“Please talk about stuffing. Not only do we want to eat cruelty-free, but also allergy-free, as three of us have celiac disease.” —Holly Orange
As far as stuffing goes, once you start thinking out of the (bread) box, a whole new world opens up. And you don’t have to be suffering from celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity to expand your horizons.
When I think stuffing, cornbread is my go-to alternative to wheat bread; in fact, I tend to prefer it, as it’s not as heavy after absorbing the juices of the bird. It also works with any number of flavors.
I come from the coastal South, and so my first instinct is to pair it with juicy, briny oysters and/or crunchy, buttery pecans. But adding sliced fennel, crumbly cooked sausage, onions, and peppers will swing you toward Italy, and strips of earthy charred poblanos or chopped green chiles, spicy chorizo, and pine nuts will take you to the great Southwest. In fact, there’s a wonderful recipe in Sunset magazine that I’d love to try; it includes butternut squash, which is a brilliant idea. Corn, chiles, and squash are all New World ingredients, and I especially like the fact that butternut squash was developed in Massachusetts, cultural bedrock for Thanksgiving.
My basic cornbread recipe comes out of The Gourmet Cookbook (available at your local independent bookseller or at amazon). From Chicago chef Susan Goss, it’s made from 100 percent cornmeal, which is not always the case (often, the cornmeal is cut with flour). Light, flavorful, and moist, it’s reason alone to own a cast-iron skillet. Bake the cornbread two days ahead of time so it has a chance to dry out a bit. Crumble it for the stuffing, then store it in an airtight container at room temperature. I like this cornbread and kale stuffing, but you could also wing it—perhaps substitute Swiss chard for the kale and up the ante by adding dried cranberries or cherries and/or golden raisins to the mix.
You can also make a wonderful stuffing with rice, and I’ve turned up recipes from two great American culinary icons for this great American holiday. I’m sure you’re familiar with James Beard, but Clementine Paddleford? Maybe not so much. In short, she was a plain-spoken (and plane-flying) journalist and food editor who famously wrote, “Tell me where your grandmother came from and I can tell you how many kinds of pie you serve for Thanksgiving.”
James Beard relies on plain cooked rice in his recipe, combining it with finely chopped chicken or turkey livers, and pistachios. Appearing in a 1956 issue of House & Garden, it is basically a variation on “dirty rice”—a Cajun specialty that gets its characteristic dark color and distinctive flavor from being cooked with chicken livers.
Common, or true rice (Oryza sativa or O. glaberrima) is native to India, Asia, and Africa. But wild rice (Zizania aquatica or Z. palustris), which Paddleford utilizes in her recipe, is actually the seed of a grass that flourishes in the marshes of lakes from Minnesota to Ontario. Wild rice contains more protein than true rice, and it’s also high in lysine, an amino acid lacking in most grains—nice to know if you are thinking of concocting a vegetarian main-course casserole.
Although Paddleford’s recipe calls for three tablespoons of flour, that little problem is easy enough to surmount: Simply substitute cornstarch. And this recipe beautifully lends itself to improvisation—toss in some sautéed wild mushrooms, perhaps, or dried cherries, and, for crunch, lightly toasted hazelnuts. Although most of the wild rice you’ll find at the supermarket is commercially grown and mechanically harvested, the Ojibwe still harvest it each year in the traditional way, knocking the ripened seeds into canoes.
My Thanksgiving gift to you is this YouTube video. It is short on action, but manages to convey a very genuine sense of place—a wild rice lake in northern Wisconsin—and a man who has been ricing for almost 60 years. Have a great holiday!
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Currently the features director at Martha Stewart Living, Jane Lear was also on staff at Gourmet for almost 20 years. There, she helped develop the concept of an annual produce issue—the first time a food magazine ever grappled with the politics of the plate—and headed up seven subsequent produce issues. She also wrote about culinary techniques as well as the popular "Kitchen Notebook" section. Jane is a contributor to numerous cookbooks and now blogs regularly at JaneLear.com. As our weekly food advice columnist, she's here to answer questions about the food landscape, from policy to no-fail cooking techniques. TakePart.com