We're approaching that time of year when cooks begin reaching for Grandmother’s time-honored stuffing and dressing recipes. And as you thumb through those dog-eared, food-stained, fragrant pages or cards, herbs and spices will no doubt come to mind. They’re the ingredients that evoke the most nostalgic memories, and simply smelling the seasonings can conjure up images from the past: simmering oyster stew with sweet marjoram, golden turkey roasting alongside crusty sage dressing, and warm pumpkin pie redolent of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves. This is indeed a pleasing form of aromatherapy.
Our food history is replete with stuffings of all descriptions. Fruits, vegetables, pasta, breads, and meats have been stuffed with every imaginable combination of herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables, pasta, breads, and meats. In early human history, frugality dictated the use of stuffings, in various guises, for stretching scarce food supplies. Every scrap of food was used, as flavoring if not as a primary ingredient, and mixtures of leftovers have become staples in many cuisines. In America’s bone-gripping depression and war years, dressings and stuffings helped many a meal suffice for however many gathered around the table. But it was the seasonings that made those simple foods pleasantly memorable.
As we approach the twenty-first century, health concerns are becoming a high priority for many people, and the use of highly flavored stuffings allows smaller amounts of meat and other fat-laden proteins to be served. Stuffings based on vegetables provide valuable nutrients and fiber, and fresh herbs can often stand in for salt.
Following are a few simple ideas that have given us consistently good results. We’ve also included a few of our favorite recipes to guide your exploration of herbal stuffings.
Mushroom Caviar Stuffing
Classic Holiday Stuffing
Herbal Cheese Stuffing
The herbs in stuffings
The simplest stuffing is herbs by themselves. Lay branches of complementary herbs in the cavity of a whole fish or fill a Cornish game hen with leaves and tender stems (never use woody stems). Ground spices and herb seeds may be mixed with salt and pepper and sprinkled in the cavity. We usually prefer to combine herbs and seasonings to create a one-of-a-kind blend, rather than using just a single herb. You can experiment with a wide variety of herbs, so long as the end result is pleasing.
Herb cheese and herb butter are quick and easy to stir up and keep on hand in the freezer, and these are wonderful vehicles for any herb combination you choose. Lemon thyme, sweet marjoram, parsley, and chives marry well and are particularly complementary to poultry. Mixed with bread crumbs and raw eggs, this blend is guaranteed to make a flavorful stuffing.
Pieces of onion, celery, carrot, tart apple, or citrus fruit are excellent additions that provide complex flavors along with the herbs.
In various cuisines, classic combinations of seasonings have evolved from the herbs which grew wild or had become naturalized in the immediate area. It is easy to create a panorama of flavors by changing the seasonings in basic recipes; don’t be bound by a particular recipe or herb chart. We find that experimenting is easier with fresh herbs than it is with dried. The beauty of fresh herbs is that it’s more difficult to add too much to a dish and make it unpalatable.
Mechanics of stuffing
Safety warning: Stuffings which contain raw egg, raw meat, or raw poultry should never be placed into the carrier until just before cooking. Large pieces of meat that are stuffed with warm or room-temperature mixtures and then refrigerated before cooking provide perfect conditions for bacteria to grow.
The basic stuffing contains bulk, oil or fat, a binder, liquid, and seasonings. It may also contain vegetables and “extras” such as nuts, meats, and cheeses. Following are some general rules for making stuffing, including proportions for each component. You can personalize a recipe by experimenting with selections from among these ingredients.
4 to 6 parts, precooked
White, wheat, or whole-grain bread crumbs or cubes (firm, homestyle bread—final color is best with light-colored breads); whole, cracked, or flaked grains; white or brown rice; dried legumes (beans, peas, or pulses). Grains should always be precooked. Bread crumbs usually are lightly moistened with broth or vegetable juices.
Stuffings that use bread or whole or cracked grains should be mixed very lightly. If stirred too roughly, the starch breaks down and makes a new solid mass when baked. Use a fork—or better yet, your hands—to toss and mix the ingredients delicately. To test for seasonings, form a tablespoon or so into a small patty and cook it in a small pan, then make any needed adjustments before final stuffing.
