It usually isn't very creative. In fact, for most of us, a Thanksgiving menu is downright predictable. A golden-brown turkey stars, naturally, accompanied by all the obligatory fixin's--cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, Waldorf salad, several vegetable side dishes, hot bread of some sort, an array of relishes and, of course, pumpkin and possibly other pies for dessert.
What's missing? Something that's an absolute must for any true, standard, old-fashioned turkey-day celebration--the stuffing that goes in the bird or is baked along with it. Home for ladle after ladle of rich gravy, turkey stuffing is--along with the turkey--one of the menu items that makes Thanksgiving dinner a warm, comforting, totally recognizable meal. It isn't a side dish that generally pleases those devoted to a strict regimen of healthful eating, mainly because most stuffings do contain some form of fat and an unmentionable number of calories (particularly when the gravy is added).
But enjoying the sorts of food found in a typical Thanksgiving feast once a year can't be all bad. The truth is, such indulgences honestly make you appreciate your discipline in avoiding similar food binges the rest of the year.
Family traditions tend to have a strong bearing on the types of stuffings served in various homes. Whether they are baked in or out of the bird, stuffings provide the cook with a wonderful opportunity to add some high-style seasoning to a rather bland meat. I was raised to believe the only true turkey stuffing consisted of plain stale bread, onions, celery, a bit of butter and chicken or turkey broth plus an astronomical amount of ground sage. It was probably the only time during the year sage was used to flavor anything in our household. But its presence was much in evidence to both the nostrils and the palate--first as the Thanksgiving turkey sizzled away in its juices in the oven and later, when it was demolished at the table.
To this day, a whiff of sage makes me think of Thanksgiving, even when this aromatic herb, now somewhat trendy in its fresh state, is being used to enhance other ingredients in a cold summer salad.
After I grew up and left home, I was amazed to find that people played games with the Thanksgiving turkey's stuffing. (And, horrors of horrors, some even had the temerity to call it "dressing" rather than stuffing!) Others took terrible liberties and made it with corn bread; some added nuts and oysters or spicy sausage. Still others saw fit to add fruits to their stuffings. Over the years I have bravely sampled stuffings that were made with rice, bagels and other unusual (to me) bases, all seasoned with herbs and spices and other ingredients that, while out of the ordinary, nevertheless paid flavorful homage to the bird of the hour.
Some of these delicious treatments made for an unexpectedly exotic presentation as the turkey was carried majestically to the table. Others, simpler perhaps and more recognizable to my plebeian palate, were equally as pleasing as both my tried-and-true old sage stuffing and the more elegant and trendy versions.
In collecting interesting recipes for this article, I enjoyed seeing who offered what type of stuffing. Times food writer Rose Dosti, who was raised in New York, provided her mother's recipe for a wonderful bagel-based stuffing liberally laced with mint leaves and Italian parsley. And Times wine writer Dan Berger, obviously relishing the memory of the flavors in his mind, gave us an unusual recipe that calls for four kinds of nuts and, naturally, wine.
Still another high-style, high-flavor stuffing came from New York restaurant chef Anne Rosenzweig, who provided a recipe that calls for bacon, apples, walnuts, raisins, fennel (another currently trendy food) and a couple of cups of whiskey to be mixed with fresh bread crumbs. Other vegetables and herbs are added, making this a most aromatic blend. (If you prefer not to use the whiskey, even though the alcohol will evaporate, leaving only the flavor of the grains, you can substitute apple juice or chicken broth for it.)
Three other stuffings that proved compatible with the traditional bird were created in The Times Test Kitchen. One, our Southern California Corn-Bread Stuffing, calls for ingredients that are very familiar to local cooks. Artichoke hearts, Cheddar cheese, strips of sweet red pepper, green chiles, onions and garlic were mixed with the corn-bread base in a stuffing that was well received by our tasting panel.
The second stuffing uses a chance purchase that turned out to be a fine addition to a package of herb-seasoned stuffing mix. Donna Deane, who does the recipe testing in our Test Kitchen, came across a package of turkey sausage that we combined with additional herbs, some garlic and, for crunch, some water chestnuts. It too won approval from our tasters.