

Gourmet Entertains from the November 2008 issue
These were incredible.  Zesty and delicious...but then again, I've never met a meatball I didn't like.

Absolutely perfect.  The smoothness of the avocado gets a nice zing from the tartness of the pomegranate.

Plantain Chips
A crowd favorite.  Perfect flavor to balance the guacamole.  Addictive.  And, yes...T. had never bought or cooked with a plantain...ever.

One of the best salads in recent memory.  I will be making this again...and again.  It's a keeper.

 I can't believe I made an adobo sauce, from scratch.   I can't believe Steve found both dried guajillo and ancho chiles for me.  The smell of this marinade is transporting and it gave the turkey a gorgeous color.

This was the one dish I somehow wished was better.  The ingredients sounded great to me, but in the end, I think I realized, I'm just not a cornbread stuffing gal.  Maybe it's the texture.
J.'s mega-hit crowd-pleaser.  There was not a speck of it left at the end of the evening.  'Nuf said.
Chayote?  You say...what's a Chayote? Ah haa! Well, here you go... it's kind of like a squash-gourd thing-y.  Relatively simple preparation, but boy oh boy, follow their suggestion and wear gloves when peeling.  F. lost a layer of skin on her hands because she didn't.
Yet another huge hit from J.  Everyone was crazy about this, and I think I may add it to my Thanksgiving menu in a few weeks.
This was super delicious.  The smokiness of the charred poblanos, the creaminess of the potatoes...heaven.
F. insists she's never made a lattice, so clearly she's gifted.  This pie was spectacular.  
I gave Steve an ice cream maker for his birthday and this was one of his first few tries.  Good times ahead, for sure.
Nothing to say but, yuuuuuuuummmmmmm.