There are some foods from our youth, regardless of how darned sophisticated one's palate becomes later in life, that simply cannot be replaced, especially at the holidays. My mother's mushy stuffing is firmly in this category. It is a stuffing that, at one time or another, all four McCoy children have asked for the recipe in order that we may prepare it, no matter where our Thanksgiving celebration takes us from year to year.
The conversation, typically on the phone, as we are generally not in her presence when we make the request, goes something like this:
"So you saute some celery and onion in butter," she says while your pen does somersaults in direct response to your attempts to balance the phone on your shoulder and frantically jot down her every word.
"Cook the celery and onion until they're soft."
Okay, so far, so good. Maybe you don't need the pen after all.
"Then add Bell's poultry seasoning until it smells right."
"Wet the bread until it's mushy, then mix in the celery and onion and bake it."
That's the recipe. Unless you want to share it with non-McCoys who haven't Clue One what "smells right", "some celery and onion", or "mushy" means, never mind speaking to those who might be curious how long "some" celery and onion cooks for, or, heck, even how long "bake it" means.
The ingredients are basic, though you could certainly add apple, or fennel, or sausage, or chestnuts (one of my favorite additions) if you'd like, but I've yet to find a stuffing as satisfying or comforting as my mother's simple version, which, for those of you who didn't spend 18 or more years in her kitchen, from which you were able to store the olfactory cue of the poultry seasoning smelling "right", goes like this:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 bunch celery, trimmed, rinsed, and cut crosswise into 1/4-inch pieces
1 pound yellow onions, peeled, trimmed, and coarsely chopped
1 loaf white sandwich bread (I prefer using bakery sandwich loaf, which weighs between 1 pound and 1 1/4 pounds, though my mother uses regular mass-produced sandwich bread for hers)
1 loaf multi-grain sandwich bread (again, I like me a bakery loaf. If you don't love multi-grain, then you can go with whole wheat bread, which is how my mother rolls)
1 tablespoon Bell's poultry seasoning (be sure that it's fresh, meaning not from Thanksgiving last year, and preferably no older than a couple of months. Otherwise, you'll be "smells right"-less after adding one lone stale tablespoon, and we know that won't be good.)
freshly ground black pepper
3 to 4 cups chicken broth
Melt the butter in a large saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Add the celery and onion, and cook until both are softened and translucent, 35 to 40 minutes. Do not rush this part, you're developing flavor for the stuffing here, so be patient, mush up your bread, maybe make a Pumpkin-Maple Tiramisu while you wait, just do be certain to stir the celery and onions occasionally during the cooking time. At the end of the cooking time, add the poultry seasoning, season the veggies with salt and pepper, cook until it smells right - by which I mean that you can smell the poultry seasoning and it's incorporated into the veggie mix, 2 to 3 minutes should do the trick. Now you're ready to add them and their liquid to the bread.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Now, to mush up the bread: Get out your lasagna pan or a medium roasting pan (somewhere in the 9 by 13 by 3-inches range). Grab 3 to 4 slices of bread at a time and place them under running tap water - set at a comfortable temperature for you to have your hands underneath, of course - until they are moistened completely, then smoosh the bread to release excess water. This is not the time to create an ocean-wetness effect, you simply want to make the bread pliable. In the case of the white bread, it has a tendency to want to return to its dough-state - it reminded me of another favorite childhood meal, smooshed up grilled cheese (you did do this, too, didn't you?). That's okay, don't fret about it, you just don't want to have a pan full of water and bread when you're done. The multi-grain bread is a little less prone to breaking down, so it doesn't become quite as soft as the white bread does, and that's okay, too, the chicken broth we're adding in a few minutes will sufficiently soften it.
As you finish wetting each little stack of bread and expelling any additional water from it, squash it around in your hands to break it up - this is a messy process, this mushy stuffing-making is - and place it in the lasagna pan. Once all of your bread has been squished, spread it out in one even layer in the pan, then make a space in the middle of the pan where you will place your celery and onions before mixing them into the bread. There are a lot of them, so you need a little room to get started and to prevent spilling veggies onto your counter.
