Traditional Thanksgiving dinners where the mom, dad, siblings and grandparents all gather together, give thanks, and then dive into the feast laid before them are becoming fewer and further between. Families often live farther apart, are smaller in size, and have step-families which require their presence at more than one location on the holiday. One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the presence of the golden brown bird which is the center of the Thanksgiving feast. That being said, there are many dishes which may accompany the bird to the table and enhance the palatial enjoyment of the meal.
Whether you serve dressing or stuffing often depends on your home region. A separate cornbread dressing seems most prevalent in the South; whereas, stuffing is more prevalent in other areas of the country. A typical southern cornbread dressing is a tradition that has been handed down by southern cooks over the years. The daughter calls the mother requesting the recipe, and the typical southern answer is "a dab of this and a handful of that." Seldom do the ingredients get measured. The adult child who perfects the unmeasured recipe often becomes the dressing-maker in the family every year.
Start with several hot, oiled iron-skillet-cooked pans of traditional southern cornbread made with white cornmeal and absolutely no sugar. Frequently there will be a traditional southern cornbread recipe on the back of the cornmeal package. If you don't have your own recipe, make sure to purchase one that has a recipe. It is often best to let at least the first few skillets of cornbread age for a couple of days before using them to make your dressing. You want the cornbread dry enough to crumble into bread crumbs and not so fresh that the bread is mushy and sticky between your fingers.
Crumble the dried pre-cooked cornbread into one very large bowl, discarding most of the harder browned outside edges. One very large bowl of breadcrumbs, once combined with the remainder of the ingredients will feed 25 to 35 people depending on how much other food is at the table. Since not using measured ingredients, feel free to perfect your own recipe based on the number of people being served.
In your food processor, make additional bread crumbs from a box of store-bought buttery-flavored crackers. If you need more bread crumbs after this, toast some white bread slices or crumble some day-old French bread into the mix. Remember, a little of this and a little of that is the tradition.
Add your herbs and seasonings to the dry bread crumbs and mix well. Lots of fresh ground black pepper, poultry seasoning and a little sage make a well-flavored dressing. One to two chopped onions along with a few stalks of chopped celery are needed. Onions are important to the flavor of the dressing, so start small and add by taste as needed.
Add your moist ingredients. Cream of celery soup, turkey broth (if you cooked the turkey) or canned chicken broth are great add-ins for flavor and moisture. Even if using broth from your cooked turkey, a few additional cans of chicken broth will add flavor. Pour 1/2 to 1 cut of melted butter or margarine into the mix and stir. For a smoother flavor, stir in a can or two of evaporated milk.
Now is the time for the taste test. Before adding the remaining moist ingredient, whole milk, taste a spoon full of the mixture and roll it around on your tongue. Does it have enough sage? Does it need onion? Keep in mind that the flavor of the herbs is often enhanced when cooking, so you don't want to add too much additional sage or poultry seasoning at this stage. Make sure your onion flavor is strong enough at this stage, as onion is the primary flavoring ingredient to the bread mixture. If you prefer meat in your dressing, a few strips of cooked turkey should be added at this point.
Once the taste is right, mix in enough whole milk so that your mixture reaches the consistency of thin, but not too watery, oatmeal and is pourable. Pour into one or two casserole dishes and bake at 350 to 375 degrees for 45 minutes to an hour. When done, the dressing will still appear somewhat soupy in the center but light golden brown and crusting around the edges. You will most likely be tempted to leave the dressing in the oven until golden brown and solid in the center. If you do so, your dressing will be dry through and through, and you may not be the dressing-maker next year. Let the dressing cool slightly on the stovetop before serving. This cooling time allows the center to thicken so that the right consistency is reached.
As opposed to onion-spiced southern dressing, stuffing may be more of a nutty and even fruity combination. The traditional Thanksgiving roasted chestnuts or pecans may be added to your moistened bread crumbs along with dates, raisins, cranberries or apples. Instead of starting with a cornbread base, many stuffing recipes will begin with French or white bread. Parsley will be added for seasoning, and often cooked sausage, oysters or turkey giblets will be added for a meaty flavor. Like the dressing, it will be moistened with chicken or turkey broth and also seasoned with sage along with the parsley. The consistency of stuffing will be different from dressing. Whereas dressing is pourable for baking, stuffing will maintain a solid form that will absorb the moisture when cooking. It may be cooked on the stove top, or as tradition may dictate, inside the bird. There are strong cautions when cooking the stuffing inside the bird, however. A meat thermometer should be inserted into the stuffing mix to insure it reaches at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent food-borne illnesses.
Along with the southern dressing, one southern tradition that you either love or love to hate is giblet gravy. It starts by boiling the turkey heart, liver, neck and all those parts you find in a plastic bag inside the turkey. Once the giblets are cooked, you add chopped boiled eggs, flour paste (flour mixed with a small amount of boiling broth), salt and pepper to the water. Cook until slightly thickened, and serve over hot dressing.
Who Can Forget the Cranberry Sauce?
Cranberry sauce is another staple that graces the Thanksgiving table. Many people buy the sauce in a can, but there are tasty recipes for homemade cranberry sauce that the cranberry lover can't live without. Fresh cranberries, sugar and/or fruit juice and even gelatin packages may be used to make this traditional sauce.
One staple for holiday meals is green bean casserole. Most recipes will use cut green beans, cream of mushroom soup and canned fried onions. Soy sauce will often be added to the soup for a heartier flavor. Other vegetable casseroles that may appear at the table are a mixed bean and corn casserole, cheesy squash casserole or hash-brown casseroles.
For the potato-lover, many variations of scalloped potatoes may appear on the table. Seasoned with either a cheesy sauce or an herb-spiced sauce, this disc-sliced potato dish is a sure pleaser. For the traditionalist, mashed potatoes may grace the table instead to be served with a turkey gravy topper.
A discussion of the Thanksgiving meal can't be had without discussing leftovers. One modern leftover for the person who doesn't care for warmed-over turkey and dressing is turkey salad. Chop some of the left-over turkey meat into a bowl, add a small amount of chopped leftover celery and onions, mayonnaise, spicy mustard, almonds or pecans, and last, but not least, stir in some halved red seedless grapes. This makes a delicious day-after-Thanksgiving meal served on sandwich bread with chips and soda.