Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 II: Herbed Stuffing with Celery Sausage, Dried Cranberries, and Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

I should have taken a picture of this dish because I was so pleased with how it came out, especially because I didn't really follow a recipe. I'm blogging about it now mainly because I want to record the recipe in case I ever want to make it again! To me, it had all the essentials: meatiness from the sausage, flavor from the aromatics, sweetness from the dried cranberries, and texture from the crispy croutons, plus an added punch of texture and umami from toasted pumpkin seeds.

After the pre-Thanksgiving Splendid Table program I'd listened to on NPR in which New York Times food writer Melissa Clark had broken down the stuffing essentials, I figured I had the basics pretty much down. She emphasized that stuffing must at a minimum include the classic mirepoix of onions, carrots, and celery and of course dry bread (this is basically my Mom's stuffing, which goes into her bird and is always delicious when flavored with turkey stock she makes from the neck and giblets). Additional flavor can be added from sausage, bacon, prosciutto, oysters, etc. and crunch from some kind of nut, preferably toasted. The mixture is then moistened with some flavorful stock or broth and either stuffed into the bird for even more heightened deliciousness or cooked in a separate dish, which is required if you're doing a vegetarian version for some of the guests at your table. Cooking a stuffed bird adds to the turkey cooking time, but cooking outside the bird means one more thing has to go into the oven, where space may be at a premium.

Originally I'd conceived of stuffing my acorn squash with this stuffing, hence the idea of using pumpkin seeds instead of another nut like walnuts or pecans. The pumpkin seed idea came from watching a new Food Network show, Mexican Made Easy, in which the hostess used toasted pumpkin seeds (or was it pine nuts?) in a brussel sprout preparation, which just seemed so New World to me. Pumpkins seeds toast much quicker in the oven than other nuts BTW. I put in my first half cup and set the timer for 15 minutes, thinking they'd be done in about 20. Ha! After just 8 or 9 minutes the kitchen started smelling like bacon or roast chicken oddly enough. It wasn't until something smelled like it was burning that I remembered my pumpkin seeds in the oven! Fortunately I had more on hand, which I toasted in the oven for only 5 minutes and they were perfect. The first batch was put out as a finger snack which everyone kind of liked actually so I guess they weren't burnt black and inedible, just dark brown and kind of smoky. Likewise the addition of the dried cranberries was also an homage to another quintessential fall food from the New World. Apples, raisins, or currants might have likewise been used but the cranberries are a natural complement to the Thanksgiving table, which you may really appreciate if their only other presences is in that tired old canned cranberry sauce.

At its core, stuffing is like a savory bread pudding. So of course the quality of the bread matters. I've a good friend who bakes a fresh sandwich loaf of white bread just to make his stuffing. In the past I've preferred to make cornbread stuffing with a homemade herbed cornbread that my mother absolutely loves and nibbles at even as I'm trying to let it dry out for the stuffing. Combined with about half a baguette, the cornbread stuffing rocks. However, I was able to get a bag of dried out herbed croutons at the farmers market that were perfect for the bread portion of the stuffing. The bread has to be dry if it's to absorb the stock, so if you start with a fresh baguette, you have a chance to add your own herbs and toast the bread in the oven to make sure it is suitably dried out.

Herbed Stuffing with Sausage, Dried Cranberries and Toasted Pumpkin Seeds
Serves 10-12 as a Thanksgiving side

1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
1 bag of herbed croutons if available, else half a baguette, cut into 3/4 inch cubes and left out to air dry for 1 day
4 tablespoons of olive oil, divided
1 pound of sausage (celery, sage, or Italian)
1 large onion, diced
2 large carrots diced
2 large stalks of celery diced
3 cloves of garlic, minced
2 cups of stock, plus additional if necessary
1 egg
1/2 cup dried cranberries

Toasting the Pumpkin Seeds and Optionally, the Baguette: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the pumpkin seeds in a skillet or metal pan large enough to hold the seeds in a single layer. Let toast in the oven for 5 minutes, checking after 3. When you can smell the seeds they're about ready and will have turned from dark green to golden brown. For the croutons, in a large mixing bowl combine 1/4 cup olive oil with a heaping tablespoon of an herb mix such as poultry seasoning, herbes de provence or any other combination of dried herbs you may like. Toss the dried bread in the herb oil mixture to evenly coat the pieces. Spread out in a single layer on a baking sheet and place in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes. After 10 minutes stir the croutons around and continue baking for another 10 to 15 minutes. When lightly browned, turn off the oven, leave the door slightly ajar and let the croutons cool and dry out in the oven.