When bread is the primary bulk ingredient, we prefer to use cubes of soft bread that are dried only slightly in the oven before being combined with other ingredients. When bread crumbs are the binder, we also prefer soft rather than completely dried crumbs, as the latter tend to pack down when moistened. Bread crumbs are easy to prepare in a food processor or with a hand grater, but don’t grind the crumbs too fine, or they’ll tend to become pasty when moistened. Whole wheat or other dark breads can be used, but the stuffing may have an unappetizing color. We usually use a firm-textured, light-colored bread.
Oil or fat
1 tablespoon per 2 to 3 cups bulk
Fat lends richness and helps in sautéing. It may be butter, margarine, olive or vegetable oil, or poultry or meat fat.
1/2 to 1 part
Eggs (raw, beaten—1 per quart of prepared stuffing), mayonnaise, sour cream, yogurt, grated or mashed potato, canned or condensed soup.
1/2 to 1 part
Chicken, fish, or other meat stock, white wine (add to sautéed ingredients to cook off alcohol), vegetable or fruit juices, pureed vegetables, milk, or cream.
1/4 part dry or 1/2 part fresh herb
Combinations of fresh or dried herbs, ground herb seeds or spices, fresh ginger, garlic, prepared pesto, herbal oil concentrates, herbal vinegar, citrus peel and juice, hot chilies (seeded and chopped). This is a fertile area for experiment. Use a light touch and taste often so you don’t overpower the flavors of other ingredients.
1 to 2 parts; more if primary ingredient
Usually aromatic varieties: celery, onion, parsley, carrots, or mushrooms. Whole vegetables used as a carrier are usually partially cooked before scooping out for stuffing (squashes, eggplant, cabbage, or onions); use the portion removed as part of the vegetables in the stuffing. Chopped or shredded greens such as spinach, mustard, turnip, kale, and sorrel add good color and texture contrast; consider color combinations when selecting.
As a general rule, vegetables should be wilted, sautéed, or blanched to seal in flavors and juices before combining with other ingredients. Highly aromatic vegetables develop heightened flavor when they’re sauteed briefly, and moist vegetables (squash, mushrooms, eggplant, tomatoes, and onions) are easier to handle if most liquid has been cooked away. Frozen vegetables should be thawed and well drained, but not cooked further. Do not chop vegetables too fine, or texture will be destroyed.
At least 1/2 part
These can be mixed into stuffing or use as a topping. Toasted nuts, dried or fresh fruit, meats (smoked meats are often used in meat mixtures), fresh sausage, poultry giblets, seafood, black or green olives, or cheese (cream, cottage, ricotta, feta, cheddar, swiss, jack). Meats and most seafood usually are not precooked, but shrimp is often precooked and sausage always is. As with vegetables, chopping these ingredients too fine can destroy texture.
Carriers are the foods that hold the stuffing, and the obvious choices are whole birds and fish (boned or not); boneless cuts of meats; avocados, eggplant, mushrooms, potatoes, squashes, and tomatoes; and pastry, crepes, and breads. But cultures other than ours often have interesting possibilities, such as Mexican tortillas (corn or flour), rice-paper egg roll skins, won ton wrappers, corn shucks (what is a tamale but stuffing?), oyster or scallop shells, banana leaves or the whole fruit, and even overlapping, thinly sliced meats. Use your imagination and you will find an amazing array of vessels to hold the most inventive stuffing, sparked with the seasonings of the world.
When the concoction is placed inside the carrier, we call it stuffing; if the same mixture is baked separately, most cooks call it dressing. According to another school of thought, however, it is dressing on the first serving and stuffing on servings thereafter! Whatever it is called, the aroma of cooking and the joy of eating will establish memories that likely will blossom into family traditions.
Most stuffings can be baked in a buttered dish for a crusty texture. We like to bake stuffed meats and vegetables with a little wine in the pan; baste with liquids during cooking time. Final toppings may be added as a garnish during last minutes of cooking.
Mushroom Caviar Stuffing
Classic Holiday Stuffing
Herbal Cheese Stuffing