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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

The Side Dish Scuffle

November 15, 2010

Throughout history there have been many epic battles— Concord, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Normandy, The Battle of the Bulge, The Thrilla in Manilla, and The Rumble in the Jungle

On Thanksgiving Day at my home there will be another epic battle. This skirmish has been fought every year for the past 23 years. It’s a conflict not fought over land, or territory, or political philosophy. There is no title or championship belt to be earned. No one will pass out trophies at the end of the struggle.

The battle is not over marshmallows on sweet potatoes, though that is a very vital decision on any Thanksgiving menu. It’s not a confrontation over dark meat or white meat on the turkey. Thankfully, our family has declared detente in that area— my son and I are fans of dark meat, my wife and daughter eat only white.

No, the brawl that will be raging on Thanksgiving Day at our house will be the long-standing clash of dressing vs. stuffing. This side-dish scuffle has been going on in my house since my wife and I met.

I come from a long line of cornbread dressing fanatics. My family loved dressing so much, we were perfectly happy to skip the turkey and feature dressing as the center-of-the-plate entrée with a touch of gravy.

My wife, on the other hand, comes from a dual background— Midwest Polish people who eat stuffing, and Northwest Louisianans who prefer mashed potatoes. She can never make up her mind between the two, so she opts for both stuffing and mashed potatoes.

As a child, we never ate stuffing, period. My great-grandmother used to say only Yankee scum eat stuffing. Mashed potatoes were perfectly fine for weeknight suppers, but never at a formal table. Even when we ate roast beef on Sundays, we would have rice and gravy. Mashed potatoes never made an appearance at the Thanksgiving table.

Plain and simple: Stuffing sucks. To compound matters, her family likes store-bought stuffing in a box. It’s not even the kind of stuffing that is stuffed inside of the turkey. Mashed potatoes are fine, but not at Thanksgiving. The starch category is covered by sweet potatoes, which are, thankfully, not topped with marshmallows.

In my home, there is no disagreement when it comes to marshmallows on sweet potatoes. That is a controversy in which I would never waver, never surrender, and fight to the death.

Having mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, and cornbread dressing creates holiday leftoverkill. No one wants to eat leftover stuffing, mainly because it’s not good the first time. Mashed potatoes are always dry the next day and never as good as when first served. A nice dressing recipe with cornbread, pulled chicken, boiled eggs, is the holiday gift that keeps on giving. I can eat for three days from a Pyrex dish of leftover dressing. It’s like a fine wine; it only gets better, and more flavorful, with age.

The battle begins to heat up around Halloween. I hide the store-bought stuffing boxes, and she fills the cupboard with Idaho potatoes. My brother-in-law tried to keep the peace one year and brought an oyster dressing recipe he had concocted. It was green— nuclear green— and everyone figured it would be safer to battle it out over stuffing than to eat radioactive dressing.

In the end, this year will probably be like every other year and we will serve it all. Eventually, the infighting will subside, the smoke will clear, and everyone will return to his or her corner to lick his or her wounds.

The Yankee Poles and my wife will eat stuffing, my mother-in-law will eat mashed potatoes, and all of the intelligent people with taste buds will eat my cornbread dressing. We’ll turn on the television and watch the Cowboys lose another game and the final bell will ring in our tryptophanic battle of the Thanksgiving bulge.

Robert’s Cornbread Dressing

1 Cornish (Game) hen
2 quarts Chicken broth
1 /2 Onion
1 /2 Carrot
1 Bay leaf

1 Tbl. Bacon grease (or canola oil)
1 /4 cup Bell pepper, diced
1 cup Celery, diced
1 cup Onion, diced
2 tsp Celery salt
2 tsp Poultry seasoning
1 recipe Basic Cornbread, crumbled (recipe below)
2 cups Mushroom Béchamel Sauce (recipe below)
2 cups Heavy cream
1 1 /2 cups Chicken broth, strained from cooking hen
4 Eggs
2 Eggs, hard-boiled

Place the hen, broth, onion, carrot and bay leaf in medium sized stockpot. Simmer one hour and 20 minutes over medium heat. Remove hen and strain the broth. Allow hen to cool and pull meat from the bones. Chop meat.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In a medium sized skillet, melt bacon grease over low heat. Add vegetables and seasoning and cook slowly for 10 minutes. Pour into a mixing bowl. Add Mushroom Béchamel Sauce, cream, broth and eggs mixing well. Add crumbled cornbread and hen meat. Mix until all is well incorporated. Pour into a three-quart baking dish. Bake one hour 15 minutes. Do not overcook dressing (it should be moist but not runny). Yield: 8-12 servings

Basic Cornbread

1 cup Cornmeal
1 cup Flour
1 /2 cup Corn flour
2 tsp Baking powder
1 /2 tsp Baking soda
2 tsp Salt
2 Eggs
1 Tbl Bacon grease (or canola oil)
1 cup Buttermilk
1 cup Milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a mixing bowl, combine all of the dry ingredients and mix well. In a separate bowl, whisk the wet ingredients. Fold the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients. Do not over mix. Pour batter into a greased cast-iron skillet or a buttered two-quart baking dish and bake for 20-25 minutes.

Mushroom Bechamel

2 tsp Olive oil, light
2 Tbl Onion, minced
1 Tbl Shallot, minced
1 Tbl Celery, minced
1/2 tsp Salt
1/4 tsp Garlic, granulated
1 /8 tsp Thyme, dry
3 oz Mushrooms, cleaned, sliced (1 cups)
1 cup Chicken broth
3 Tbl cup Butter
1/4 cup Flour
1/3 cup Whipping cream

Heat oil in a three-quart saucepot over low heat. Add onions, shallots, celery, and salt. Cook vegetables until tender. Add mushrooms and increase heat to medium. Cook 10 minutes, stirring often. Add chicken broth, garlic and thyme. Bring back to a simmer and cook 10 more minutes.

In a separate skillet, make a light-blonde roux by melting butter and stirring in flour. Add to simmering broth mixture. Cook three to four minutes and add cream. Freezes well. Yield: three cups

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