No other holiday nurtures my soul like Thanksgiving, our one uniquely American day. It brings with it a confluence of so many things I love. To begin with, autumn has always been my favorite season. Having grown up in the Midwest it brought the beautiful turning of the leaves to brilliant reds and golds, a welcome chill in the air, and the smell of wood burning fires. It also marks the beginning of the Christmas holiday season, my second favorite time of the year. But most importantly, it represents a coming together of family and friends for a day of sharing, spending time together, and giving thanks for all those that we have in our lives, and for all that is available to us in this wonderful country. I ended up in this business because I love cooking for people. It brings me a level of joy and satisfaction that no other activity has ever provided to me so preparing turkey dinner, my absolute favorite meal of all, is one of the high points of each year for me.
I’ve made small periodic changes to the dinner I prepare each year, like doing one fried turkey and one roasted, but this is a meal I don’t like tinkering with. I’m a big Anthony Bourdain guy and in a recent piece he wrote about Thanksgiving he said “Why would I, in the name of ego-fueled creativity, mess with such reliable pleasures?”… well said. At JFAT we talk about many of our dishes as delivering ‘craveable’ flavors and nothing delivers these more than a traditional turkey dinner. In fact, the dinner that I’ve made for countless years is the same one we serve at all our locations each Thanksgiving day. I often get asked what my favorite dish is and my answer is simple… the stuffing.
James Beard was one of the first chefs that I admired and was inspired by. During the 50’s he was involved in bringing French food to the American middle class but eventually he became an outspoken champion of American cooking. In fact, he was the very first well-known chef/author to espouse the merits of our American melting pot cuisine. Julia Child summed up Beard’s personal life:
“Beard was the quintessential American cook. Well-educated and well-traveled during his eighty-two years, he was familiar with many cuisines but he remained fundamentally American. An endearing and always lively teacher, he loved people, loved his work, loved gossip, loved to eat, loved a good time.”
American author and food journalist for the New York Times Mark Bittman described him in this way
“In a time when serious cooking meant French Cooking, Beard was quintessentially American, a Westerner whose mother ran a boardinghouse, a man who grew up with hotcakes, salmon and meatloaf in his blood.”
Ironic that my cooking path was so similar to his. Having first worked in European-style restaurants in Manhattan I was impressed by all things French, but soon after began to look for ways to employ their sensibilities and techniques to other cuisines. So yes, JFAT and I owe much to Beard and we are proud to carry on in the tradition that he created of celebrating the rich, regional cooking in this country, but putting our own spin on it so it becomes, as we say “comfort food for foodies.” When I came across what he called his ‘favorite Thanksgiving stuffing recipe’ I had a feeling I was in for a treat. Sure enough, when I made it for the first time, it became my favorite as well. It was actually quite simple consisting of very few ingredients, mainly homemade cornbread, shallots, fresh tarragon, pine nuts, lots of freshly ground black pepper, and copious amounts of melted butter. The first year I made it per his recipe and it was wonderful in its simplicity but the next year I decided to personalize it. I still used his basic recipe but have added apples, sausage and a couple more herbs for a little more flavor punch. For the last 25 years or so it’s been the only stuffing I’ve ever made for Thanksgiving.
Now is a good time to segue into one of the most important aspects of preparing Thanksgiving dinner. My friends and family laugh at the quantity of food I prepare when entertaining, but their inner child is secreitly smiling at the fact that they know they’re going to get doggie bags of leftovers. So listen up pilgrims… you absolutely have to make enough food for tons of LEFTOVERS!!! Every dish, other than maybe the turkey, taste better the next day and with a stuffing as flavorful as this version, you have to enjoy it in as many ways possible. How does turkey, stuffing and gravy hash topped with a poached egg and hollandaise sauce sound? Join us at all JFAT locations for weekend lunch or brunch and find out for yourself as we’ll be running it as a special… and yes, it’s as rich and indulgent as it sounds. I’ve also wrapped small balls of stuffing in bacon and roasted them… they make unbelievable hors d’oeuvres for watching football. Who knows, they may even show up as a Happy Hour special at JFAT this year?
Recipe – My Favorite Turkey Stuffing
A few comments: The sausage can be committed for those red-meat averse out there and it still will be delicious. If you are buying pine nuts make sure they are either Italian or domestic in origin. The Russian and Asian version can cause a serious reaction with your taste buds that create a nasty metallic taste that lasts for hours. Other nut like pecans, hazelnuts or macadamia nuts make a great substitute. If you don’t want to mess with the sun-dried cranberries golden raisins make a good substitute. At JFAT we always have plenty of housemade cornbread around so that’s what we use but store-bought cornbread works very well.
» 1 pound Italian sausage, sweet or hot
» 1 cup Unsalted butter
» 1 cup Shallots, chopped
» 1-1/2 teaspoons Dried tarragon
» 1 teaspoon Dried rubbed sage
» 1 teaspoon Dried thyme
» 1 teaspoon Freshly ground black pepper
» ½ cup Pine nuts
» ½ cup Sun-Dried Cranberries (or golden raisins)
» 2 cups Peeled, cored, chopped apple
» 12 oz Homemade cornbread, crumbled or cornbread stuffing mix
» 1-1/2 cups Turkey or chicken broth
If using sausage links versus bulk remove outer casings first. Place sausage in heavy bottom saute pan or cast iron skillet. Over medium heat cook until well browned. Remove sausage, strain, and place in food processor and pulse until evenly chopped but not too fine. Reserve. Place butter, shallots, tarragon, sage, and black pepper in large stock pot and cook stirring until shallots are translucent. Add apple and pine nuts and continue to cook, stirring frequently for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add cornbread stuffing to pot and toss to combine all ingredients well. Place stuffing in large baking pan then pour broth across the top 1/3 cup at a time, mixing well after each addition. Note: You can add more or less stock depending on how moist you like your stuffing. If you are going to place it in the turkey it will gain more moisture than if you bake it separately. I always bake it separately so I have more control over the moisture plus I usually deep fry or patchcock the bird so there’s no other option. Place in ovenproof pan, cover and bake for 45 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove cover and bake for an additional 115-20 minutes until lightly browned and crisp on top.