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!

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