Dressings for the Holidays
Dressings, or stuffings, are simple fare – just stale bread that’s soaked, seasoned and baked inside a bird or served alongside meat, poultry or fish. But when they are the heart of the meal, such as during holidays, dressings can be more complicated.
For example, my two favorite dressings include ingredients not loved by everyone – oysters in Creole-style French-bread dressing, and giblets or organ meat in spicy Cajun rice dressing. So when my children were little and would rather die than eat liver, I eliminated one of the dressings from my holiday menus only to find that my mother preferred cornbread dressing without the oysters.
What does a devoted mother/daughter do? For about 10 years, she makes two kinds of holiday dressings – one with oysters, one without – not to mention the dozen other dishes cooking in the kitchen at the same time.
Looking on the bright side, we always had plenty of dressing to go around, plus some left over for the next day. You just have to remember to refrigerate the oyster dressing as soon as the meal is over so that nothing spoils for the post-holiday feast. (Sometimes leftovers are better than the real deal.)
A Louisiana dressing isn’t all that simple, anyway, because just about everything we cook has layers of flavors using many local ingredients. The Cajuns would grind their meats up, including livers and gizzards. And because rice grew all around them in bayou country, they naturally used it to stuff their turkeys, usually wild. For a special holiday meal, they added plenty of meat; sometimes a dressing would include giblets, ground beef and sausage. The more meat, the better, but seasoning vegetables were important, too – lots of onion, garlic, peppers and celery. All the add-ons turned plain, white rice a dark, brownish color and the dish eventually became known as dirty rice. So now when you get that spicy side at your favorite fried-chicken restaurant, you have the Cajuns to thank for dressing up their No. 1 staple – rice. The meat most commonly used in today’s version is more likely to be ground beef than organ meat, and lots of young fast-food enthusiasts (How many have even eaten liver?) are thankful for that.
Meanwhile, in more sophisticated city kitchens, cooks were bringing in fresh oysters and letting French bread go stale for the beloved oyster dressing that still dominates holiday tables in New Orleans today. In the 1901 The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book, the bible of Creole cookery, it is written in the opening to the chapter of stuffings and dressings: “The Creoles claim that oysters, eggs, chestnuts or truffles are the only elegant dressings for poultry or game, and oysters or egg stuffing for fish.” Then follow two recipes for oyster dressing, one for egg dressing and a potato-based stuffing for goose. After that are seven recipes for forcemeats, a k a quenelles, which combine different meats, chicken or fish with eggs and seasonings, all to be served with poultry or fish.
So when your guests from other states ask why your dressings are so weird, tell them we grow rice and oysters down here. Plus, we learned to cook from the French settlers with the help of Africans, Spanish, American Indians and Caribbeans, not to mention the Italians, although their huge influence came a bit later. (Try putting Italian sausage in your dressing for a real treat.)
It does seem a shame that you
couldn’t make one big dressing with rice, French bread, cornbread, oysters, giblets, sausage and ground beef to please everyone. I have no doubt that somebody here has already attempted that, but I am enough of a purist to love my seafood gumbo and chicken-andouille gumbo separate as well as my rice dressing and oyster dressing. At least most of us are agree that the name of the dish is dressing, not stuffing, as it is called elsewhere. Perhaps that is because stuffing a dressing into something is practically an everyday affair here. If we aren’t stuffing turkeys, we’re stuffing mirlitons, and if we aren’t stuffing crabs, we’re stuffing eggplant. Here, stuffing is a verb and dressing is a noun.
One of the most creative Louisiana dishes I’ve run across was the brainchild of chef Chris Kerageorgiou of La Provence restaurant in Lacombe. (Leave it to a French chef.) His dark Creole gumbo was often made with tiny quail, each one stuffed with a rice dressing such as jambalaya or dirty rice. It gave me the idea of stuffing most anything with dirty rice – chickens, bell peppers, what-have-you. And if time is of the essence, pick up some dirty rice as takeout, stuff it in a raw chicken, sprinkle the chicken with Creole seasoning and roast it for about an hour in the oven. Add a side vegetable or salad and you have an elegant dinner with minimum effort.
The following recipes have interchangeable ingredients. Some cooks use oysters in rice dressing. And sausage can be used in either one. Cornbread dressing, a staple of the Deep South, also can contain any of the meats and oysters. Eggs are often added to bread dressings to puff them up. One thing that is important for dressings that are baked is adding enough liquid so that the final dish is moist. Keep dressings refrigerated if made ahead of time and never stuff them in poultry or meat until it is ready to go in the oven.
CAJUN RICE DRESSING
4 cups chicken or turkey stock, homemade
2 cups rice
1 pound chicken gizzards
1/2 pound chicken livers
1/2 pound ground beef
1/2 pound pork
1/2 cup oil or meat drippings
1 large onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch green onions, chopped
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt, pepper, Creole seasoning and cayenne
pepper to taste
Bring chicken stock to a boil in a large saucepan. Add rice, reduce heat, cover and simmer until done, about 20 minutes. Set aside.
Simmer chicken gizzards in water to cover until fork tender, about 30 minutes, add livers and cook about 10 more minutes until livers are done. Drain and remove the tender meat from the gizzards, discarding the tough gristle. Place gizzard meat and livers in a food processor or grinder and process until coarse. Set aside.
In a large heavy pot, brown the ground beef and pork, drain and set aside. In the same pot, heat the oil and sauté onions, celery and bell pepper until soft. Add garlic and sauté briefly. Away from the heat, add rice, meat, green onions, parsley and seasonings, and toss lightly. Heat through when ready to serve. This dressing can be stuffed in a turkey and baked with it, or it can be reheated in the oven or microwave when ready to serve. Serves 8 to 10.
Note: If you don’t want to use gizzards, double the livers. If you don’t want either one, double the ground beef and pork.
CREOLE OYSTER DRESSING
1 long loaf French bread, stale
3 10-ounce containers (about 3 dozen
2 cups chicken or turkey stock, homemade
1 stick butter
1 large onion, chopped
1 bunch green onions, white and green
parts separated and chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup chopped parsley
Salt, pepper, Creole seasoning and
cayenne pepper to taste
Buy a poor-boy loaf of French bread in paper, not plastic, several days before making your dressing and let it get stale. In a very large bowl, break up bread into small pieces. (Crumb the bread by beating it with the side of a meat mallet while still in the paper bag.) Cover with strained water from the oysters and chicken stock. Let soak for 30 minutes to an hour.
Meanwhile, melt butter in a large skillet and sauté white onions and celery until soft, add garlic and sauté a few minutes more. Add onion mixture, green onion tops and parsley to the soaked bread and mix well. Check oysters to eliminate any shell, chop them and stir into mixture. Add seasonings. Place in a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish, making sure there is plenty of liquid. Add more stock or water if necessary to make dressing very moist. Bake at 400 degrees for about 45 minutes to an hour, or until dressing has firmed up and is lightly brown on top.
Stuff the dressing into the turkey right before baking to avoid salmonella poisoning. If baked inside the turkey, make sure the dressing reaches 165 degrees.
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