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Fabulous Fillers : Skip the stuffing? Not on Thanksgiving! Turkey and stuffing are such great companions that it would be a shame to miss out on any part of our annual day of overindulgence.

It usually isn’t very creative. In fact, for most of us, a Thanksgiving menu is downright predictable. A golden-brown turkey stars, naturally, accompanied by all the obligatory fixin’s--cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, Waldorf salad, several vegetable side dishes, hot bread of some sort, an array of relishes and, of course, pumpkin and possibly other pies for dessert.

What’s missing? Something that’s an absolute must for any true, standard, old-fashioned turkey-day celebration--the stuffing that goes in the bird or is baked along with it. Home for ladle after ladle of rich gravy, turkey stuffing is--along with the turkey--one of the menu items that makes Thanksgiving dinner a warm, comforting, totally recognizable meal. It isn’t a side dish that generally pleases those devoted to a strict regimen of healthful eating, mainly because most stuffings do contain some form of fat and an unmentionable number of calories (particularly when the gravy is added).

But enjoying the sorts of food found in a typical Thanksgiving feast once a year can’t be all bad. The truth is, such indulgences honestly make you appreciate your discipline in avoiding similar food binges the rest of the year.

Family traditions tend to have a strong bearing on the types of stuffings served in various homes. Whether they are baked in or out of the bird, stuffings provide the cook with a wonderful opportunity to add some high-style seasoning to a rather bland meat. I was raised to believe the only true turkey stuffing consisted of plain stale bread, onions, celery, a bit of butter and chicken or turkey broth plus an astronomical amount of ground sage. It was probably the only time during the year sage was used to flavor anything in our household. But its presence was much in evidence to both the nostrils and the palate--first as the Thanksgiving turkey sizzled away in its juices in the oven and later, when it was demolished at the table.

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To this day, a whiff of sage makes me think of Thanksgiving, even when this aromatic herb, now somewhat trendy in its fresh state, is being used to enhance other ingredients in a cold summer salad.

After I grew up and left home, I was amazed to find that people played games with the Thanksgiving turkey’s stuffing. (And, horrors of horrors, some even had the temerity to call it “dressing” rather than stuffing!) Others took terrible liberties and made it with corn bread; some added nuts and oysters or spicy sausage. Still others saw fit to add fruits to their stuffings. Over the years I have bravely sampled stuffings that were made with rice, bagels and other unusual (to me) bases, all seasoned with herbs and spices and other ingredients that, while out of the ordinary, nevertheless paid flavorful homage to the bird of the hour.

Some of these delicious treatments made for an unexpectedly exotic presentation as the turkey was carried majestically to the table. Others, simpler perhaps and more recognizable to my plebeian palate, were equally as pleasing as both my tried-and-true old sage stuffing and the more elegant and trendy versions.

In collecting interesting recipes for this article, I enjoyed seeing who offered what type of stuffing. Times food writer Rose Dosti, who was raised in New York, provided her mother’s recipe for a wonderful bagel-based stuffing liberally laced with mint leaves and Italian parsley. And Times wine writer Dan Berger, obviously relishing the memory of the flavors in his mind, gave us an unusual recipe that calls for four kinds of nuts and, naturally, wine.

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Still another high-style, high-flavor stuffing came from New York restaurant chef Anne Rosenzweig, who provided a recipe that calls for bacon, apples, walnuts, raisins, fennel (another currently trendy food) and a couple of cups of whiskey to be mixed with fresh bread crumbs. Other vegetables and herbs are added, making this a most aromatic blend. (If you prefer not to use the whiskey, even though the alcohol will evaporate, leaving only the flavor of the grains, you can substitute apple juice or chicken broth for it.)

Three other stuffings that proved compatible with the traditional bird were created in The Times Test Kitchen. One, our Southern California Corn-Bread Stuffing, calls for ingredients that are very familiar to local cooks. Artichoke hearts, Cheddar cheese, strips of sweet red pepper, green chiles, onions and garlic were mixed with the corn-bread base in a stuffing that was well received by our tasting panel.

The second stuffing uses a chance purchase that turned out to be a fine addition to a package of herb-seasoned stuffing mix. Donna Deane, who does the recipe testing in our Test Kitchen, came across a package of turkey sausage that we combined with additional herbs, some garlic and, for crunch, some water chestnuts. It too won approval from our tasters.

Our third stuffing is considerably more elegant. For this one we added oyster mushrooms, green onions, chopped fennel and a jar of oysters to a package of long-grain and wild rice mix. It is a most felicitous combination of flavors and textures to accompany the holiday bird.

All of these stuffings are easy to prepare and will taste good whether they’re cooked in the turkey or separately. Don’t forget a couple of cardinal rules of turkey cookery when dealing with stuffings, however. Stuffings can be prepared ahead and refrigerated separately, if absolutely necessary, but in the interest of food safety, don’t stuff the turkey until you are ready to put it in the oven. And when Thanksgiving dinner is over, remove any remaining stuffing from the bird and refrigerate it and the turkey separately. These simple before-and-after safety procedures will help avoid the possibility of food poisoning caused by bacteria all too willing to grow when foods are not kept either hot enough or cold enough.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA CORN-BREAD STUFFING

1 cup minced onion

1/2 cup julienned sweet red pepper strips

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1 cup sliced celery

1 clove garlic, minced

1/4 cup butter or margarine

1/4 cup minced fresh sage leaves

1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, drained and quartered

1 (4-ounce) can whole green chiles, drained and cut in thin strips

4 cups cubed corn bread

1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

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1 cup hot chicken broth

Salt, pepper

Saute onion, red pepper strips, celery and garlic in butter until vegetables are tender. Stir in sage, artichokes and chiles. Saute until heated through. Toss corn bread and cheese together in large mixing bowl. Add hot vegetable mixture and toss gently but thoroughly. Pour chicken broth over and continue tossing. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes about 6 cups stuffing, enough for 8- to 10-pound turkey.

