Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Benefit of my Stuffing Knowledge - Chestnut, Cornbread, Oyster Mushroom, and Caramelized Onion Stuffing

First of all, happy Buy Nothing Day! I have full confidence that my readers will actually buy nothing because I am pretty sure I have no readers. So I can proudly say that Blog Farmer Tracy is in 100% readership support of this important day. I however, do have to buy something. It's not a Christmas present, it won't be at a mall, but it does support, inadvertently, some big corporations. And I can't tell you what it is because it involves two people in my life highly likely to read this blog (although likelihood is still fairly low, they are on the high end of it.)
I really meant to buy it before today, and then I completely forgot, with stuffing to worry about and this other little thing I sometimes do called schoolwork. Thus, on behalf of, well, myself I guess, and directed to all my comrades in the battle against capitalism and corporatization of our lives, I am deeply and truly sorry for this error, and I will compensate by boycotting the commercialism of Christmas and giving only the gift of love and gratitude, and not only during the holiday season. There. Done.

Secondly, I must share with you the clarity of my stuffing vision combined with the skill of my internet research, which has resulted in the best Thanksgiving stuffing I think I've ever made in my life. The only thing that would've made it better is if Leon had let me cook it in the turkey, but apparently he is still recovering from the trauma of a particularly awful turkey experience in which bird-cooked stuffing infected some dinner guests, including someone recently hospitalized, with salmonella. So not wanting to bring back those memories, and also for the sake of time, and also for the benefit of vegetarians, we cooked our stuffing separate from the bird. But even with that transgression, my stuffing was, I must say, absolutely amazing. And not low-fat.

You see, there are times in life when even the most ordinary of people (a group which I typically don't think of myself as a member of but for literary convenience you can for now), the most humble and mundane of humans, is stricken with a vision so bold and so brilliant, that she will do anything to realize that vision, regardless of the number of steps and the amount of butter necessary. My vision was to make a Thanksgiving stuffing which included fresh chestnuts (not the kind in the jar), homemade cornbread, oyster mushrooms, caramelized onions, garlic, and three of the four herbs in the classic Simon and Garfunkel song, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. And, in fact, had I thought of it in time, I would've added parsley as well. AND, in the process of making my stuffing, I was inspired to use some sherry. Oh, and, I know that chestnut and cornbread stuffing is not unique. And mushrooms inside is also probably not a new thing, and the herbs are pretty standard. But roasting fresh chestnuts? And using oyster mushrooms? AND caramelizing onions? Did I mention I used spelt flour in the cornbread? And the herbs were harvested the day before from the UC Davis student farm? Sherry, people! I used sherry!

Okay, so this might not be the most unique and creative of recipes. But importantly, if you want a vegetarian friendly stuffing with vegan options, you can use this one, and it won't disappoint.

So I did some research to get the basic stuffing ropes, and for some bizarre reason, many of the recipes I looked at included these ingredients, which were not invited to my stuffing party: white bread (why?), sausage (I know some of you think everything tastes better with sausage, but after a stick and a half of butter, I kinda felt like sausage would be overkill), celery (no thanks), or egg (?). But they did all call for some kind of broth and instruct me on the proper baking time, both of which were helpful as I probably would've just served up a pile of un-baked, unbrothed, mush with no cohesive integrity and an identity crisis. Was it stuffing? Or just sauteed vegetables and croutons? So if you are considering trailblazing your own stuffing and are not cooking it in the bird, I suggest you use broth and bake it. But you probably already knew that.

As per usual, I'm babbling a lot, and if you are smart, you scrolled down past all the b.s. to the part that looks like a recipe. If you are a patient reader, you will learn that this recipe is a two-day process, and you will have a better stuffing than all those other people in such a hurry. For the second day, give yourself about 30 minutes to saute whatever prep time you need for cutting veggies, and an hour to bake the stuffing. Okay here goes.

Ingredient List
your favorite cornbread (I use the Dairy Hollow House Skillet Sizzled Cornbread Recipe, with a few addendums and vegan suggestions provided below.)
1.5 lbs chestnuts, in the shell)
3/4 - 1 lb fresh oyster mushrooms roughly chopped
2 onions, sliced into half rounds
4 cloves garlic, chopped
quarter cup of chopped fresh herbs (I used sage, rosemary, and thyme, and I would've also used parsley, tarragon, savory, maybe even marjoram)
about half a cup of sherry or white wine
3 cups broth
a lot of butter or olive oil
salt and pepper

The day before, acquire or make cornbread. The recipe I use makes a 9 inch cast-iron skillet sized cornbread, which serves 8. If you go with a loaf type cornbread, maybe make a medium sized loaf? Anyways, leave your cornbread out all night so it can dry out a little.

