By John Lehndorff
(April 1, 2015) – I found the flattened package hidden behind plastic container of broth, green chile and whole bananas in the freezer the other night. It’s my last package of stuffing from Thanksgiving 2014. Butter-infused mashed potatoes are melded with crumbled and fried hot Italian sausage plus onions, sage and the soul only acquired from the juices of a roasted fresh bird.
What’s not to like?
The stuffing is acclaimed for its flavor but folks weaned on the bread cube version tell me that my tradition is a sacrilege.
I almost never follow recipes. I seldom cook anything exactly the same thing twice except when I craft a substance on the night before Thanksgiving true to my family’s taste memory.
I don’t generally de-skin spuds – this is the exception. The dining room table is covered with newspapers and the peeling commences. When my son Hans was young he found it amusing to peel potatoes directly onto food section copies printed with his dad’s face. Cut in odd chunks and covered in cold water the peeled ones boil in an heirloom pasta pot my grandmother, Vincenza, and my mother, Rose, also used.
Meanwhile, good fresh locally made Italian sausage gets fried with onions in an immense, black, cast iron frying pan I use once every 52 weeks.. The magic moment occurs when the sausage is added to the lumpy potatoes with butter, broth and sage grown in a Denver friend’s backyard. It must be tasted repeatedly and the seasonings tweaked until it hits the right notes, notes that were first sounded nearly a century ago.
My maternal grandparents, Vincenza “Nanna” Mazzola and Michael “Papa” Mazzola, migrated to Willimantic, Conn. from Sicily in the early 1900s. Below the apartment where they raised a big family, they opened an Italian market where Papa made great Italian sausage flecked with chile flakes and fennel seeds.
When Nanna needed a stuffing for a huge turkey she had to cook for this unfamiliar American holiday, she asked a French immigrant woman, a renter who suggested a French chicken stuffing that featured meat and potatoes. Nanna used Papa’s sausage and a tradition was born.
My first memories of feasting are in that apartment around a Thanksgiving table centered by American turkey with French stuffing, baked pasta for the Sicilians, and kielbasa and kraut for the Polish-American guys who married my mom’s sisters. My Austrian-born dad loved it all and I learned many colorful ethnic insults when the uncles retreated to the den after the meal “to digest.”
I learned to make stuffing as my Mom’s official spud peeler in Massachusetts, made it by myself for friends in college in Montreal and carried the tradition with me when I migrated to Boulder in the mid 1970s.
I started writing about the stuffing in 1985 when I became the Food Editor of the Daily Camera and continued annually for the Rocky Mountain News and newspapers across the nation that carried my Nibbles column. One version I found online recently was published in the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal World in 1995. It begins: “It’s not that I don’t like a good bread stuffing and I’m happy to eat it also at the big feast but without potato sausage stuffing Thanksgiving would not be Thanksgiving.”
When my son was born I wrote a column about everything he would look forward to tasting including the stuffing. My Mom moved to Boulder after my Dad passed away and I looked forward to making stuffing with her again. As we cooked she was aghast that I added butter, onions and garlic. “Your father would never eat that,” she said, but in the end she pronounced it delicious. It seemed natural when Mom passed away that I note in her obituary that she had become famous for her stuffing.
She was happy to know that there were families in Colorado and around the country making the stuffing even if not precisely following her recipe. Readers have told me that they add roasted garlic or sautéed shitakes and substitute pancetta or ground veal for the sausage and yams for the spuds.
Nobody owns recipes; feel free to mess around with “mine.” Recipes need to be used (and occasionally abused) or they gather dust in the museum of forgotten tastes.
I always make too much stuffing so it’s available through the months to stuff chicken, Cornish game hens or roasted kabocha squash or griddled as a base for eggs Benedict. Used as filling in a double-crusted pie, it becomes a savory side dish for roast ham.
For now, I’m going to defrost and fry this stuffing, top it with a couple of fried eggs and make some toast and coffee for a spring breakfast that can’t be beat.
Italian Sausage and Potato Stuffing
5 to 6 pounds Colorado red, Yukon gold and Russet potatoes, peeled, in big chunks
3 pounds bulk fresh hot or “sweet” Italian pork sausage
1 large Colorado sweet yellow onion, finely minced
½ pound butter (adjust to taste)
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
salt to taste
¼ to 1 tablespoon poultry seasoning or sage, to taste
Optional: 5 large cloves garlic, minced; Turkey or chicken broth
Boil spuds in plenty of water until barely tender, not mushy. Drain. (Use saved potato boiling water as stock for turkey soup.) While the spuds are boiling, crumble sausage in a frying pan with onions and garlic, if desired. Cook until just barely done. Heat a large pot or pan over low heat and add butter. Add sausage to pan followed by the potatoes and stir until ingredients are well combined. Taste and adjust salt and seasonings. If the stuffing seems dry moisten it with chicken or turkey stock but note that stuffing will absorb juice inside the turkey as it roasts. Fill turkey with stuffing from both ends and roast. Extra stuffing can be baked separately as “dressing” and served as a side dish. This recipe can be made several days before the feast and refrigerated.
I will be teaching a workshop on Food Writing April 18 at the Boulder Book Store. http://boulderbookstore.indiebound.com/event/taste-writing-food-writing-workshop-john-lehndorff-0
Listen to Radio Nibbles
Radio Nibbles airs at 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU, 88.5 FM,1390 AM and streaming at kgnu.org. Listen to podcasts at: http://news.kgnu.org/category/features/radio-nibbles/
Why pie for Passover or Easter?
“Candy might be sweet, but it’s a traveling carnival blowing through town. Pie is home. People always come home.” – From “Pushing Daisies”