With Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night behind us and days getting longer and colder, our thoughts invariably turn to the winter holidays and, with it… turkey!
Families in the United States have, no doubt, already begun planning their Thanksgiving meals and, here in the UK, smart hosts are tallying potential dinner guests so they can order their Christmas birds in advance. Although not the traditional fare at English holiday tables, turkey soon overtook goose as the meat of choice as turkeys are larger, meatier, and can feed more people while occupying the same amount of oven space.
Indeed, our modern breeds of turkey are so meaty that there are probably more recipes dedicated to the creative use of leftover turkey meat than there are to the cooking of the bird itself. Take this excerpt from one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s notebooks, for instance – just don’t take it too seriously!
Although turkey might be the star of the holiday table, it would be nothing without its supporting cast. Every family has its favorite side dishes- those foods that evoke fond memories and without which the holiday would not be complete. Many of these dishes harken back to grandma’s time and reflect our ethnic backgrounds. Others are quite simply ‘tradition.’ In the United States, turkey always comes with a side of cranberry sauce. Here in England, you’d best not forget the roasted potatoes or Brussels Sprouts. And in Canada a Christmas without a butter tart wouldn’t be Christmas at all.
Growing up in New York, our family Thanksgiving consisted of turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, creamed cauliflower, the ubiquitous green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and stuffing, or dressing, as many Americans refer to it. As my grandmother was not much for cooking and my mother was often too ill to stand at the stove for long stretches of time, many of our holiday foods were convenience products, and the stuffing was no exception. Inexpensive, relatively tasty, and on the table with minimal effort, it ticked all the boxes for what a stuffing needed to be.
And yet, without fail, every Thanksgiving my grandmother and mother would wax nostalgic for my great grandmother’s stuffing. Finally, at the age of twenty, when I had taken over much of my mother’s cooking duties, I decided to make ‘real’ stuffing for Thanksgiving.
I was quite shocked to discover how simple stuffing is to make and how delicious it was in comparison to the desiccated store bought varieties.
In the years since that first Thanksgiving of ‘real’ stuffing, I’ve lost both my grandmother and mother, married a wonderful man, and have moved abroad, yet my recipe has remained the same. A simple taste of tradition that makes me feel at home whatever might be going on in the world and wherever I might be.
Old Fashioned Bread Stuffing
This recipe is so simple that I feel silly for sharing it, however so many people rely upon boxed stuffing that I think it bears posting. Feel free to embellish this basic recipe with whatever you wish: sausage meat, oysters, mushrooms, etc. I often mix the onion with some leek for a subtle variation, but my husband likes this just the way it is.
One note, please do use the best quality white bread you can afford and, if you can, homemade stock, as they both make all the difference in the world. Stock isn’t very complicated to make and it uses up the bits and bobs of veg in the house: onion tops and skins, limp celery, old carrots, languishing herbs, dried up lemons. I keep a bag in my freezer for leftover veg and, when it’s full, throw it into the stock pot, cover with water, and simmer for two to three hours. Just a simple word of advice – don’t use strongly flavored veg for your stock. Asparagus, cabbage, broccoli, and the like will overpower the subtlety of the resulting broth.
One 1lb/500g loaf of sliced white bread
3/4 cup/180g unsalted butter (or a blend of butter and olive oil)
1 medium onion, chopped
3 stalks of celery, chopped
1 tablespoon of poultry seasoning (I used Bell’s in the States; here in the UK Sainsbury’s mixed herbs works well)
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper, to taste
1-1 1/2 cups (250 – 375 ml) chicken or vegetable stock
Arrange bread slices on a cookie sheet and cover with a tea towel to dry overnight. If you’re in a rush you can also place the cookie sheet in a low oven until dry and crumbly.
Cut bread into cubes or tear with your hands.
In a large stockpot, melt butter over medium heat. Once melted, add the celery and onions and cook until just tender.
Mix in bread until well coated.
Moisten with broth until desired consistency. If using to stuff a turkey, make a drier mixture as the turkey drippings will add moisture to the stuffing. If placing in a casserole dish and baking, make a wetter mixture as it will dry when it bakes.
For baked dressing in a casserole, place in a 8 x8 square glass dish and bake at 350F/180C for 30 to 40 minutes.
For stuffing balls to present alongside your roast, roll stuffing into balls and place on a cookie sheet. Bake at 350F/180C for 15 to 20 minutes.
If using to stuff turkey, please make sure the stuffing is COMPLETELY cooled and stuff IMMEDIATELY before roasting. Otherwise, your bird will become a breeding ground for bacteria.
For further info on stuffing your holiday bird check here.