Improvised Stuffing

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The plan was to roast a chicken the way I normally roast chicken (which is to say, the best way in the world!) on a cold winter’s night in November. And then, flipping through the channels, I stopped on the Food Network (surprise, surprise) and there was Rachael Ray making a stuffing.

Normally, I wouldn’t care to watch Rachael Ray make a stuffing but there she was chopping apples and onions and celery and I thought to myself: “I have apples and onions and celery.” Then she tore up pumpkin muffins and added the vegetable mixture and put it in a pan with some chicken stock and baked it. I thought: “I don’t have pumpkin muffins, but I do have bread and a pan.”

So I decided to improvise some stuffing to go with the chicken.

It’s funny, because stuffing is one of those Thanksgiving foods that I never quite understood. When I think back to Thanksgivings past, mostly the ones from my childhood, I hardly remember ever taking stuffing off the large table with all the food (assuming we were at someone’s house or a buffet). I just didn’t quite get it: “what is stuffing, anyway?” I wondered, but I must not have wondered that hard because I didn’t ask and I didn’t eat it.

Then, in the past few years when I started making Thanksgiving dinner, I had to make stuffing. And using the recipe I did, which came from Gourmet magazine, I grew to enjoy it: basically you just cooked a bunch of vegetables in butter, add it to dry bread (in the case of the Gourmet stuffing, it was corn bread) and sometimes you add sweet stuff to it too: cranberries, raisins, etc. The original thought was to put it in the turkey to absorb all the turkey juices, but most Thanksgiving chefs seem to agree that this dries out the bird; so now stuffing doesn’t get stuffed. It gets cooked separate.

Which is all to say that after watching Rachael Ray do it, here’s what I did.

I cut up 2 apples, leaving the skin on, into large cubes; I cut up an onion into large dice; I cut up two pieces of celery into big pieces. Then I took 5 Tbs of butter, melted it in a cast iron skillet, and sauteed the onion, the apple and the celery until they were all tender, seasoning a bit with salt and pepper.

I took the bread I had (which was just a package of sandwich bread), cut the crusts off, and cut it into cubes (about 6 slices worth.) I tossed the cubes with the cooked vegetables and then added water. You’re supposed to use stock, but I didn’t have any and I like Michael Ruhlman’s advice about using water instead of boxed stock. Water works fine.

So I added just enough water (5 Tbs?) to moisten the bread, but not to get it super soggy. Then I added a huge handful of dried cranberries and a little more salt and pepper.

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I placed it back in the oven on a separate shelf in the cast iron skillet and let it cook for about 45 minutes until it was golden brown on the top.

The verdict?

Tasty! The top was nice and crisp and the inside had a really good balance of sweet and savory, with those onions and apples.

It got burned all around the outside because the cast iron was so hot, so I’d either cook it at a lower temperature next time (this was cooked at 425) or just cook it in a glass baking dish. The moral of the story, though, is that stuffing is really easy to make. The basic formula is: cooked vegetables in butter + some dried bread + nuts and/or dried fruit = stuffing. Follow that formula and you can make a decent stuffing in no time; now it’s just everything else you have to worry about.

P.S. I forgot to mention that when the chicken came out of the oven, as I lifted it on to a cutting board, I let lots of the chicken juices drip over the finished stuffing. This, it turns out, is a very good idea.

14 comments

  1. How could you have possibly ignored stuffing for so much of your life? Stuffing is possibly my favorite Thanksgiving and Christmas feast food. I love it just the way my Mom makes it: onions diced and sauteed in lots of butter, tossed with dry bread cubes, salt, pepper, sage, and thyme, and stuffed into the bird. True, stuffing the bird dries it out, but to be perfectly honest, I think I care more about the stuffing than the turkey! And when that stuffing is all moist and delicious from tons of turkey juices, it’s pretty much heaven to eat.

    Actually, in my experience, if I stuff a chicken and roast it, the meat still comes out plenty moist, as long as I baste the chicken on a really regular basis. Like, every fifteen minutes or so.

  2. Oh man, I wish I had gone to your Thanksgivings, because all that stuffing you didn’t eat would have meant more for me! I love stuffing — my dad makes it every year, and like yours, it’s always sort of improvised. His “secret” is to use half cornbread and half white bread. Now that I’m thinking about it, it’s kind of silly that I don’t make it myself more often – it’s such a flexible, easy dish. Maybe that will be my new kitchen focus: all stuffing, all the time!

    (I’ve also never had stuffing that was actually stuffed in the bird, the idea kind of icks me out.)

  3. I never eat stuffing. It ends up so mushy at our Thanksgiving dinner although I love the Barefoot Contessa recipe for roast chicken where you serve it over large croutons. The croutons are better than the chicken!

  4. I think stuffing is the best part of Thanksgiving meals!

    The key is keeping the bread moist so it doesn’t absorb all the juices of the bird. Interesting that you used water instead of stock. I haven’t tried that yet…

    Very smart to add the juices of the chicken at the end–that step is essential to add moisture and flavor, especially since you didn’t use stock.

  5. Growing up, we always referred to stuffing-cooked-separately as “dressing.” I’ve never been a fan of it, since I’ve never seen a stuffing recipe that didn’t include celery, and I don’t like celery.

  6. i made this rachael ray stuffing last thanksgiving…my new-food-phobic friend dennis is STILL talking about it. success!

  7. i made this rachael ray stuffing last thanksgiving…my new-food-phobic friend dennis is STILL talking about it. success!

  8. I’d say we’re on the same page lately (the scones, too..) but being the week it is, I figure we’re ALL on this stuffing-style page. I improvised a great stuffing the other day with old homemade bread, onion, butter, turkey sausage, chestnuts, herbs, fresh cranberries…based it on Bittman’s recipe from How to Cook Everything (which he says is a variant on James Beard), just essentially combined ALL the variations he suggests. With the sausage, it was easy to pretend it was nutritious enough to be a meal. Because I did not want anything else.

  9. I think you’ve noted it before, but I think it’s great that you’re seeing recipes as more directional than absolute. Which is to say, you read or see a recipe and then kind of freestyle off that with what you’ve got lying around, or modify it to your liking. I’ve been doing this with most of my recipes this year – I’ve got a confidence about cooking that’s finally starting to settle in, and I see you’ve got it, too. :)

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