Friday, November 19, 2010

Last Blessings: Sausage Chestnut Stuffing

In 2001, I felt grown up enough to host Thanksgiving. Jeff and I had become engaged that spring and wanted to bring our families together for a major holiday. Thanksgiving was the perfect debut. Not only did it lack any religious presumptions, but we lived on the legendary block where Macy's blows up its floats for the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Judging from my notes, I went into planning overdrive; drafting an exhaustive menu, assigning dishes, and even engineering how to transport our 25 lb turkey from 75th Street to 77th Street. (I gamely used a wheelie suitcase.) Meanwhile, Mom packed her own suitcase, filling it with Gourmet recipes from her 1970s heyday. She was going to join me for a Thanksgiving Cooking Sleepover Party.

What my brisk list-making skills belied was that I had no clue how to make a turkey. Nor had I used any of that organizational zeal to research the matter. Luckily, I had the Jeanne, who quietly prepared Thanksgiving dinner while I held my proverbial clipboard. As we bustled around my humble galley kitchen, I inadvertently received an excellent education in Thanksgiving entertainment.

No sooner had I dumped our turkey out of the suitcase that Mom began to wash and prepare the bird. She showed me how to tie up the legs and season it well. I grumbled that she was doing everything. “It's MY Thanksgiving! How am I supposed to learn if you don't let me make the turkey?” I maturely whined. She went on prodding the bird.

The stuffing was what finally shut me up. Mom’s Gourmet magazine recipe for Chestnut Sausage Stuffing was not written in tidy bullet points, but prose. Reading it was like decoding Beowulf. Mom deftly cooked the sausage in the turkey’s liver, magically making the liver melt into a wondrous sauce. Liver? I was simultaneously appalled and fascinated, wondering if I would ever have the nerve –let alone skill— to mess around with turkey innards.

By the time the guests arrived, I was in full Tasmanian devil mode. If I wasn’t shelling out crude commands like Bobby Knight, I was hovering over the turkey, opening the door so obsessively the poor bird had no chance of cooking.

As I yanked a dish from the oven, its ceramic handle broke off; the searing shard whacked me squarely in the forehead. Blood gushed everywhere. (OK, maybe not gushed, but clearly I was in mortal danger.) Everyone raced around, showering me with ice and the appropriate level of concern. I calmed down a bit, until Mom pondered aloud whether we should go to the emergency room. “I don’t know what to do,” she murmured innocently. I freaked, bellowing, “I want to go to the hospital!!!!!!!!!!!! NOW!!!” After all, if Jeanne didn’t know what to do, no one did.

Mom was hardly known for her calm demeanor. She was more of a sing-at-the-top-your-lungs-and-dance-on-the-fireplace kind of girl. Nevertheless, as a mother, she knew how to keep her cool in the face of a panicky child. (That panicky child was usually me.) Her graceful composure got us through some truly harrowing moments. To me, it's the very definition of adulthood.

I had hoped that Thanksgiving would mark the first of many such adult occasions in which I graciously hosted my mother, repaying her for all her generosity. I envisioned years of Mom and I creating holidays as an inimitable –albeit sometimes bickering and comical— team.

Alas, that was the last Thanksgiving Mom ever celebrated.

Every Thanksgiving, we traditionally pause from the day’s feasting, preparations and logistical details to give thanks for our blessings. A hokey and forced tradition perhaps, yet I silently cling to the same blessing each year. Thank you [God, Fate or Whatever], for allowing Jeanne’s last Thanksgiving be one in which her inner grace and beauty shined forth. Thank you for allowing me to share it with her.

Chestnut and Sausage Stuffing

Gourmet magazine, 1977

I have no idea where Mom’s copy of her stuffing recipe went. Thanks, however, to modern technology, I found this recipe on (link included below). The ingredients and vintage are exactly right, so I am just going to believe this is Mom’s. I have yet to actually attempt cooking this recipe of derring-do. On Wednesday, you can virtually join my Thanksgiving Cooking Party as I cook (and blog about) “The Stuffing.” In true navel-gazing fashion, I may even tweet a few play-by-plays. It could be a disaster, but I’ll try to make it an entertaining one. Stay tuned.

  • 1 (1 1/4-pound) loaf country-style bread, crust discarded and bread cut into 3/4-inch cubes (8 cups)
  • 1/2 pound sliced bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 3 medium onions, coarsely chopped
  • 3 celery ribs, coarsely chopped
  • 1 pound bulk pork sausage
  • 1 turkey liver (optional), coarsely chopped
  • 1/4 cup Cognac or other brandy
  • 1 1/2 cups half-and-half
  • 1 cup turkey stock or low-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 (14- to 15-oz) jar peeled cooked whole chestnuts, coarsely crumbled (3 cups)
  • 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dried sage, crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Put oven racks in upper and lower thirds of oven and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter a 2 1/2- to 3-quart shallow baking dish.

Spread bread cubes in a large shallow baking pan (1 inch deep) and bake in lower third of oven until completely dry, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool in pan on a rack 10 minutes. (Leave oven on.)

While bread bakes, cook bacon in a 12-inch heavy skillet over moderately high heat, stirring, until crisp, about 10 minutes, then transfer with a slotted spoon to a large bowl.

Pour off and discard all but 2 tablespoons bacon fat from skillet, then sauté onions in fat over moderately high heat, stirring and scraping up brown bits, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add celery and sauté, stirring, 3 minutes, then transfer vegetables to bowl with bacon.

Cook sausage and liver (if using) in skillet, stirring and breaking up sausage with a fork, until meat is no longer pink, 8 to 10 minutes, then transfer with slotted spoon to onion mixture.

Pour off any remaining fat from skillet. Add Cognac (off heat), then deglaze skillet by simmering over moderate heat, stirring and scraping up any brown bits, 1 minute, and add to sausage mixture.

Increase oven temperature to 375°F.

Soak bread cubes in half-and-half in a bowl, tossing frequently, until liquid is absorbed, about 15 minutes. Gently squeeze excess liquid from bread, then stir bread into sausage mixture, discarding remaining half-and-half. Stir together stock and eggs and add to stuffing, then stir in chestnuts, herbs, salt, and pepper until combined well.

Transfer stuffing to baking dish and cover with foil, then bake in upper third of oven 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake until top is crisp, about 20 minutes more.

Cooks' notes: ·Bread can be dried 1 week ahead and kept in a sealed plastic bag at room temperature.
·Stuffing can be assembled (but not baked) 1 day ahead and chilled, covered. Bring to room temperature before baking.

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