Working in batches, transfer the celery and onions to the well you've created for them, and then stir them into the bread. Repeat this until all of the celery and onions have been mixed into the bread. Your pan will be quite full, so before moving on to the chicken broth-addition portion of the recipe, you may want to place your pan on an aluminum foil-lined 10 by 15-inch rimmed baking sheet to catch any drippings.
Once the veggies are incorporated and the pan is on the baking sheet, gradually add the chicken broth. I normally use my mixing spoon to dig into the stuffing as though I'm cutting into the earth. I then pour in as much chicken broth as that one area will bear - this is the not-so-appetizingly named (by me) swamp-wetness stage of stuffing-making (or think of it as though you're in casual water, if you happen to be a golfer). I then set my focus to the opposite end of the pan, repeating the digging and pouring until the stuffing will not absorb another drop. You may have to wait between broth additions to allow time for the broth to be fully absorbed. By the time this is all done, my full lasagna pan weighs around 10 pounds. Of course, it is ceramic, but still. This is one dense stuffing.
Bake until the top of the stuffing is lightly browned and the edges of the stuffing are bubbling with hot chicken broth, 55 minutes to 1 hour.
If you make this ahead of time, as I do, when it comes time to reheat the stuffing, place pats of butter over the top - spaced out to be around 2-inches from one another - then pour in just enough chicken broth to create a very thin layer on top of the stuffing, cover it in foil, and bake until it is heated through, checking occasionally to be sure it isn't drying out, and adding more broth if it is. The texture is similar to that of mashed potatoes, and it makes an ideal vehicle for gravy. More gravy-vehicles for all! That's what I say, anyway, and that's one thing I'm thankful for each year at Thanksgiving. Seriously. I mean, I'm also thankful for more important things, but if you only get one big turkey meal a year, shouldn't you also be thankful for the sides that bring you the most glee?
Sometimes in the reheating, you get a little crusty-cling-to-the-bottom-of-the-pan action. Think of it like it's the special effort you made to accommodate your crunchy-stuffing-loving relatives.Estimated cost for one 7 or 8-pound pan of mushy stuffing (excluding the ceramic pan weight here): $8.22. The butter costs 70-cents for one stick (or less, this time of year, as it is generally on sale for the holiday baking frenzy). The celery costs $1.99, the onions cost 65-cents. The Bell's seasoning runs us around 39-cents, as a box containing approximately 4 2/3 tablespoons costs $1.79. The bread should really be day-old bread from the day-old bakery bin. My two loaves cost $1.25 each, so that's $2.50. The chicken broth costs $1.99 for a 4-cup container of Whole Foods 365 Everyday Value brand. I'll be serving this to 18 people, and there will still be leftovers (granted, some of those people prefer crunchy stuffing, but hey, pot luck says it all in its name.). Anyway, if we make like it's 18 servings, that's around 46-cents per serving. A nice price for nostalgia and a gravy-carrier, I think.
Dinner tonight: Homemade pumpkin pasta farfalle with apple, raisin, and pine nut sauce. Estimated cost for two: $5.04. The pumpkin pasta cost around $2.17 to make, and we're getting two servings out of that, so tonight's portion costs $1.09 or so. The sauce will consist of 3 apples - around $1.25 in expense as they cost 99-cents per pound, a cup or so of apple cider (37-cents), a stick of cinnamon (47-cents), 1/4 cup of raisins (around 25-cents), and 1/4 cup of pine nuts will run us around $1.00. I'll probably use some olive oil for around 36-cents, and a shallot, for a cost of 25-cents or so. JR had been a little less than excited when I kept mentioning pumpkin pasta a few weeks ago, but the first go-round with brown butter-cinnamon-fig sauce was a smashing success, so he's now completely sold on it, and I am enamored of the dough, which is silky and lovely to work with. I wish I could make a scarf of it, in fact. Or a skirt. Alas, I cannot, but it's something to aspire to, I suppose.