No cranberries. No pecans. And forget the canned pumpkin. Celebrating America’s most foodie of holidays while abroad certainly poses its challenges. But by jove, we were going to try our darndest. The email was sent out to the class: “The 4th Thursday of November is a national holiday in the USA, a day originally to remember and celebrate the hospitality that the Native Americans showed the pilgrims during their first winter. Without the Native Americans sharing their knowledge of native crops, of squash, corn etc, the pilgrims may not have survived. (Whether the Native Americans may have later regreted this generousity is another story.)” A list of suggested dishes was provided, with the invitation to choose one and bring it to the Thanksgiving potluck. Without giving it too much thought, I volunteered to make the stuffing. After all, the StoveTop version takes six minutes to make; how difficult can this possibly be?
I should mention that my family has never done a Thanksgiving dinner with the classic roast turkey; we think it’s too dry/flavorless to merit 20 hours of roasting time. In the past, we have made curry turkey or deep-fried turkey, or deviated entirely away from turkey to lobster, soft-shelled crab, duck, hotpot…you get the idea. I did suggest hotpot for Thanksgiving dinner to my classmates, but this was met with strong cries of resistance. Ah well.
As it turns out, for many people, stuffing is the pinnacle of the Thanksgiving feast. (And here I thought it was all about the turkey.) Immediately after I announced my intent to make the stuffing, people began barraging me with questions on what kind of stuffing I was making, which recipe I was using, whether I was using drippings from a turkey that I’d freshly slaughtered in my backyard, etc. Okay, I am kidding about that last point, but the onslaught of concerned inquiries made one thing quite clear: stuffing is Serious Business. I assured everyone that yes I have made stuffing before (um, sometimes I toss rice with pan drippings?) and I would be using my grandmother’s traditional recipe (actually, my grandmother has never eaten stuffing in her life). Then, I started scouring the internet for stuffing help.
For precise, technical breakdowns of dishes, there is no better resource in the blogosphere that J. Kenji Lopez-Alt from Serious Eats. (This is the same man who aged 9 burgers for a month with rigorous scientific controls to disprove the McDonald’s burger myth.) Luckily, he had recently written a Food Lab post on Really Good Stuffing. In essence, making stuffing is like making a savory bread pudding, and the flavor of the bread will mostly take on the character of the liquid it absorbs. Ergo, I needed a solid stock, preferably one done with chicken or turkey bones. Too bad neither of these are readily available in Italy. I even stopped by a local Chinese restaurant (revisiting one of the subjects of my ethnographic study on Chitalian cuisine), and asked them if they might have chicken bones to spare. In my experience, the average Chinese restaurant is overflowing with chicken carcasses, but this one didn’t have any to offer. Ai-yah.
Plan B: pillage other people’s kitchens for fodder. From Wendy’s freezer, I picked up a treasure trove of pork bones, chicken glace, and some other odds and ends. Into the stockpot went the bones, a parmesan rind, the chicken glace, onion, carrots, celery, parsley, and thyme. I seared the bones and the vegetables before adding them to boiling water, then let everything simmer for the next four hours. Finish with a little salt and fish sauce, and voila, a hypnotizing, multicolored cauldron of rich, viscous stock.
Next, it was time to toast and dry the bread. Stuffing is often made with stale bread cubes, which are quite different from dry bread cubes. When you toast bread, the molecular structure remains the same but the moisture is removed, giving a crisp bread cube that shatters in your mouth. Staling occurs when moisture moves into the spaces in the bread, and the starch molecules recrystallize into a new formation, leaving the bread a bit leathery, chewy and still moist. For stuffing, you want the bread to absorb as much of the stock as possible, so rather than stale bread, it is better to use dry bread. I cut and tore a kilo of bread into cubes (3 parts white, 1 part 10-grain), put it on trays, and toasted it in the oven at 135 C for an hour, tossing and rotating the trays midway through.
Now comes the fun part. I browned 500 g of salsiccia di Bra (Bra’s namesake sausage), along with some onions, celery, garlic and blessed sage (conveniently picked from the local church grounds). The sausage mixture was combined with 4 c of stock, 3 eggs and the dry bread cubes, then everything baked in a casserole dish for 45 min at 175 C. For the complete directions, check out the Classic Sage and Sausage Stuffing recipe.
This is the best goddamn stuffing I’ve ever made. Of course, being the only stuffing I’ve made, it is also the worst stuffing I’ve ever made.
At dinner, furniture and chairs had been assembled from various students’ flats to accommodate dinner for 20. To better hydrate the crowd, there was a 5 L jug of nebbiolo purchased from Eataly, along with a dozen cans of Budweiser. Surprisingly, Budweiser is not an import here because there is a Budweiser plant in Val d’Aosta, close to the French border. “How’s the freedom beer?” I asked. “It tastes like capitalism!”
For some of us, this was the first Thanksgiving. For others, this was a celebration of old traditions in a new setting. Coincidentally, this week also marks the six-month anniversary of our beginnings at UNISG. We went around the room and each person said a few words about what they are thankful for, from the continued magic of living in Italy, to appreciation that we are all part of one big extended UNISG family. I commented that I was grateful to have good food on the table when many are hungry, and also that the stuffing had turned out edible.
Enough with the chatter; it’s time to eat. Alongside the usual Thanksgiving fare, there was curry turkey with potatoes, fragrant with lemongrass. Beet sauce instead of cranberry sauce. White polenta cubes, fried with parmesan and milk, a specialty of the Veneto region. Bubble and squeak, a pan-fried potato and vegetable hash of British origins. Eat, chat about traditional Italian Christmas foods, wash everything down with a glass of ’89 Montecalvi Rosso (procured from the morning’s wine-tasting class), repeat.