Stuffing, Dressing or Filling as it's called can be as basic as lightly seasoned and herby bread or as elaborate as oyster filling. In the South we use cornbread and even biscuits in our "dressing", In the Northeast oysters are a popular add in to their "filling" and in San Francisco sourdough is the bread of choice for this delicious creation. From mussels, clams and crabmeat to wild rice, nuts and dried fruit everything imaginable has been added to this delicious Thanksgiving side over the years.
Originally intended to be stuffed inside the cavity of whatever meat one may be roasting, today stuffing is more of a side and cooked separately to prevent contamination. The first mention of this technique of cooking meat comes from the cookbook "Apicius de re Coquinaria", a compilation of Roman recipes that are thought to date back to the 1st Century AD. The cookbook mentions stuffing chicken, pig and rabbit with nuts, herbs, vegetables, spelt and even internal organs such as brain and liver.
The purpose of the stuffing is to keep the meat moist and add to the flavor, however around the 1970's the USDA issued a safety warning due to the risk of salmonella poisoning when using this cooking technique. This coupled with the launch of the Stovetop stuffing mix forever changed our approach to how we cooked and served our "dressing". Of course, Â presentation wise it looks very pretty to have the stuffing in the meat cavity, but the two can be easily be cooked separately yet put together just before Â serving.
Whether we use a store bought mix or make it from scratch, the basic technique and ingredients of a good stuffing are the same. You start with a bread or grain, add stock for moisture, fat to brown and soften and eggs to bind and set the mixture. From this point onwards the sky is the limit and you can put your creative cooking skills to work and add whatever assortment of meats, vegetables, herbs and other ingredients you can think of and get your hands on.
No matter how you make your stuffing there are a few key things to remember:
1. The bread or grain to vegetables ratio should be 2:1
2. If you want your stuffing firmer add more eggs, if you want it softer add a bit of extra broth.
3. If you like your stuffing on the crispier side try baking it in a sheet pan.
4. Adding the broth is a must as it adds a flavor similar to what it would have been if we had cooked our stuffing inside our meat.
5. SautÃ© the vegetables but cool them a bit before mixing with the bread to prevent it from getting soggy.
6. It's always better to use fresh herbs if you can get some.
7. If you need your "filling" to be gluten free try cornbread as the base! It's a Southern Tradition and tastes delicious! In fact you should try it sometime even you can handle gluten!
For my recipe I decided to infuse it with some traditional fall flavors. Due to Covid and grocery limitations I couldn't get fresh herbs and thought my usual classic recipe needed a lift so I thought of adding some butternut squash and Granny Smith apples. The combination works really well in soup so why not try it in the dressing? As I always like a bit of texture variation in my food I decided to toss in a packet of pine nuts I had on hand and for the dried fruit often found and used in filling, I decided to try throwing in some Mejdool dates. The results? A little short of fabulous even if I do say so myself!
The sweetness of the dates and butternut squash perfectly balanced the tanginess of the green apples. The pine nuts on the other hand have a lightly sweet and subtle flavor and added a nice depth to the stuffing with their taste and slight crunch. I hope you decide to try this recipe and like it as much as I did! Throw a comment below to let me know what you thought!
1 stick butter (½ cup)
½ Cup Celery
½ Cup Diced Yellow Onion
½ Cup Diced Butternut Squash
½ Cup Diced Granny Smith Apple
½ Cup Chopped Green Onions
8 Cups Stale Bread
½ Teaspoon Salt
½ Teaspoon Black Pepper
1 Teaspoon Rosemary
1 Teaspoon Thyme
1 Teaspoon Parsley
½ Cup Chopped Dates
½ Cup Pine Nuts
2 Cups Chicken Broth
1. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees and grease your baking dish.
2. Melt the butter in a sauce pan and sautÃ© the onion, celery, squash, green apple and green onions for 5 minutes till they're slightly wilted and you can smell the aroma of all the ingredients. Set aside till needed.
Note: It's best to add this to the bread after it has cooled down a bit to prevent the bread from getting soggy.
3. Roughly tear your bread into pieces and sprinkle with the salt, pepper and herbs.
Note: It's important that the bread be stale or else it will become mushy during the cooking process. I buy my bread a day or so before I'm about to make the stuffing, but if you're not able to do that you can bake the bread in the oven at 350 degrees for about 10-15 minutes. Another great tip is to toss any stale bread you may have at home in the freezer to pull out and use for stuffing, croutons or bread pudding as and when needed.
Note: Fresh herbs are better if available, but dried herbs can be used as well.
4. Beat the eggs and add them to the bread mixture, stirring to mix well.
5. Add the dates, pine nuts and chicken stock and mix.
6. Add the sautéed mixture and stir in.
7. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes and serve.