The stuff(ing) of legend

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The stuff(ing) of legend
Photo/Howie Southworth
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By Howie Southworth

Nobody likes turkey! There, I said it. Alright, breathe, friends. I understand the absurdity of such a pronouncement, and I am more than happy to be proven wrong. Hear me out. If folks actually enjoyed eating turkey, wouldn’t the poultry industry raise them smaller and fill up fridge real estate next to chickens in every American supermarket year-round? With my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, onto what I truly believe is the most complex under-sung hero, the real star of the Thanksgiving table: stuffing, that brilliant bready symphony too often dubbed a side dish.

Because you’re now thinking about it: In reality, both “stuffing” and “dressing” work for understanding. Even though it’s generally no longer stuffed into a bird, the dish’s name has seen a resurgence since the 1972 debut of both yours truly and Stove Top Stuffing. Moving on.

Culinary cultures abound with colorful uses of stale bread: Hall of Fame members include Italian ribollita, French panade, Spanish migas del pastor, and our darling, American holiday stuffing. They all share DNA to a point, where dry loaves are magically rescued by a sumptuous bath. Perhaps surprisingly, this genetic material was not swabbed from an Italian, French, Spanish or American kitchen. Archaeological evidence has the au jus resuscitation of old baked goods dating back to Mesopotamian tablets! They depicted a process pretty darned close to today’s practices, well before anybody gave a hoot about trademarking recipes. I kid. Still, pretty neat.

Not only does this dynamic dish far outperform a well-seasoned bird, it also speaks volumes of regional cuisine. Once at home in the new American nation, stuffing began to reflect the gastronomic character of where it was being baked. New Englanders found their way to utilizing hyperactive oyster beds. The Acadians or Cajuns added smoked sausage to spice things up. Northwesterners landed on wild rice as a needed substitution for bread, which presumably got drenched in all that rain. Southerners went a sweet direction with cornbread and pecáns…or is it pécans? 

Alas, we arrive in the heart of the mid-Atlantic, specifically in Alexandria. A place devoid of its own cuisine? No special stuffing? How can this be?  Alexandria in her heyday, was the de facto bridge between North and South, an international gateway for goods, seated on a river of abundance with easy access to the Atlantic and beyond. The global pantry at our door, and nada? Sure, we may never earn ourselves Creole, Tex-Mex, or Low Country-level notoriety, but I remain hopeful. I contend that we may yet define Port City Cuisine, and I hereby propose it begins with an emblematic stuffing. Allow me to make the case.

Port City Stuffing elements: 

The bread: Cornbread and buttermilk biscuits. A nod to our prominent placement, sandwiched between our friends to the North and the South, cornbread holds varying origin stories, largely thanks to native regional tribes sharing the ways of the kernel with Colonial settlers. Buttermilk biscuits, on the other hand, serve as a descendant of hardtack, or ship biscuits, remnants of which are still found in our town’s archaeological excavations of trade vessels. The combination of the two starches provide a poetic callback to our unique past and the textural diversity of creaminess and those bready cubes we expect from holiday stuffing. To boot, Alexandria was also almost entirely built on the milling of wheat and corn for export. 

The vegetables: Onions, peppers, garlic and herbs. We have world exploration and trade to thank for the popularity of all of these widely adopted culinary flora. Evidence abound from Alexandria’s history of Portuguese and Spanish traders spending ample time in our inns, wharves and markets. Where they sailed away from our shore with tonnage of flour and cornmeal, they left behind what would become our own sofrito. In another gesture of thanks to our Iberian amigos, we tweak the stuffing with smoked paprika and cumin – a hint of the exotic for which early Alexandrians could swing by the local apothecary. Who’d have thought, an international aisle right there off King Street? 

The protein: Crab. The archives of Alexandria recount the relative difficulty with which fishing vessels navigated the Potomac through dense schools of fish and crustacean beds. Like many historic coastal American hauls, oysters, clams and crabs seemed to overflow from our banks. Streets were paved with shells, recipes couldn’t keep up with the resulting ingredients and even modern household renovations reveal these aquatic bits of landfill. Both oysters and clams appear in some regional stuffings, but I say nay. Crab simply stands up better to its fellow ingredients and doesn’t get all “oogie” in the mix. That’s a technical term. Oh, and if you’ve read this far, go ahead and add turkey sausage to the mix, y’all. You deserve it!

Photo/Howie Southworth

Port City stuffing recipe:

Total time: Overnight, plus 2 hours, 30 minutes

Vessel: 10-inch cast iron skillet, 8 x 8 inch baking dish, or equivalent

Serves: 6-8

Ingredients:

1 lb. prepared cornbread, broken up by hand

4 3-inch buttermilk biscuits, roughly diced

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided

1 small white or yellow onion, diced

1 large green bell pepper, diced

5 cloves garlic, minced

1 ½ tsp. Kosher salt

½ tsp. ground black pepper

1 tsp. smoked paprika powder

1 tsp. cumin powder

8 oz. smoked turkey sausage, diced (optional)

2 tsp. dried oregano

2 large red bell peppers, roasted, peeled, seeded (or jarred), diced 

2 Tbsp. chives, thinly sliced

¼ cup parsley, roughly chopped

1 large egg

3 ½ cups crab, seafood or chicken stock or broth, cooled

Directions:

  1. Leave a tray of the cornbread and biscuit pieces on the counter, uncovered, overnight to dry out. Transfer the dried bread to a large mixing bowl. 

2. Place a skillet over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil begins to shimmer, add onion and sauté until the onion is almost translucent, about 6–8 minutes. Add garlic, salt, black pepper, paprika, cumin and sausage (if using) and continue to sauté until the garlic is very fragrant, about one-two minutes. Transfer the skillet contents to the mixing bowl with the bread.

3. To the mixing bowl, evenly fold in the skillet contents, oregano, roasted peppers, chives and parsley. Try not to further break up the bread pieces. Transfer the bread mixture into a baking vessel suggested above, making sure to distribute the mixture across the vessel. Even out the top as much as you can, no bread hills.

4. In a clean mixing bowl, ideally with a spout, or glass measuring cup, whisk together the egg and cooled stock or broth. Slowly pour the liquid over the top of the mixture in the baking vessel, being sure that some of the liquid moistens most, if not all, of the bread. The mixture should be rather wet, though not soupy. If you don’t use all the liquid, it’s OK. Use a clean hand, the back of a spoon or spatula to gently compress the whole mixture to ensure that the liquid is evenly distributed. 

5. Cover with plastic wrap and allow the unbaked stuffing to sit on the counter for an hour, undisturbed. 

6. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Uncover and transfer the unbaked stuffing to the center rack of the oven. Bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the top is begins to brown and get crusty. Remove the stuffing from the oven and proudly serve hot scoops of delicious Alexandria.

The author is a 20-year Alexandria resident and author of How to Cook Anything in Your Dutch Oven: Classic American Comfort Foods and New Global Favorites, Chinese Street Food: Small Bites, Classic Recipes, and Harrowing Tales Across the Middle Kingdom, Kiss My Casserole: 100 Mouthwatering Recipes Inspired by Ovens Around the World, One Pan to Rule Them All: 100 Cast-Iron Skillet Recipes for Indoors and Out and the forthcoming Off The Tapa My Head, Recipes, Rants and Raves of an American Cook in Barcelona.

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