Brown the sausage and vegetables: Heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a wide skillet or saute pan. Remove the sausage from the casing if necessary and brown for 5 to 8 minutes, breaking up the sausage into smaller and smaller pieces while moving it around to brown evenly. Keeping as much oil in the pan as possible, remove the sausage from the pan using a slotted spoon and set aside in a bowl large enough to mix the stuffing. Heat the pan over medium heat and add the diced onion stirring to coat with the oil in the pan. Cook over medium heat until translucent, about 7 minutes. Add the carrots and celery to the pan, adding all or part of the remaining two tablespoons of oil if necessary to coat them as well. Let cook until softened, about another 7 minutes, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. De-glaze the pan with half a cup of chicken stock, using a wooden spoon to scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Reduce the liquid by half. Transfer the vegetables and any residual liquid to the bowl with the sausage.

Finishing the Stuffing and Baking it Off: Raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Lightly butter a 9 inch square baking dish. Toss the croutons, pumpkin seeds, and dried cranberries with the reserved vegetables and sausage. Break the egg into a separate bowl and mix with a fork or a whisk. Whisk the egg and stock together and combine with the vegetables, croutons, and cranberries. Stir until the bread is evenly moistened but not soaked. Spread the mixture into the buttered baking dish, pressing down to absorb the liquid. Bake uncovered for 30 to 40 minutes until browned and crispy on top. Let cool slightly and then serve on the side with your perfectly roasted turkey, some gravy, and some cranberry chutney!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 I: Three Sisters Stuffed Squash

Saturday before Thanksgiving: main ingredients for squash stuffed with beans, corn, and mushrooms served on Thanksgiving Day and roasted mini cauliflower with apples, caramelized onions, dried cranberries, and dill served the night before were purchased at the farmers market

It was about three years and 65 blog posts ago that I began Ganbaru Cook around Thanksgiving 2007. How time flies! For the food obsessed, Thanksgiving is the big kahuna, and this year we happily found ourselves at Brian's cousin's house in North Carolina for the second year in a row. Yay! We love spending time with her and her hubby outside Charlotte as they're a laid back couple just like we are. What started out as dinner for just the four of us turned into dinner for six when friends from their golf club were invited at the last minute. The more the merrier, which also gave you-know-who another excuse to add to a menu that was already more than ample, I assure you.

So here was the menu for the day. Items with an asterisk (*) were either brought or prepared by your itinerant blogger.
Monocacy ash goat cheese* with cranberry quince chutney*
Boursin cheese
Spicy pickled green beans*

Roast breast of turkey (we had numerous discussions about the required cooking time for turkey but Epicurious had the best guide based on stuffed/unstuffed and preferred oven temp. The turkey packaging would have guaranteed a dry bird, recommending three hours for an 8 pound bone-in breast!)*
Smashed red potatoes
Stuffing with celery sausage, cranberries, and toasted pumpkin seeds*
Corn pudding
Slow cooked green beans
Acorn squash stuffed with leeks, beans, corn and mushrooms (pictured)*
Jellied cranberry sauce
Onion gravy*

Apple pie (homemade)
Carrot Cake (not)
Vanilla ice cream
Cool whip

I hadn't done Thanksgiving at home since 2008 when we last hosted my family, but since we'd taken an extended family trip to Florida in September it only seemed fair to spend this holiday with Brian's family. I'd bought the cauliflower and acorn squash at the farmers market this past Saturday wanting to make both for Thanksgiving this year because last year I missed having something orange at Thanksgiving (either squash or sweet potatoes) and more veggies are always a good idea since the meal can be so carb centric with the stuffing, potatoes, and biscuits. When we finally listed all the dishes in mind for Thursday, Brian's cousin "Stacy" balked at having so many items on the menu, so the roasted cauliflower with apples, onions, cranberries, and dill was prepared on Wednesday night along with meatloaf and black rice, which worked out fine as the oven was going to be crowded enough already on Thursday.

I didn't bring any recipes or cookbooks with me this go-round deciding to let my memory and the ingredients themselves determine preparations. Along with my santoku, carving set, fat separator, kitchen scale, French press, and oven thermometer (you're reading a blog post of the food obsessed don't forget), I also brought along my own all-purpose fennel spice rub, a quart of homemade chicken stock, and caramelized onions, the last of which were a god send for when I got lazy and didn't feel like chopping and sauteing another onion. In fact anything you read about preparing a big feast like Thanksgiving will advise doing ahead as much as possible and the onions caramelized in a slow cooker over 12 hours are a no brainer. I used them in the roasted cauliflower in lieu of fresh sliced onion and minced them into my gravy and stuffing as well and still had plenty to freeze for a French onion soup I'm envisioning this winter.

