Cherry, Almond & Sausage Stuffing + The Turkey Gets the Bird

by Kelly on November 24, 2009   

Everything but the turkey, and you'll find out why

Everything but the turkey, and you'll find out why

I set out the other day to recreate a delicious turkey I had made some years back, not on Thanksgiving, mind you, but 3 days after. It was my peevish response to a take-out turkey we’d had with relatives, and I just felt I had to flex my Thanksgiving dinner muscles or else lose ’em. It was a de-boned turkey, restuffed into shape, roasted, basted, sliced, and enjoyed and it looked a little like this:

You can't judge a book by it's cover, that's for sure

You can't judge a book by it's cover, that's for sure

This is the turkey I made the other day, and this is the turkey that was, well, inedible. Yes, I’ve gone to the front and I return with warnings about organic/natural/free-range turkeys. But I’ll get to that later.

I did make a flavorful stuffing for the bird with cornbread, dried sour cherries, fennel, almonds, sausage, and sage. That was not a horror story. But I’m still smarting over that turkey.

Cherry, Almond & Sausage Stuffing | 10 servings

This will make enough to fill a 12 to 14-pound turkey, plus extra for a casserole.

6 cups dried cornbread chunks, or one Cornbread recipe
4 cups good-quality white bread chunks, such as a ciabatta (about 1/2 loaf)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 pound sausage, or 2 Italian sausages
1 large onion, diced
1 fennel bulb, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
3/4 cup coarsely chopped dried cherries
3/4 cup raw slivered almonds
Sprig of fresh sage, about 8 large leaves, minced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups unfiltered apple juice or cider
1/2 cup chicken stock or turkey stock (for overflow stuffing)

Tear the bread into chunks.

I used half a ciabatta (left) and a recipe of cornbread (right)

I used half a ciabatta (left) and a recipe of cornbread (right)

Spread the bread evenly in one layer on baking sheets

Spread the bread evenly in one layer on baking sheets

Dry the bread in a 225°F oven, tossing occasionally to dry evenly. It will take no more than an hour to dry out.

While the bread is drying, prepare the other stuffing ingredients. Heat the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a pan over medium. Remove the sausage casing and break up the meat in the pan.

With the tip of a sharp knife, make a long slit in the sausage casing

With the tip of a sharp knife, make a long slit in the sausage casing

Pull off the casing and discard

Pull off the casing and discard

Break up the sausage into small bits

Break up the sausage into small bits - I used 1 spicy and 1 mild Italian sausage

Cook the sausage until browning. While the sausage is cooking, dice the onion, fennel and celery.

Trim the top and root off the fennel and cut out the tough core

Trim the top and root off the fennel and cut out the tough core

Slice the fennel along the grain

Slice the fennel along the grain

Holding the slices together, turn the fennel and slice against the grain

Holding the slices together, turn the fennel and slice against the grain

With a slotted spoon, remove the cooked sausage and set aside.

Scoop the sausage onto a small plate or into a bowl until needed

Scoop the sausage onto a small plate or into a bowl until needed

Add the diced onion, fennel and celery to the sausage pan and cook until wilted, about 10 minutes.

Sprinkle in some salt and pepper at this point -- it's important not to underseason stuffing

Sprinkle in some salt and pepper at this point -- it's important not to underseason stuffing

Measure the breadcrumbs into a large mixing bowl.

My cups are nice and full

Generous cups because everyone love stuffing

My beat-up old stainless bowl works well

My beat-up old stainless bowl works well

Add the cherries and almonds.

It's very hard not to snack away at the ingredients

It's very hard not to snack away at the ingredients

Add the cooked sausage, wilted onions, fennel and celery, and sage, and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Mix well.

Stuffing is really deceptively simple

Stuffing is really deceptively simple

You could really throw any flavors in here that you like -- even green chiles or chestnuts or bacon or proscuitto or feta (you get the idea...)

You could really throw any flavors in here that you like -- green chiles or chestnuts or bacon or proscuitto or feta (you get the idea...)

Just before stuffing the turkey, pour in the apple juice, mixing well. Taste again and adjust the seasonings. The idea is to dampen but not soak the bread crumbs, since the juices from the turkey will do that.

Stop short of 1 1/2 cups if the bread becomes too wet, or add more if it seems too dry

Stop short of 1 1/2 cups of juice if the bread becomes too wet, or add more if it seems too dry

Note: Lots of stuffing recipes call for melted butter instead of apple juice, but in the interest of health I always use juice. I also like the slightly sweet note it adds, which brings up the savory flavors nicely.

