Fowl play: stuffing the bird


Every Thanksgiving, millions of households around the country grapple with the same old stuffing dilemmas - to make the traditional cornbread and sage recipe or branch out into more daring dishes like oyster, wild rice or chestnut dressings, and whether to stuff the bird or do a casserole or stovetop version.

First, I’m going to help you navigate your way through the stuffing part of the holiday dinner with the least angst and most enjoyment. Second, I’ll try to keep your family and guests free from stomach woes. And third, I’ll show you how to repair glitches and disasters so you don’t get the stuffing knocked out of you.

The term stuffing originated from the Latin farcire meaning “to stuff.” In the late 1800s “stuffing” was considered gauche vernacular to the Victorian upper crust, so they swapped it for the more gentile “dressing.” Stuffing was enjoyed in the days of the Roman Empire as ancient cookbooks chronicled chicken, rabbit, pork and dormouse being used as cavities.

Food historians can’t confirm whether stuffing was served at the inaugural Thanksgiving dinner at Plymouth Rock, but the concept was brought to America where folks on the Eastern Seaboard first concocted an oyster stuffing which is still a Thanksgiving tradition in those parts.

Today, Southerners choose pecan, rice or cornbread stuffing; Italians like sausage; Germans use dried fruit or potatoes; the French enjoy sweet chestnuts chopped into their turkey or goose dressings; the Portuguese make a potato and giblet stuffing; and a Cajun creation known as the Turducken - a turkey stuffed with a duck, stuffed with a chicken, stuffed with andouille sausage stuffing - has gained popularity throughout the U.S.

Some cooks make casseroles or stovetop versions. Others are die-hard bird stuffers who fill the cavity au naturel or line it with a cheese cloth or a stuffing bag - a neat and easy way of removing the stuffing with one yank. Remember, stuffing increases the cooking time of the bird. Unstuffed, cook for 20 minutes per pound. Stuffed, add an extra 10 minutes per pound.

For a dressing that won’t threaten to harm your Thanksgiving crowd, stuff just before you are ready to roast as pre-stuffing could breed salmonella.

It is also worth investing in a poultry thermometer to test for bird and stuffing doneness. Cook the stuffing until the center registers 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove the stuffing immediately after you take the bird out of the oven, once again to prevent kooties as the turkey cools. Also, reheat the stuffing on the stove to the same temperature.

It is imperative to thoroughly cook eggs, seafood and meat, especially oysters and sausages if they are cavity-bound, to prevent contaminants from forming.

Even if you decide not to stuff, please remove the giblet bag from the cavity before roasting - the most common Thanksgiving faux pas. Someone even nuked the bird containing the bag and had to scrape the gizzard, liver and other equally unappetizing parts, along with melted plastic fragments scattered on the microwave interior. If this happens to you, clean out the cavity and zip your lips.

Another popular gaffe is stuffing the cavity with raw, but benign ingredients - rice, pasta and potatoes. A friend of mine thought she would save a step by stuffing her turkey with raw wild rice. To her horror, and her 20 dinner guests, the rice was still raw even after cooking for several hours in the bird’s cavity.

For culinary damage control, scoop the semi-raw stuffing into a casserole and bake on moderately high heat until desired doneness. It is also best to pre-cook the veggies like diced celery, onions and mushrooms so they are tender.

And try not to be too kitschy with your stuffing. A neophyte cook loved popcorn so much, she tried stuffing her turkey with dried kernels - morphing her kitchen into a movie theatre. Once again, just remove any stray “stuffing” from the cavity and throw it out.

A divine, easy vegetarian stuffing that can also be made as a side dish is my Israeli couscous: a wild mushroom and cranberry concoction that you’ll love so much, you’ll be making it all year-round. Happy and safe stuffing!

Israeli Couscous and Wild Mushroom Stuffing

  • 1 12-ounce package of Israeli couscous
  • 3-1/2 cups of vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1/2 small red onion, diced
  • 8 ounces of assorted wild mushrooms,

chopped (oyster, crimini, shiitake)

  • 1/4 cup of dried sweetened cranberries
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • Sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 teaspoon of sage

In a covered saucepan heat the oil on low and saute the onion and mushrooms until tender. Add the Israeli couscous and toast for one minute.
Add the broth, cranberries and seasonings. Cover and simmer for about 8 minutes or until the liquid is absorbed.

Stuff in the bird’s cavity immediately before roasting or serve as a side dish. If it was stuffed inside the bird, take it out and reheat it to 165 degrees on the stove before serving. Garnish with fresh sage leaves.