BREAD STUFFING WITH TURKEY SAUSAGE

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup minced onion

1/4 cup butter or margarine

1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary leaves

1 tablespoon minced fresh marjoram leaves

1 cup hot turkey or chicken broth

4 cups herb-seasoned bread cubes

1/2 cup chopped water chestnuts

1 cup crumbled, cooked turkey sausage

Salt, pepper

Saute garlic and onion in butter until vegetables are tender. Stir in rosemary and marjoram and continue sauteing 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in turkey broth and bring mixture to simmer. In large mixing bowl, combine bread cubes, water chestnuts and sausage and toss until well mixed. Pour broth mixture over, tossing to mix evenly. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes about 4 cups stuffing, enough for 8-pound turkey.

DOUBLE OYSTER STUFFING

1 (6 1/4-ounce) package long grain and wild rice mix

1 cup sliced oyster mushrooms

1/2 cup sliced green onions, green part included

1 1/2 cups chopped fennel, about 1 medium bulb

3 tablespoons butter or margarine

1 (8-ounce) jar oysters, drained and cut in 1-inch pieces

1 tablespoon grated lemon zest

Salt, pepper

Prepare rice according to package directions. Saute mushrooms, green onions and fennel in 2 tablespoons butter until vegetables are tender. Add to hot rice. Saute oysters in remaining 1 tablespoon butter until heated through. Add lemon zest to rice along with oysters. Toss to mix and season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 5 cups stuffing, enough for 8-pound turkey.

CRANBERRY STUFFING

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup chopped celery

1/4 cup butter or margarine

1/2 pound sausage, cooked, crumbled and drained

8 ounces herb-seasoned stuffing mix

1/2 (1-pound) can whole cranberry sauce

1/2 cup chopped pecans

1/4 cup cranberry or orange liqueur or juice

1/2 cup condensed chicken broth, undiluted

1 tablespoon minced fresh sage leaves

1 tablespoon minced fresh basil leaves

Salt, pepper

In large skillet saute onion and celery in butter until tender but not browned. Stir in sausage, stuffing mix, cranberry sauce, pecans, liqueur, chicken broth, sage and basil, tossing lightly to mix thoroughly. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes 6 cups stuffing or enough for 10-pound turkey.

Note: Stuffing may be used to make stuffing balls. Form 12 balls from mixture using large ice cream scoop. Place them on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees 15 to 20 minutes or until stuffing is heated through.

ANNE ROSENZWEIG’S APPLE-FENNEL- WALNUT AND WHISKEY STUFFING

2 cups golden raisins

2 cups Tennessee sipping whiskey

1 lemon, thinly sliced, then chopped

1 pound bacon, minced

4 onions, chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic

4 apples, cored and chopped

1 1/2 cups minced fresh fennel

1/2 cup finely chopped celery

3 cups chopped walnuts

2 teaspoons ground mace

2 teaspoons ground sage

2 teaspoons ground thyme

Sal, pepper

8 cups fresh bread crumbs

Soak raisins in whiskey 6 hours or overnight. Next day bring raisins, whiskey and lemon to simmer in saucepan and simmer together over medium heat for 10 minutes.

In large skillet or saute pan, cook bacon, stirring often, until it is half cooked. Add onions, garlic, apples, fennel and celery and continue cooking, stirring frequently for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove mixture from heat and combine with walnuts, mace, sage, thyme and bread crumbs, tossing lightly but thoroughly. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes about 12 cups stuffing or enough for 14-pound turkey.

Note: Stuffing may be placed in large baking pan and baked, covered, at 350 degrees for 45 minutes.

FANNY’S BAGEL STUFFING

2 onions, chopped

2 stalks celery, chopped

1 carrot, finely diced

1/2 cup chopped mint leaves

1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley

1/2 cup butter

3 or 4 turkey or chicken livers, cut up

4 cups chicken broth

1/2 to 1 cup roast chicken or turkey drippings

8 to 10 bagels, torn or diced

Salt, pepper

Saute onions, celery, carrot, mint leaves and parsley in butter until onions are tender. Add turkey or chicken livers and saute until they turn pale color. Add chicken broth, roast chicken or turkey drippings and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Simmer over medium high heat until turkey or chicken livers are tender. Place bagel pieces in large bowl. Pour liquid over and toss. Keep warm. Makes about 11 cups stuffing, enough for 14-pound turkey.

THE BERGERS’ FAVORITE STUFFING

1 small onion, chopped

1/2 cup chopped mushrooms

2 tablespoons butter

1/2 cup hazelnuts

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/2 cup chopped pecans

1 cup chestnuts, roasted, shelled, peeled and chopped

4 to 5 cups fresh bread crumbs

1 cup chopped celery

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

3/4 teaspoon chopped fresh tarragon

3/4 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme

1/2 cup chicken broth

1/2 cup white wine

1/2 cup Sherry

Salt, pepper

Saute onion and mushrooms in butter until tender but not browned. Shell and peel hazelnuts, then roast on tray in oven until just lightly browned. Toast pine nuts lightly. Combine bread crumbs, celery, parsley, tarragon, thyme, onion mixture, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pecans and chestnuts in large mixing bowl.

Moisten mixture lightly with chicken broth, white wine and Sherry. Do not over-moisten or mixture will be soggy. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes about 7 cups stuffing, enough for 10-pound turkey.

Note: Amontillado or Dry Oloroso Sherry work well. Cream Sherry makes slightly sweeter dressing.

Food Styling by Minnie Bernardino and Donna Deane


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