Any extra stuffing can be piled in a buttered casserole (using the extra tablespoon of butter). Add the chicken or turkey stock and baste occasionally with turkey drippings. Cook, covered with foil, along with the turkey for 45 minutes, taking the foil off for the final 10 minutes if you like crisper top.

Overflow stuffing cooks nicely in a casserole but will be a little drier than the stuffing cooked inside the turkey

Overflow stuffing cooks nicely in a casserole but will be a little drier than the stuffing cooked inside the turkey

At this point I’d love to show you how I re-stuffed my de-boned turkey but I’d only be misleading you. So here’s my little word of warning:

Turkeat Emptor (Turkey-Buyer Beware)

We spend a lot of Thanksgivings wringing our hands over the safety of the bird — undercooked, bad, too long at room temp, bad. These are concerns, but really, it’s just a big chicken. Follow the same care you’d take with a whole chicken and you’ll be fine.

Where it’s possible to go astray, though, is in the brand and type of bird you buy and how you cook that bird. Not all turkeys are created equal. That’s what I found out with my…yes, inedible…bird.

We are seeing more and more “organic,” “natural,” and “free-range” birds out there, as well as “kosher” and “heritage” and the old standbys, Butterballs® and grocery store brands, and it’s now become crucial to know how to deal with them.

My turkey was a “free-range” turkey, raised locally, though I can’t immediately distinguish between the free-range and organic or for that matter natural. The website says of free-range: “These turkeys are raised on healthful grains and allowed to roam in areas four times the size of the average commercial turkey ranch.  Their high protein diet provides the optimum amount of nutrients for the turkey to grow into a bigger and more flavorful turkey than one typically found in the supermarket.  You won’t find any antibiotics, animal by-products, preservatives or hormones in a Mary’s Free-Range Turkey.”

For the organic it says: Mary’s Free-Range Organic Turkeys are fed a certified organic high protein diet complete with the finest grains and vegetable proteins and grow naturally with plenty of open space on a certified organic ranch in sunny California. Because of cleaner living quarters, a healthier and happier turkey is produced having a better taste.  You won’t find any antibiotics, animal by-products, preservatives or hormones in a Mary’s Free-Range Organic Turkey.” Sheesh — what’s the difference? I can’t really parse it out. Maybe the organics have less space?

My turkey was de-boned, which presents the first cooking challenge. Though it was re-stuffed, it needed to cook for less time. I knew that, and watched that bird like a hawk. In taking its temperature (which I did frequently) I noted that the breast meat never got tender, and there was little thigh to test. Free-range birds are longer, less “plump” than the Butterball-style turkeys of our childhood. All in all, this turkey yielded less than 1 tablespoon of fat, and I had generously rubbed it with butter, both inside and out. Lean. Really lean.

So free-range, natural and organic turkeys can have very little fat, which would translate into moisture. To get that moisture they would benefit from being brined. Whole Foods sells different varieties of these, depending on the location of the store and their regional source, so a conversation with the butcher would provide further information.

Heritage is most like a wild turkey, and even leaner than the organics or the free-range.

Kosher turkeys have been brined, thus they are more moist but can be salty.

Butterballs have been injected with “up to 8% of a solution of Water, Salt, Spices to Enhance Tenderness and Juiciness.” Does make the classic Norman Rockwell turkey, but it’s a little watery.

Grocery store brands usually come frozen or have been frozen. This can give the turkey an institutional flavor.

This is the beginning of my serious examination into this turkey equality problem, but I have some early conclusions to share. I would recommend brining any organic, natural, or free-range turkey. Ditto for the Heritage turkeys. Russ Parsons, in his series of articles for the Los Angeles Times, likes the flavored dry-brine method: Sprinkle the bird with 1 tablespoon of kosher salt for every 5 pounds of turkey — and the salt can be mixed with “aromatics” (like fresh or dried rosemary, sage, citrus zest, etc.) — place in a sealed plastic bag, and refrigerate for 2 1/2 to 3 days. After a day or so there may be accumulated liquid in the bag, but that will reabsorbed by the turkey, giving it the moisture it needs. In the future I will lean toward the dry-brine since my refrigerator will not accommodate the large pot filled with salty liquid needed for wet-brining.

Maybe I overcooked my turkey, maybe not. But next year I’m going to dig deeper into this problem, because this year I won’t be making another turkey  (we’re going over the meadow and through the woods for Thanksgiving). Little did I know how prophetic this funny card that came my way would be:

Until next year...

Until next year...

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