The global stuffing

Caravans brought cooks, ingredients to make my turkey filling

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I’m not here to debate whose family stuffing recipe is the best. Clearly, my stuffing is the greatest of all time. That said, this Thanksgiving bread stuffing will also be on our feast table alongside the famous sausage and potato version. Thanksgiving isn’t about being right, but rather welcoming the foods that make guests feel at home for the holiday.

My maternal grandparents — Nanna and Papa — emigrated from Sicily and settled in Connecticut. My father, his sister and parents escaped from the Nazis in Austria. They all faced discrimination against immigrants in America once they arrived.

It’s safe to say that turkey wasn’t on the menu where any of them grew up, but they embraced Thanksgiving as the feast all Americans celebrated. When Nanna was faced with stuffing said turkey, she consulted with a French-Canadian woman named Rose who lived in the same apartment building. Many Quebecois immigrated to New England to work in the factories. Rose suggested something hearty: Meat and potatoes.

Nanna ended up creating an Italian sausage and potato stuffing using the spicy pork sausage Papa made in the family store. I think it is based on the filling for the classic Canadian tourtière pork pies. With fennel seed and pignoli (pine) nuts from Italy, chile flakes originally from South America, plus sausage, sage, celery and fennel — depending on the version, my family stuffing is a globalist’s dream. 

That singular melding of sausage and mashers is also one of the best things you’ll ever taste, not to mention a little pop of flavor on often bland traditional Thanksgiving menus. The super-comfort food with pizzazz emerges from the roasted bird glistening and tasty.

My tradition is to make it the day before so the flavors have time to mingle and marry. I fry the sausage with onion and garlic in a huge cast-iron skillet that I use only a couple of times a year. I peel a variety of spuds — usually white and red boilers, Yukon Golds and Russets — and boil them in a large saucepan I inherited from Nanna. I add the mashers to the sausage along with turkey broth, butter, salt, pepper and sage. The first taste standing in the kitchen is a cherished moment of annual bliss.

I make it differently than my mom or other family members made the stuffing. Since I’ve written in the past about the stuffing in the national version of Nibbles, there are folks across the country who also make it as their tradition, often tweaked with other ingredients like roasted green chilies. 

I should be used to hosting Thanksgiving after all these years but I’m nervous about the coming feast at my house. I got the year off last year when a friend hosted, so I’m a little rusty. It’s like riding a bicycle … except it’s an ancient creaky Schwinn bike with three gears.

Besides, I’m supposed to be some kind of Thanksgiving expert. As I do every Thanksgiving Day, on Nov. 22 I will answer last-minute cooking questions 8:30-9 a.m. on KGNU (88.5 FM, 1390 AM, streaming at kgnu.org). Call 303-443-4242. We’ll lift a toast to those who came from elsewhere to make a feast here for us.

Italian Sausage and Potato Stuffing

5 to 6 pounds potatoes (approximately), peeled and chunked

3 pounds (approximately) Italian sweet sausage

1 pound (approximately) Italian hot sausage

3 yellow onions, minced

3 or more large cloves garlic, minced

1/2 pound butter (or more)

1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper, or to taste

1 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 tablespoon poultry seasoning or ground sage, to taste

Turkey or chicken broth, as needed

Optional: minced fresh celery; minced fresh fennel; pine nuts; roasted chopped green chilies

Boil potatoes in plenty of water until barely tender, not mushy. Drain, place in large pot over low heat, add butter and mash well. Crumble sausage in a frying pan with onions and garlic and cook until pink is gone. Drain the fat. Add sausage to potatoes along with seasonings and stir. Add broth or more butter if too dry. Taste and adjust seasonings. When it’s time, push it into the empty nooks and crannies of the bird and roast as always. Cook more stuffing on the side — where it should be called “dressing” — so there is enough to go around.

Taste of the week 

The taps at Southern Sun in Boulder change often but one tap is always dedicated to Mountain Sun’s classic craft root beer. After a steak sandwich and a Java Porter, I recently had root beer for dessert, served barely cool to be poured over a side glass of ice. The result is a classy, creamy root beer that is naturally sweet without being cloying and syrupy. It has some spiciness on the palate, a hint of vanilla and a defining aroma of wintergreen.

Words to chew on

“What I love about cooking is that after a hard day, there is something comforting about the fact that if you melt butter and add flour and then hot stock, it will get thick! It’s a sure thing! It’s a sure thing in a world where nothing is sure; it has a mathematical certainty.” — Thoughts about gravy from Nora Ephron

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU and is the former spokesperson for National Pie Day. Comments: nibbles@boulderweekly.com