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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.

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