The most important Thanksgiving dish, as everybody knows, is turkey. Because despite what the food magazines might say in any given year, neither game hen nor squab, goose nor quail is an acceptable substitute for the most majestic of holiday fowl. Children do not bring home construction paper cranberry bogs from school, and your bank will not give you mashed potatoes when you open a new savings account. In every way that matters, Thanksgiving is turkey.
Still, all happy turkeys are alike; roasting methods may vary, but we can all basically agree on the virtues of juicy meat and crisp skin. Vegetables are important, but my pan-roasted Brussels sprouts with pancetta may be your creamed spinach, and regional side-dish preferences seem to shift not just from state to state but seemingly block to block. Anyway, it is not sacrilegious to eat buttered sweet potatoes or green beans amandine on days that do not happen do be Thanksgiving. Nobody will think it odd if you prepare your great-aunt’s succotash a week from Tuesday instead of saving it for the great day.
But stuffing — now that is an essential Thanksgiving dish. A good one requires more labor in the kitchen than anyone will ever know, rewards the smallest subtleties in technique and is so much richer than any self-respecting cook would allow himself or herself the rest of the year. Also, stuffing is delicious.
In my house, Thanksgiving starts the second I wake up in the morning and start peeling chestnuts, which is the consummate Thanksgiving activity. On the off chance you have never peeled a chestnut — if somebody has peeled chestnuts for you, they love you very much — you stab a little X in the chestnuts’ flat bottoms, you stick them in the oven, and you must take them out to peel while they are hot enough to scorch your fingers or the tough inner skin never quite comes off quite right. The sharp, little edges of shell will prick you. You may have read a million tricks for peeling chestnuts more easily, but I can assure you that none of them works. And when you do finally pry a perfect, steamy, ivory-white chestnut whole from its prison, you end up chopping it anyway. It’s tragic, really; the holiday’s lash of atonement.
The recipe I use is based on one from Bruce Aidells’ “Hot Links and Country Flavors’’ — a really good cookbook, his first, which collects sausage recipes from across the United States. You simmer the chestnuts in a bit of turkey broth — you have made your turkey broth, haven’t you? — you tear a loaf of bread into rough cubes and toast it on a sheet pan in your oven, and you mix the steaming-hot chestnuts into the bread with your hands. Meanwhile, you’ve been sautéing great heaps of onions, celery and crumbled apple sausage — not the kind made with chicken, but the loose, sagey, sweetly spiced pork apple sausage you can get at Bristol Farms or, better yet, Huntington Meats in the Original Farmers Market. To me, those sausages just smell like Thanksgiving. Then you fold that mixture into the bread and chestnuts, moisten with a little broth, and smooth it into a gratin pan, dot with butter, and bake. You can stuff it into the bird too, if you are of that persuasion, but the turkey cooks more evenly when you don’t, and the crispy buttery bits that you get when you cook the stuffing separately are always the best part.
Whenever I think of chestnuts, I think of a story the chef Mark Peel sometimes tells, about the time, right after he started at Ma Maison, when somebody told him that the way to peel chestnuts was to pop them first into a deep-fat fryer. What they forgot to mention is that you have to cut those little Xs in the chestnuts first, to release the steam. Anyone who has ever worked a restaurant line can tell you what happened next. The chestnuts exploded one by one like fragmentation grenades, splashing geysers of boiling oil all over the busy kitchen.