March 13, 2010

Stuffing you'll want to gobble up

— Trying to decide on a stuffing for your turkey is kind of like choosing a vice president. It's not the main course, but it should still be a crowd pleaser and able to stand on its own.

And don't worry about being politically correct. Go ahead, use real butter. After all, it's Thanksgiving.

''It's the one time of year when bread has no calories,'' says Chef Wilfred Beriau, chair of the culinary arts department at Southern Maine Community College.

There are so many choices. You could go with a traditional sausage or oyster stuffing. Or try something from another region of the country, such as a rice or cornbread stuffing from the South, or spicier flavors from the Southwest.

''I have a friend who stuffs his turkey with tamales. Fantastic, fantastic, fantastic,'' said Rick Rodgers, author of ''Thanksgiving 101'' and ''50 Best Stuffings and Dressings.''

Even lobster, which is selling for record-low prices, could be used in a Thanksgiving stuffing if you're willing to experiment a little. Yes, lobster. Substitute shallots for onions, and use sauteed fennel rather than celery. Add a pinch of tarragon or basil.

Partially cook the shellfish before combining it with the bread, then bake for 20 minutes or so, and ''it's going to be a delicious stuffing,'' said Beriau. ''Mix it with a little sweet sausage or andouille sausage ... oh, my god.''

Esau Crosby, chef at Solo Bistro in Bath, always returns to his Southern roots at Thanksgiving. He won't serve his family anything other than the same cornbread stuffing his mother made for him.

''Cornbread,'' he said. ''That's the only way to do it. I never thought there was any other stuffing until I came out East.''

The most time-consuming part of this stuffing is making your own cornbread. Rodgers says the cornbread has to be made from scratch, rather than a muffin mix or cornbread from a bakery, or else it will have too much sugar in it.

''I do it in a cast-iron skillet with animal fat,'' Crosby said, ''not olive oil or margarine or Pam. Bacon grease, lard -- something that comes from an animal.''

When the cornbread's done, Crosby lets it cool so he'll be able to crush it with his hands. ''That's the way my mom did it, and I'm not going to change it.''

Then he tosses in some rubbed sage, along with celery and onions he sauteed earlier and has waiting on the side.

Crosby pours his homemade turkey stock in with the sauteed vegetables, and when it's hot, he adds it to the cornbread mixture along with a little fresh thyme. The stock is added until the stuffing is the right consistency, the thickness of ''a good cement.'' Then it's baked until it's solid.

Cornbread stuffing doesn't look like something that will ever grace the cover of Gourmet, but it's full of flavor, and is sure to please your Thanksgiving guests.

Lawrence Klang, chef de cuisine at Natalie's at the Camden Harbour Inn, wows his guests with a different kind of presentation for his turkey stuffing. He stuffs the legs and thighs of the bird rather than the breast, and cooks it separately. Preparing the stuffing this way takes care of a common problem at Thanksgiving: People tend to overcook the breast, and undercook the legs and thighs.

First, Klang removes the meat from the bone, keeping it in one piece by making a long incision with a filet knife.

''If you're patient and you just follow the outline of the bone, it's not very difficult,'' he said. ''It's very important that you remove the tendons from the leg. They're almost like small toothpicks.''

For the bread part of the stuffing, Klang uses a baguette.

''I will trim the outside of the bread, then lightly fry it in olive oil,'' he said. ''It adds a nice toasty flavor to the bread. You can rub it with a garlic clove afterwards and let it sit at room temperature, and then grind it into bread crumbs. Or you can use a knife, as well.''

After the bread is done, Klang cooks some onions and leeks very slowly with butter and olive oil until they're extremely soft. The giblets are sauteed separately -- in duck fat, if he has it -- and added to the leeks and onions. Then, if you're trying this at home, toss in whatever else you like -- walnuts, chestnuts, porcini or shiitake mushrooms, dried fruits or fois gras.

When he puts the stuffing together, Klang adds an egg yolk or two and a touch of cream to keep the mixture moist and to add some flavor. Be sure to add some herbs -- thyme and parsley rather than sage, he suggests -- and maybe a touch of Parmesan reggiano.

Seal the stuffing in the meat with a toothpick or twine, and pop it in the oven.

''After I give something some color, I tend to cook things (at) a little lower (temperature),'' Klang said. ''I'll probably cook the leg at 325 (degrees), and that's only because I have turkey liver in it and some fois gras. If I cook it at a higher temperature, it's going to cause the meat to shrink, and it's going to push all of the flavor and the fat out of the meat.''

Klang said preparing the stuffing this way does take something away from the traditional Thanksgiving table presentation, because there's not a whole bird to unveil.

''You'd have to do something more like a beautiful plated turkey dinner, with some beautifully cut slices of turkey breast and then the leg and thigh stuffed beside it,'' he said. ''Maybe some fresh greens and some fruit compote, and some turkey jus over it.

''The leg and thigh, actually, I think, surpasses the breast and interest in the breast. It really changes peoples' perception. People will leave your Thanksgiving dinner and say 'Wow, I never had anything like that,' and probably remember it for a while.''

Arden and David Hoffman are all about making Thanksgiving easier on Mom -- or whoever does the cooking -- so she can enjoy the day, too. But that doesn't have to mean turning to Stove Top.

The Hoffmans own Eagles Cove, an oceanside rental property in Winter Harbor where David Hoffman, who is a chef, offers holiday cooking classes preparing festive dishes such as smoked turkey with wild blueberry sauce, roasted sage walnut biscuits, pumpkin pie with maple dressing, and lavendar punch with island figs.

For their traditional oyster stuffing, they insist on good-quality bread and fresh herbs. Arden Hoffman said she likes oyster stuffing because it is simple, and it can be made a little ahead of time, which allows the flavors to meld.

And that gives the cook a little breathing room.

''People have really gotten away from entertaining because they feel so intimidated by it,'' Hoffman said. ''We're getting away from the fact that entertaining is supposed to be fun, it's supposed to be pleasurable, and it can really be simple.''

Esau Crosby agrees. Too many people are trying to create the perfect Martha Stewart moment, he said, and that's not what Thanksgiving is all about.

''That's a waste of time, as far as I'm concerned,'' Crosby said. ''It's not about impressing people, it's about family and eating, and everybody joining together for a good meal and good feelings.''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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