By Orlando Ramirez
Stuffing (or dressing, if you insist) is the soul of Thanksgiving. There's turkey and pumpkin pie and even a cranberry mold, but the stuff that gets remembered is the stuffing.
What defines stuffing? It's got to have texture, flavor and be moist.
The success of a stuffing comes from the interplay of the mushy starches, usually cubed bread, but can also include rice, cornbread, potatoes and other items such as the vegetables, nuts and fruits.
The bland flavor and texture of the starches is the foundation. From here you can build the textures, whether they be the crunch of vegetables like celery or the toothsome quality of dried fruits and the unexpected bite of nuts.
Each bite of stuffing should be a mix of contrasting textures, because bread soaked in broth alone has limited appeal.
Flavor is the tricky aspect of stuffing because it has many elements, each adding their notes to the final product. The first element is the flavor of the starch base. This should start as bland as possible to soak up the flavors that are added later.
Keep in mind that a good starch is essential to the success of your stuffing. One idea is to stop by your local baker and buy a couple of loaves of flavorful bread with a good texture and set it aside to make the cubes for your own stuffing. Likewise, if you're using cornbread, make a batch in advance just for stuffing. This can be frozen.
The important element in bread stuffings is that the bread be absolutely dry when added to the wet ingredients. If it is not, the liquids will soak the bread and make them soggy and gummy in texture.
If you are buying the prepackaged dressing at the supermarket, check the ingredients to see if they've already been flavored with onion, sage, rosemary or other things. If you use the packaged cubes, taste your stuffing to see if it has enough flavor already, before adding more herbs and spices.
While on the topic, check the potency of your herbs and spices in your pantry before you start cooking. If you haven't used them since last Thanksgiving, they probably have gone flat and lost their flavor.
The other big factor in the flavor of stuffing is the oil or butter. Fats carry flavor and the quality and quantity of what you use to saute the onions and celery again affects the final outcome.
Onions and celery form the base for much stuffings. The celery can be unobtrusive or assertive depending on how finely it is diced. Larger pieces provide texture and crunch, while finely diced celery melts into the background.
There are many members of the onion family that can be added to boost the flavor of stuffing. Garlic, shallots and leeks are all related and provide subtle differences in flavor.
Fruit is often added to stuffings for color, texture and flavor. Dried fruits work particularly well because they absorb liquids during cooking and become plump. Also their concentrated flavors adds a sharp sweetness against the savory flavors that predominate in a stuffing.
Apples and pears are often found in stuffing recipes. Their flavor is more subtle and their texture more mealy, closer to the mushiness of the starches and sauteed vegetables.
Nuts provide crunch. Almost every kind of nut has been used, from macadamias and pistachios to pine nuts. Be sure to roast the nuts before adding them to the mix. This brings out the oils and, thus, the flavor of the nuts.
Too much or too little liquid is the last, final step in making a good stuffing. Many people use the neck and giblets to make a broth to moisten the stuffing, which is a good idea. However, keep in mind you can use canned chicken broth. Just be aware that many of these products are salty and can throw off the balance of seasonings.
Wine is often used as a liquid. Add a little at a time and taste because, depending on the wine, it can quickly overpower the other ingredients. Also keep in mind that wines can react with other ingredients and give the final product an unappetizing gray color.