The other dish I wanted to contribute was a squash dish on the three sisters theme: corn, beans, and squash. As these are foods that Native Americans grew together, they are natural complements when cooked together too. Last fall I was somewhat obsessed with the concept and realized at the the time that with winter squash instead of summer, a three sisters dish belongs on the Thanksgiving table. I'm most proud of this dish because I winged it. It's also substantial enough to be a vegetable main for any vegetarians at your table and omitting the cream cheese would make it vegan. The three main steps below (roasting the squash, preparing the stuffing, and finishing in the oven) can all be accomplished in stages and need not be completed at the same time.

Acorn Squash Stuffed with Mushrooms, Corn and Beans
Serves 8

4 small to medium acorn or delicata squash, halved, seeds removed
olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
8 to 10 shiitake mushrooms, stems trimmed, and then quartered
2 leeks, white and light green parts only, halved, washed, and sliced crosswise into quarter inch pieces
1 fennel bulb, cored and diced
2 tablespoons finely chopped sage
1 cup of stock, white wine, or water [I used a combination of wine and chicken stock]
1 cup of beans, canned, frozen, or fresh [I used a combo of fresh garbanzos and frozen shelled edamame]
1 cup of corn
2 ounces (about 1/4 cup) of cream cheese, softened to room temperature, or sour cream
salt and pepper to taste

Garnish (optional):
16 sage leaves
1/4 cup olive oil

Pre-cook the Squash: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle a little bit of olive oil onto each squash half and season with salt and pepper. Arrange the squash flesh side down in a single layer in a large baking dish. [I squeezed mine into a 13 x 9 pan.] Pour about half an inch of water into the pan and place on a rack in the middle of the oven. Roast for 30 minutes and remove from the oven. Let cool in the pan until able to handle. [I prepared mine the night before and left at room temperature covered with waxed paper as there was no room in the fridge!]

Prepare the filling while the squash is roasting: Heat the olive oil and melt the butter in a wide skillet on medium high heat. Add the mushrooms in a single layer and let cook undisturbed for 5 minutes until lightly browned on one side. Stir and let cook undisturbed for five minutes more. Add the leeks, fennel, and chopped sage and stir to combine. Add more oil if necessary so the vegetables are lightly coated. Season with salt and pepper and let cook until softened, 5 to 7 minutes. De-glaze the pan with the wine or stock, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pan using a wooden spoon. Add the beans of your choice and the corn kernels. Reduce the heat and let simmer 10 minutes until the liquid has reduced by half and the beans and corn are cooked or heated through. Turn off the heat, let cool slightly, and stir in the cream cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. [Can be prepared a day ahead. Let cool to room temperature and then cover and refrigerate.]

Finishing the dish: When cool enough to handle spoon the vegetable stuffing into each squash half, distributing evenly and mounding as high as possible. Cover with aluminum foil and return to the 400 degree oven for 30 minutes. Optionally, garnish with whole or crushed fried sage leaves (optional next step) or other chopped fresh herbs such as parsley or chives and serve immediately.

Optional fried sage leaf garnish: This is a two-for-one deal as you are creating sage oil, which can and should be reserved for other uses (I used mine in a spice rub for the turkey breast), in addition to the crispy fried sage leaves. In fact the quarter cup of olive oil is only the minimum amount to use. If you'd like additional sage oil for dipping bread, garnishing a soup , or making a salad dressing, by all means use more oil and more sage leaves and even the stems to infuse the oil. To simply make the sage leaf garnish, heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a skillet or wide saucepan. Add the sage leaves in a single layer and let cook until they no longer sizzle, about 3 minutes. Carefully remove to a plate lined with a paper towel and let cool to room temperature. These can be prepared a day ahead and stored in an airtight container. To make sage oil, to the same pot or skillet, bruise a few sprigs of sage in your hands by rolling them into a loose ball. Add to the heated oil and let sizzle for 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let the sage and oil infuse by cooling to room temperature, about 1 hour. Discard the sage sprigs and store the reserved oil in the refrigerator in a jar. To kick it up a notch, you could also fry a clove or two of unpeeled garlic or strips of lemon or orange peel along with the sage or any other fresh herb such as basil, thyme, or rosemary. Let your palate and your menu be your guide!