Ways to lighten up traditional stuffing


By Jody Shee

The traditional winter holiday meals aren’t the same without all of the trimmings for the turkey — the stuffing being chief among them. But just where that stuffing standard came from is hard to pinpoint. 

The concept of stuffing birds and animals traces back to the first century, notes Chef Melinda Burrows, CEC, CCA, executive chef at Hickory Hills Country Club, Springfield, Missouri. She cites the collection of recipes from Imperial Rome called “De re coquinaria” (“On the Subject of Cooking”): “The Romans stuffed chicken, suckling pig, castrated rooster, rabbit and dormice, for starters,” she says. A few common stuffing ingredients from ancient times included eggs, cooked brains, pepper, nuts and wine-soaked raisins.

In American culture, the only traceable holiday stuffing date stamp is 1972, when General Foods (now Kraft Foods) launched Stove Top stuffing. “It allowed consumers to have stuffing away from the holidays, and they didn’t have to deal with the bird, making it fast and convenient,” says Chef Nina Curtis, director and executive chef for Adventist Health’s Vitaliz Café, Roseville, California. She adds that “stuffing” is the term most often used in the Northern U.S., while “dressing” is the preferred term in the South.

Stove Top stuffing paved the way to safer stuffing, she says. Traditional stuffing prepared in the bird’s cavity is a salmonella infection waiting to happen, considering the temperature challenges. “In culinary school, we learn professional techniques, and the first is always food safety,” Chef Curtis says. “Culinary school helps [refine] things we did traditionally as a family [by] setting aside the emotional factor to focus on health and safety.” For that reason, she and other chefs only prepare stuffing outside the bird.

Additionally, stuffing prepared separately allows for greater volume and improved quality management. “It can help you better control the moisture content of the turkey, as stuffing inside the cavity of the turkey absorbs the bird’s natural juices while cooking and can dry out the meat,” says Chef Jason Potanovich, associate professor of culinary arts – restaurant education and high-volume production at the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York.

Reforming for Today

With some creativity, traditional stuffing prepared outside the bird can be made to fit the eating styles of today’s consumer. Consider vegetarian and/or vegan versions stuffed inside something else, or present the side as a trendy, hearty bowl dish.

Chef Curtis, who is vegan, stuffs portabella mushrooms that she marinates overnight in a mixture of coconut aminos, minced garlic, and herbs such as rosemary, lemon thyme and oregano, first poking holes in the caps to help with absorption. “You could also use a little liquid smoke,” she says. She then grills the mushrooms before filling them with her stuffing and finishing off in the oven.

For her wild rice stuffing, she combines the grain with sautéed onions and chopped celery along with minced garlic, dried cranberries and diced sweet potatoes. For a less-sweet version, she might eliminate the cranberries and sweet potatoes and add oyster mushrooms. For a little liquid, she uses vegetable stock. 

To make a healthy bowl or side of stuffing, Burrows suggests aiming for color and texture, and then reverse engineering, with each layer prepared separately. Perhaps use wild rice for the base, topped with mirepoix and some green herbs like Italian or curly parsley or chives; then, for additional color and flavor, add fresh or dried cranberries, dried apricots and perhaps butternut squash cubes. For crunch, add walnuts or pecans. Top it with a fried sage leaf. 

Substitutions That Work

Though stuffing isn’t traditionally gluten free, vegan, low carb or plant-based, you can achieve those ideals with some substitutions. 

If vegan is your chief goal and you plan to use bread or cornbread, you can’t use eggs. Instead, make a liquid slurry using a quarter-cup each of chickpea flour and water. It equates to one egg in baking, Chef Curtis says.

In stuffing or dressing that would be more complete with the addition of some plant-based protein, walnuts are a handy choice. The nuts stand apart as an excellent plant source of omega-3 fatty acids, with 2.5 grams per ounce, says Chef Juliet Greene, consulting chef for the California Walnut Board. The omegas from walnuts receive a boost when paired with omega-3-rich quinoa and chia in a stuffing.

To make a walnut “sausage,” combine walnuts, fennel and sage with a little oil in a food processor and pulse it to achieve a crumble that you can sauté and add to a rice or lentil stuffing, she says. 

English walnuts come in several shades, depending on the position on the tree and the varietal. The Livermore walnut, which is cranberry red, is “a show-stopper, and great for holiday stuffing,” Chef Greene says. 

One of her favorite stuffing recipes combines roasted cauliflower, brown rice, walnuts and the walnut sausage. To that, she adds fresh herbs and spices, and sometimes finishes it with dried fruit or apples for a bit of crispness and sweetness. 

The possibilities for healthful holiday stuffing or dressing are limitless if you begin with a side dish outlook and the ingredients that make sense to you and your guests. Let your stuffing help bring holiday cheer this year.

Jody Shee is a Kauai, Hawaii-based freelance writer and editor with more than 20 years of food-writing experience. She blogs at www.sheefood.com.