By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(Published in the November 2017 issue of Sensi magazine in Denver)
I was well into high school before I got an inkling that lasagna was not a traditional Thanksgiving side dish and that turkey stuffing usually involved cubed bread.
The earliest feasts tucked in the cubby holes of my memory were eaten in shifts around a large table at my Sicilian-born grandparents’ apartment in Connecticut. You had your classic roast turkey with gravy and cranberry sauce. There was always a baked pasta dish for the Italians and kielbasa and kraut for the Polish-American guys who married two of my mom’s sisters. Pie was involved as well as bowl full of the family’s Italian sausage and potato stuffing. My Austrian-born Dad loved all of it.
Nanna and Papa Mazzola emigrated to the U.S. almost 100 years ago. Family lore is that Nanna had never seen a turkey before, never mind a stuffing. She sought advice from a French-Canadian woman named Rose who lived down the hall. She suggested a meat and potato stuffing reminiscent of the filling in tourtière pork pies. My grandmother improvised using the fennel- and chile flake-spiced Italian sausage my grandfather made downstairs in his Italian market. It was a quintessentially all-American dish.
I’m not a hardcore traditionalist but I observe certain rituals that connect me directly to my ancestors on the day before Thanksgiving. To make the stuffing, I use a pan I inherited from Nanna to boil the spuds and a huge, old cast iron skillet to fry the sausage. While I work, the soundtrack is usually the Grateful Dead’s 3-disc Europe ’72 album. This was the music I loved listening to when I first started making the stuffing on my own in college.
The a-ha moment in the process comes just after I combine the potatoes, meat, spices butter and broth and start muscling the separate parts into the ideal mashed -but not but not totally mushed, state. The first taste of the stuffing always gets me going but then so do the second and third as I tweak the spicing.
This stuff transcends its humble ingredients, especially in what we call the “bird stuffing” that exits the carcass infused with even more flavor and fat. The stuff baked in a pie pan is good but we regard that as back-up “dressing.” There are many Southerners who have vigorously disagreed with me about that naming distinction. We have hotly debated the proper ingredients for a stuffing, i.e., bread, cornbread, oysters … at least until they taste my stuffing. I love it when there are two, three or more kinds of stuffing. Some worry about the moistness of the turkey, whether the white and dark meat is equally roasted and the skin dark brown. Most of us care a lot more on the fourth Thursday in November about what’s within the bird and the array of side dishes from deviled eggs to dessert.
There are foodie snobs among my friends who would virtually ban green bean casserole and “ambrosia “salad” made with canned fruit, sweetened coconut, marshmallows and Dream (or Cool) Whip. I figure every single one of us sitting down at the feast deserves to enjoy the dishes that say “Thanksgiving” to them whether it is caramelized Brussels sprouts with pecans, pomegranate and pecorino or baked candied yams under a toasted marshmallow toupee. We set aside our omnipresent diet for a day a year and indulge.
Feel free to ignore the measurements in the following recipe. I change it from year to year and sometimes includes celery, fennel and pine nuts. I know folks who make this stuffing with chorizo instead of Italian sausage and add roasted green chilies and other who use substitute crumbled tempeh and mushroom broth. Now it is their family’s traditional Thanksgiving stuffing, a fact that always amazed and amused my Mom who taught me how to make it.
May your home be perfumed with spicy sausage and sage and graced with a brace of pies. At this year’s feast let us raise a toast in gratitude to the immigrants who got us here so we could gather around the table again. Lift another to the folks who grew and harvested the crops in Colorado and elsewhere.
Italian Sausage and Potato Stuffing
5 to 6 pounds (approx.) Colorado red, Yukon gold and/or Russet potatoes, peeled and chunked
4 pounds (approx.) bulk Italian sweet sausage (hot and/or mild)
2 medium sweet yellow onions, minced
3 or more large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 pound butter (or more)
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste
1 tablespoon poultry seasoning or ground sage, to taste
5 large cloves garlic, minced
Turkey or chicken broth, as needed
Optional: minced fresh celery; minced fresh fennel; 1/2 cup pine nuts; other herbs
I usually peel the Russets but not the thin-skinned Yukon Golds. Boil potatoes in plenty of water until barely tender, not mushy. Drain the spuds. (I save the potato water for making turkey soup a couple of days after Thanksgiving.) Mash the potatoes in a large pot over low heat while adding butter. Crumble sausage in a frying pan with onions and garlic (as well as celery and fennel, if) and cook until light pink. Drain fat. Do not overcook spuds or sausage. They will cook again in the bird/oven.
In a large pan combine sausage and potatoes along with pepper and poultry seasoning. Add broth as needed to make the elements marry. Taste repeatedly to tweak the seasonings. This recipe can be made and refrigerated up to two days before the feast.
When it’s time, push stuffing deep into all the nooks and crannies on both ends and roast the bird as usual.
This stuffing freezes well and pleases mightily when it appears on a weeknight dinner plate sometime in the doldrums of January or serves as a griddled base for a change-of-pace eggs Benedict.
John Lehndorff writes Nibbles for the Boulder Weekly and hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU.
Shop and mash locally
About 50,000 acres in Colorado’s San Luis Valley annually produce more than 2 billion pounds of Russets, Yukon God, various fingerlings, Colorado Rose, Kennebec and Purple Majesty and many other varieties.