Another step you can do the night before is prep the chestnuts as this is kind of time consuming. First, take a very, very sharp paring knife and make an X on the round side of all your chestnuts. This step is rather tedious and somewhat dangerous, but apparently they may explode if you don't do this. Apparently there is also a device that will facilitate this process for you, which I highly recommend if you plan on making this recipe again, as I stabbed myself multiple times in the hand whilst scoring my chestnuts (don't worry, I did not contaminate my stuffing with blood). But before you do that, put a big, unsalted pot of water on the stove to boil. I know everyone thinks chestnuts are roasted over an open fire with Jack Frost nipping at your nose, but the truth is that the professionals, the roasted chestnut vendors in NYC, actually boil their chestnuts first.

After you have successfully scored your chestnuts, put them in the water and boil them for 15-20 minutes or so. If you would like to impart a roasty flavor to them, preheat your oven to 425 degrees and roast them, after boiling, for like 5 minutes. You should probably also do this to dry them out a little bit for the stuffing.

The next, even more tedious step is to peel all of your chestnuts. The thing I learned about chestnuts is that they not only have a hard, outer shell, but they also have a skin below that shell. You will probably not get all the skin off, but I tried to get as much off as possible. Some of the skin is a little furry (a texture most of us tend not to care for in our food), and some of it is kind of hard with pointy edges (another unpopular culinary texture). Fortunately, since you want the chestnuts to be in small pieces, don't worry about them breaking apart as you skin them.

Now you can stop for the night.

When you are ready to go back to your stuffing recipe, preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Then cut up your cornbread into 1 inch cubes, spread the cubes out on a cookie sheet, and put it in the oven for about 10-15 minutes, until they are kinda dried out (but not burnt). Take them out of the oven to cool.

Place about a third of a stick of butter, or 3 tablespoons of olive oil, or a combination of both in a large, cast-iron skillet over medium-low heat. As soon as the butter melts or the olive oil warms up, put the onions in, stir them to coat with the butter or oil, and lower the heat. When caramelizing onions, you want to keep the heat fairly low and you don't want the butter or oil to cook away. If it does, add more, about 1/2-1 tbs at a time. (I did warn you that this stuffing has a lot of butter in it.) Cook the onions over lowish heat, stirring occasionally, until they just start to brown. Then add the garlic and cook a few more minutes. Add about a teaspoon of salt, the herbs, give it a few stirs and cook a few more minutes. Cue up Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson or some other fun dance music on your I-pod, add the mushrooms, and turn up the heat to medium. Then add the sherry, make sure the heat is cooking everything at a decent clip but not too crazily, and saute until the mushrooms look done and the onions are fairly browned. Stir so as to prevent anything, especially the garlic, from burning. Remove from heat and transfer to a big bowl, and salt (if needed) and pepper the veggies to your liking.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. If your chestnuts aren't already in small chunks, break them apart with your hands so they are. Then fold them and the cornbread cubes into the sauteed veggies Add about a cup of the broth and incorporate it into the veggie/cornbread/chestnut mixture. Then add another cup, and incorporate that.  Spread the mixture into a 9x12 baking dish or casserole and evenly pour the remaining cup of broth all over it. Cover it tightly with foil and bake for about half an hour in the oven. Remove the foil and bake it for another half an hour, or until the top is golden brown. Serve to rave reviews from your Thanksgiving guests.

Here are the reviews I got:
"Best stuffing I've ever eaten!" - Tracy's Dad
"Tracy - your stuffing is delicious!" - Tracy's Mom
"Damn my stuffing is good." - Tracy

Cornbread modifications:
So the recipe I linked to is different from the one in my version of the cookbook, but for fear of copyright infringement (which I don't know I would even be doing, but people are so lawsuit crazy these days), I did not publish it here. These are the modifications I made to the linked recipe.

Instead of using vegetable oil (which I think is gross and so should you) or cooking spray, I melt a stick of butter in a skillet, and add 1/4 cup of that to the buttermilk/egg mixture. I leave the rest of the butter in the pan and heat it to sizzling just before I add the cornbread batter. Also, I don't like my cornbread sweet, so I only use 1 tablespoon of honey.

If you are vegan, you can use oil in the batter (I think olive oil would work) and Earth balance or palm shortening in the skillet. You can replace the buttermilk with soymilk and either vinegar or lemon juice (the ratio is 1 cup soymilk to 1 tablespoon vinegar/lemon juice.) You will have to scale up appropriately as the recipe calls for 1 1/4 cup. For the egg, use your favorite egg replacer. I've had success with this brand, but this is not a topic I know much about.

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