by Kathy Hunt

Thanksgiving Turkey Stuffing: 3 Super Stuffing Recipes

No doubt anyone who has ever stuffed a bird, pig or vegetable possesses at least one stuffing disaster story. Too much basting turned the breadcrumb stuffing into a mushy porridge of bread, onions and celery. Too long in the oven left it as dry and brittle as unadorned toast.

Sometimes true disaster strikes. Undercooked but appearing perfect, the gorgeous stuffing made all the dinner guests deadly ill. Tales such as these leave you wondering why we fill the insides of anything -- or at least why we always employ the same basic ingredients each and every time.

The practice of filling meaty cavities with edible surprises dates back to at least classical Roman times. Delicacies of this period included roast pigs packed with sausages and black pudding and geese brimming with bread, onions and sage.

Medieval-era cookery likewise made heavy use of stuffing. Stuffed dishes of the period could be as simple as an almond encased inside ground meat or a dab of marzipan squeezed inside a halved apricot or date.

Economy is probably the foremost reason why we stuff. During lean times cooks could stretch a meal by loading their small allotments of meat with hunks of inexpensive white bread and seasonings. The starchy filling absorbed the roasting meat's rich juices and produced a satisfying side dish.

But stuffing could also make a mundane offering exciting. France, in particular, is renowned for its "farces," the unexpected stuffing found inside food.

During the 19th century, French chefs molded seasoned, finely ground veal, pork or chicken "forcemeats" into whimsical shapes and slid the dressings inside meat, poultry or fish. When diners cut into their dinners, they were surprised and delighted to discover a ball-, egg- or carrot-shaped portion of flavorful filling awaiting them.

Besides the customary bread and finely ground forcemeats, cooks can choose from a wide variety of stuffings. Wild rice, couscous and lentils all produce delicious savory fillings. Gingerbread provides an unusual, spicy twist, while cornbread mixed with apples and cranberries lends a more traditional taste to the dish.

While the tried and true breadcrumb goes well with virtually anything, wild rice stuffing partners best with such fowl as goose, turkey, chicken and Cornish game hens. Apple-cranberry cornbread enlivens duck, goose, pork and turkey. As for the zesty gingerbread, that compliments turkey perfectly.

On the vegetable front, couscous works wonders in tomatoes, zucchini and eggplants. Lentils lend a little zip to salmon, squash, pumpkins, mushrooms and peppers.

No matter which dressing you choose, though, you will invariably face the same dilemma. Unless the stuffing reaches a minimum internal temperature of 165 F, bacteria will breed in it. Yet if you increase the cooking time and temperature of the stuffed meat, poultry or fish, you may end up with well done stuffing and a parched, overcooked main dish.

To avoid this quandary, the USDA recommends that you cook stuffing separately in a casserole. Simply place a shallow layer of filling in a buttered baking dish, cover it with foil and bake for 30 minutes at 350 F. After 30 minutes, remove the foil and continue to bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, until the dressing is golden brown on top.

Worried that the absence of meat drippings will translate into a dry stuffing? Simply pour melted butter, bacon fat or the actual drippings into the stuffing. Fat won't dry out in the oven, nor will it turn breads and grains gooey the way that stocks and other liquids do.

For even wetter fillings, include whole, beaten eggs. The egg-bolstered stuffings are fluffier yet firmer than those moistened with fat. Note that if you make your dressing in advance, do not add the eggs until the dressing has been re-heated and is ready to be fully baked.

If you're planning to stuff poultry or meat, cook and then cool your stuffing mixture before inserting it into the cavity. To prevent bacteria from forming, fill the meat just before sliding it into a preheated oven. Additionally, pack the stuffing loosely and lightly so that it will cook more evenly.

Apple-Cranberry Cornbread Stuffing

Serves 6 to 8

4 cups crumbled cornbread

2 cups wheat bread crumbs

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided

1/2 cup white onion, finely chopped

1/2 cup celery, finely chopped

1 cup Macintosh apples, diced

1/2 cup dried cranberries

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary

1/2 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup apple cider

1/2 cup chicken stock

Place cornbread and wheat breadcrumbs on a baking sheet and toast under a medium broiler until browned. Remove and place in a large bowl.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter a large baking dish.

In a small saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons of butter. Add the onion and celery, and saute for 10 minutes, until softened but not browned. Place the sauteed vegetables in the bowl with the breadcrumbs. Add the apples, cranberries, thyme, rosemary and salt, and stir until the ingredients are well combined. Evenly pour the apple cider and the stock over the stuffing and toss together.

Loosely layer the stuffing in the buttered baking dish. Dot the top of the stuffing with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter. Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes remove the foil and continue to bake for another 10 minutes until browned. Serve immediately.

Wild Rice-Mushroom-Almond Stuffing

Serves 8

3 cups chicken stock

2 cups wild rice

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 leeks, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

12 ounces cremini mushrooms, cleaned and diced

2 tablespoons dried parsley

2 teaspoons dried thyme

Ground pepper, to taste

1/2 cup blanched almonds, toasted and chopped

In a medium saucepan bring the chicken stock and rice to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover the pan and simmer until all the liquid has been absorbed. The rice should still be slightly firm.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

In a medium saute or frying pan, melt the butter. Add the leeks, garlic and mushrooms, and saute until lightly browned. Add the parsley, thyme and ground pepper and stir. Tumble in the rice and chopped almonds. Mix the ingredients together and then spoon into a large, buttered baking dish. Cover the dish with tinfoil and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until the rice is evenly heated. Serve warm.

Spicy Lentil Stuffing

Serves 6

4 cups water

1 cup whole red lentils

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium red bell pepper, washed, seeded and chopped

1 small white onion (roughly 1 cup), finely chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon turmeric

In a medium saucepan, combine the water and lentils and bring them to a boil. Lower the heat to medium and continue cooking until the lentils have softened but are still somewhat firm, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter a medium-sized baking dish.

Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized saute or frying pan. Add the red peppers, onions and garlic, and saute for 10 minutes, until softened but not browned. Add the cayenne pepper, salt, cumin and turmeric, and saute for 1 to 2 minutes. Tumble in the cooked lentils and simmer for about 5 minutes. If using the lentils to stuff vegetables or fish, allow them to simmer 5 additional minutes before removing from the heat. Cool the lentils completely before stuffing.

If cooking the lentil stuffing separately, spoon it into the buttered baking dish, cover it with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Serve immediately.



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