Before we start, I need to get two things clear. First, all temperatures here are degrees fahrenheit. No temperatures here matter very much. Just guess. And second, even if you don't celebrate Thanksgiving for whatever reason (godless heathen, foreigner, live in small hole in ground, whatever) you can still enjoy a fine stuffing. Stuffing does not care who you are or where you live. Stuffing loves all of humanity, and serves willingly in the shadow of more glory-seeking foods. Stuffing will always be there for you.
To make good stuffing, truly artistic stuffing, you first need to start with good stock. Turkey stock would be most appropriate, but I rarely have turkey parts lying around, and I do have lots of chicken leavings. Homemade chicken stock is useful for any number of other cooking purposes as well, so let's start there.
Step One: Stocking up (groan)
Homemade chicken stock is dead easy, so long as you remember the "skimming off the crunge" step. Basically you:
Step Two: And all they found was the mysterious word "Crouton" carved in a post...
- Collect up leftover bits from other chicken meals. We roast chickens pretty frequently, and I always freeze the remaining carcass and neck/giblet bits. You can also go to any butcher and ask if they've got chicken carcasses around for cheap. Get a package of extra giblets and hearts and livers too, any of those gross bits you normally wouldn't eat. They'll give it color.
- Hack up your pile of chicken scraps into reasonable-sized chunks. Very little in this recipe depends on precision, honestly. Use your best judgment. If you have a big cleaver, this part is fun. Re-enact scenes from your favorite slasher movie!
- Throw them all in a pot large enough to comfortably hold them. Put it on medium-high heat, drizzle in some olive oil, and salt and pepper liberally. Fry them up for a while, till they brown. You can skip this step, if you don't mind (or desire) a lighter-colored broth. Broth from raw parts will be somewhat milder and subtler in flavor as well. I like mine dark and hearty, personally, so I fry.
- Fill the pot with enough water to cover the chicken bits by maybe four or five inches. A lot of the extra water will come out in the skimming.
- Let it come up to a boil. Meanwhile, look around for a large spoon, shallow ladle, something like that. Every kitchen has its own perfect skimming implement. You'll probably have to experiment with a few. Also, get a decent sized bowl and put it as near to the pot as you can.
- As the pot comes up to a boil, you'll start to see stuff floating to the surface of your water. Some of it is like little brown bits, some of it might be yellowish and oily, eventually a lot of it will be a nasty looking gray foam. Basically anything that doesn't look like water is your enemy. Skim it away. Don't be too finicky if you get a little of the good stock water along with it. It's no big deal, you put in extra. Just skim off the surface of the pot and dump into your handy bowl repeatedly. This process will continue for probably 20 minutes, at least. Be ruthless! Anything that looks the least bit sketchy, get rid of it. This is not the time to split hairs. Basically anything on the surface that isn't a large lump of chicken should be gone. The better you do here, the better your stock will be.
- After a while, you'll run out of stuff to skim off. Stir the chicken parts around a few times and make sure there isn't still gray foam trapped amongst them. If you're sure you're done skimming, take it back down to an active simmer.
- For a basic chicken stock, you're just about done now. Taste it. It'll probably need salt. Chicken stock is salty, so don't be shy with it. Just salt, stir and taste till it tastes right. Saltless stock is, IMO, gross. If that's all you want, cover and let it simmer for a good while. Like an hour or two. It'll make your house smell fantastic.
- If you want to get fancy (I usually do), this is where you can add seasoning and veggies. I like celery, onion, carrots, and fresh parsley. I also usually throw in a bay leaf. Chop veggies directly into the pot, and reminisce about all those Looney Tunes cartoons where cannibals tried to boil Bugs Bunny. Don't cut your thumb off while doing this. Salt and pepper, taste often. It's yummy. As above, cover and simmer for a while.
- I sometimes also remove the cover and simmer uncovered for another half hour when I think it's almost done. This tends to boil off some of the water and concentrate the stock. You can do as much or as little of this as you like, depending on what you're going for.
- It's done when it's the color you want it to be, and tastes good. Take it off the heat, strain out all the stuff, and leave the liquid in a large bowl or container of some kind. Cover it and get it into the fridge. Wait at least overnight, disturbing it as little as you can.
- The next day, when it's cooled down thoroughly, your container will have a layer of congealed fat that's floated to the top and solidified. Scoop this right off. They make special kettle-type things for this step, but you don't really need one. Just get rid of the remaining fat. This is important. Your stock will be greasy if you don't do this.
- You're done! You've got lovely homemade chicken stock that will taste fantastic in your stuffing, or anything else that calls for chicken stock or boullion. I like to freeze it at this point in one-cup measures in individual ziplock bags, for extra-easy use later on.
Good stuffing requires good stock. But it also requires good bread! This year, we're making cornbread stuffing, with apples and sausage. So naturally, I also had to make cornbread. And away we go:
When your cornbread is done, try not to eat it all before it cools down. The batch I made today was really good, and I ate a little too much of it. When it's cool enough to handle, cut it into crouton-sized cubes and spread them out in a pan, and put them in the oven, which you've left open and allowed to cool down a bit. You want your oven to be on, but not hot. Like 200 or 150 degrees or so. Leave the door open a little to let moisture escape. When the cubes are bone dry, take them out and put em in a ziplock. Then repeat this drying process with a sturdy white bread, torn or cut into similar-sized chunks. You may make this bread yourself too, but I didn't this time around.
- Heat your oven to 400 degrees. If your oven is a sad half-working piece of crap from the 1940's, heat it up to however hot it will get today, which in this case is 325 degrees. Curse it for the junkheap relic it truly is.
- In a bowl, mix up 1 and 1/4 cups white flour, 1/4 cup corn meal, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. I usually add an extra pinch of salt. Incidentally, a pinch is about half a teaspoon. Just so's you know.
- In a different bowl, beat one egg till it cries for its mama, then beat it some more. Froth is your friend. Add a cup of milk and 1/4 cup of veggie oil and beat some more.
- Put a cast-iron pan on the stove and melt some butter in it. Get the pan relatively hot, but don't let the butter burn too much.
- While your butter is melting, add the wet to the dry, and fold them together with a spoon as little as you possibly can. You can leave lumps of dry floury stuff, that's ok. Just get it all hanging together. If you mix too much, your cornbread will be like a solid lump of granite. Don't mix too much.
- Pour your batter in the cast-iron pan and spread it out to the edges.
- Stick the whole pan in the oven for 20 or 25 minutes.
Step Three: The Stuff
When it's stuffing time, just cut up some apples into small chunks, fry some sweet Italian sausage (the loose, lumpy kind, not the sausage links kind). Mix your white and corn bread croutons in roughly equal proportion. Add apples and sausage, add some melted butter, and add chicken stock until it's moist enough to be stuffingy. Be careful with the stock. Add a little and stir -- it's easy to drown it at this stage. This will also be good with some garlic (of course!), diced onions, and fennel or sage. Neither of which I have, so I'll have to find something else. Salt and pepper, and give it a taste. If it's not absolutely heavenly, poke around the kitchen for something else to add. Have fun! Stuffing is a "whatever you've got lying around" type of food.
Then stuff it in your bird (shut up you whining ninnies who claim that stuffing shouldn't be cooked in the bird! It damn well should and must be), and have a great Thanksgiving!