This article was published in the December 2016 issue of the Irish American News under the “Guilty Pleasures” column.
Although Thanksgiving has passed and Christmas is nearly upon us, I’d like to carry over my favorite dish from the overflowing Thanksgiving table to the festively dressed and curated Christmas table. That adaptable, crowd-pleasing dish is…stuffing. I find its easy versatility perfect for both holidays.
Now, you have to understand that I prefer cooking my stuffing separate from the bird. It has never appealed to me to stuff the rear of the freshly plucked holiday star with an assortment of many-days old breads – rye, sourdough, wheat – celery, garlic, onion, sage, egg and yes, pancetta.
During one unfortunate incident, in my haste to throw together my stuffing (the kitchen was busy that year), I left the parchment paper between the thin slices of pancetta. How I didn’t notice while I was slicing the cured meat is beyond me. All of it went into the oven only to be discovered later by unlucky diners.
With both hands snug in oven mittens, I pulled the perfectly cooked stuffing out of the oven and brought it to the table. The dish looked like it was taken straight out of the pages of Bon Appétit magazine: It glistened in my red Le Creuset casserole dish, standing out among the other dishes on the table like a culinary masterpiece. Plates were clutched in eager hands lining up for large spoonful’s of the yet to be discovered disaster.
What seemed like endless chewing commenced with teeth attempting to bite through the surprisingly tough pancetta.
“Oh no, you forgot to remove the paper from the pancetta,” my mother said as she pulled the fork away from her mouth and politely tucked a piece of the paper plus pancetta into her napkin.
I stared at the dish, looking for evidence and upon seeing it, my cheeks flushed with embarrassment and I mouthed: “Oops.”
And then the table burst into laughter with a few stuffing lovers giving the ruined dish a playful nibble. “It’s not so bad,” my brother murmured. The ruined recipe found a new home in the bin, where our pesky black and tan Dachshund eyed the treat and was quickly shooed away by my mother (at least some creature would have enjoyed it).
The stuffing, when made without mishaps, will fill your kitchen with the delicious smells of Christmas: fragrant fresh sage, savory yellow onion, fatty and salty pancetta. Browning the onion and sage together get you off on the right foot and then, the rest of the recipe flows from there with no need to ever stick your hand near the turkey’s rear end.
Sage, Onion and Pancetta Stuffing
(Adapted slightly from Jamie Oliver’s “The best roast turkey – Christmas or any time” recipe)
Sprigs fresh sage, leaves picked
12 strips pancetta, sliced (remove the parchment paper!)
1 bulb garlic, peeled and broken into cloves
1 large yellow onion, peeled and chopped
2 sticks celery, trimmed and chopped
1 1/2 big handfuls breadcrumbs (days old rye, sourdough, wheat)
1 handful dried apricots, sliced
1 lemon, zest of
1 pinch grated nutmeg
1 large free-range egg
freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Heat a saucepan until medium hot and add a splash of olive oil, the sage leaves and the sliced pancetta. Peel and chop garlic cloves (to taste) and 1 onion. Add the garlic, celery and onion to the saucepan and fry everything gently until soft and golden brown. Take the pan off the heat, add the breadcrumbs and, while the mix is cooling down, chop the apricots roughly and stir them in. When the stuffing has cooled down, add the lemon zest, nutmeg, egg and lots of salt and pepper, and mix everything together well. Place the stuffing in a casserole dish, cover and set in the oven for 40-50 minutes. Check periodically to make sure the dish doesn’t dry out.
A note about the bread: Collect days old bread ahead of time, cut the loaves into large cubes for a chunkier stuffing. I like to check the grocery store for days old bread because they usually have a good assortment of options – be creative!