Does this feel comfortable to you?
Comfort Food. It used to be such a ... "comforting" term. Then came 9/11 and suddenly it was an emotional and politically charged menu listing, which at it's most heinous level led off with "Freedom Fries" garnished with the obvious and bizarrely deserving "American Cheese Sauce". It's just so frightening when satire becomes a nation's leitmotif.
A few years ago I surveyed friends and family as to what was comfort food to them. There were a few common threads. Temperature had a lot to do with it. Not chocolate chip cookies .... WARM chocolate chip cookies. Indeed, outside of ice cream, almost all comfort foods claimed were warm. Familial provenance was also a consistent identifier. My Mom's meatloaf, her macaroni and cheese, my Dad's burgers in the summer. And of course, emotional connection. There are more than few out there who swore they'd never eat another ramen package after college, or who would starve before swallowing another bite of 5 for a dollar store brand mac & cheese. Yet, this same purist might just sneak a bite of either from their own children's plate. Those precious towheads starting off on establishing their own food memories...
Probably no emotional food connection rings louder than what connects around holidays. There's my Italian friends with the Christmas Eve Feast of 7 Fishes, the Greek's Easter Lamb, my Venezuelan husband's Christmas Hallaca, or the Ohio sister's Cryovac Roasted Easter Hams (Yes, she roasted the Easter ham in the grocery store's plastic wrapping.... in 1978 AND in 1996!)
All of which leads us logically to the Thanksgiving at our doorstep this week. My personal all time comfort food is stuffing. Mama Gladys didn't have a large repertoire, but what she did well, could slap you hard and make you go sit in a corner. Her stuffing was one of these in my memory. I'll never forget a few details.
First you have to understand my Mama cooked strictly from recipes, not instinct. If her stuffing recipe said you needed "one packet of vegetable seasoning from a package of Mrs. Grass's dehydrated vegetable soup", you could be damned sure we'd be driving that Chevy from one end of Springfield to the other, starting somewhere in the middle of September, in search of the elusive Mrs. Grass. And as time marched on, Mrs. Grass seemed to me overtaken by Knorrs and Liptons. Mama Gladys would truck no substitution. I remember one July afternoon, while on vacation, when she stormed into the cabin, proudly bandishing a few years worth of Mrs's Grass’s packets she'd stumbled upon in a grocery store in Gaylord, Michegan.
The next unimpeachable ingredient was sausage. Not spicy, not overly sagey. Clean, bulk, pork sausage. Here, I have to hang tight with the lady. That porkiness is just what that grand bird deserves. Her final commandment ... stale bread cubes, good stuff (which in those days meant Pepperridge Farm), cut by hand at least four days ahead, and laid out to dry. Never over toast. Again, she was right on. There's a chewiness you achieve from stale bread that toasted bread never gives you.
My Mama's Sausage Stuffing
Now I tell you flat out, this is my version of the grand lady's dish. First off, I don't hold any commerce with Mrs. Grass, may she rest in peace. Second, it's just stuffing dammit. Use this as jumping off point.
Cut up your bread into 1/2 inch cubes several days in advance. Lay the bread cubes out on sheet pans or place in large bowls, but be sure to toss frequently to achieve even dryness and no mold (especially if using natural breads). Gladys always used white bread, occasionally a bit of whole wheat if I could persuade her to be rambunctious. My personal choice is a mix of a 7 grain and Sourdough. The nuttiness of the grains and the chewiness of the sourdough provide a toothsome integrity that gets me exactly where I want my stuffing to go.
When you're ready to make stuffing, chop up bunches of celery, onion, carrots and garlic. Set aside. (Now understand I'm a bit of a purist. I'll discuss options at the end.) Chop up a little bacon and start to brown it in a large skillet. When the fat begins to render, add a generous amount of bulk pork sausage. Stir it around and begin to brown the sausage. Add the vegetables and continue to cook the sausage and vegetables until the pork looses its pinkness. I'll burn in the seventh ring of dietician's hell for this, but sometimes I add a big knob of butter here. Toss in some fresh chopped herbs - marjoram, rosemary, parsley (sage if you like, I don't), and set aside to cool. Remember that the star ingredient of stuffing is the bread. You want to be generous with the meats and vegetables, but don't overwhelm the leading lady.
Now, combine your stale bread cubes and the sausage vegetable mixture thoroughly. Slowly ladle a rich turkey or chicken stock into the mix as you stir. Keep tossing and adding stock until the whole conglomeration is evenly damp. Walk away for 10 minutes.
Come back and give the mix a squeeze. It should not form a doughy ball in your hand, but it should attempt to hold it's shape. Odd's are you'll need to add a bit more stock. When you think you are there.... either stuff the bird loosely, leaving room for expansion, or gently load the stuffing into a well buttered casserole or two. As for Big Mary, I don't like stuffing that's been stuffed, but that's just me. Drop the stuffing in loosely so it will roast toasty and crunchy and moist. In casserole, cook at 375* until well browned. If it looks like it's drying out excessively, ladel a bit more stock over it midway. If roasting in the bird, follow your normal holiday traditions or consult a good cook book.
Now, as I said, there are loads of possibilities outside my box. Chestnuts, mushrooms (wild, exotic or domestic), dried fruit, fresh apples, pears, wild rice, cornbread, chilies (poblano, jalapeno, ancho), sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, pecans, walnuts, sun dried tomatoes, fennel, grilled corn, well .... you get the picture. It's all about maintaining a textural balance and not obscuring your star, the stale bread.
Next time we'll talk more comfort food, especially Venezuellan Hallacas. Some good stories there, just you wait.
I apologize for the long absence. Blame it on this nasty flu/virus/cold/vague feeling of unease that has visited my work kitchen the last few weeks. But I'm on the mend, and never once forgot about you. No really, I mean it. Not that any of you made me a cup of tea, or brought me Kleenex, or some soup, a diet Coke ...
Now get out of here and give some thanks for your blessings. Friends, health, wealth, a dry bed, a dry hump, heat, hot water, family, a job, a job you like, a working car, public transportation, dreams, faith, love, a turkey and hopefully some stuffing. I wish you a minimum of three.
Contented Eating and Happy Thanksgiving