For the birds: Stuffing is meant to be cooked in a turkey ... or chicken, or duck
Thanksgiving, as we observe it today, doesn't have much in common with the original feast of 1621. The temperature of the vibe between the pilgrims and Wampanoag was above comfort level at the dinner table, with some participants arriving ready to rumble. Come to think of it, maybe today's Thanksgiving table hasn't strayed too far, being notable for bringing together people from warring political tribes to break bread together, with notoriously mixed results.
There was no pumpkin pie, because butter and flour were unheard of or sorely missed, depending on one's affiliation, but wild fowl was likely on the menu, which leads me, among others, to conclude there was stuffing. Historians point to their evidence, while I point to the simple fact that both Pilgrims and Indians are human beings, and human beings know how to cook. And cooks don't let an empty body cavity go unstuffed, especially during a three-day feast.
Unfortunately, we seem to take this for granted in today's America, where we think nothing of passing around side dishes filled with savory bread pudding called "stuffing" that has never seen the inside of a bird. That's the fight I'll pick this year.
On the East Coast, the local diet was heavy on seafood like clams, scallops, seaweed, oysters, mussels, eels and fish. I grew up in coastal Massachusetts, where we would sometimes dig a hole in the beach and fill it with ingredients like those above, and hot rocks, and have a clambake.
Somewhere along the way, in my Thanksgiving ruminations and experimentations, I decided it would be a good idea to stage a clambake inside a bird. In order to make it taste more like stuffing, I add breadcrumbs, herbs, lemon and aromatic veggies: onions, carrots and celery.
Whatever bird you are able to stuff, large or small, you might find yourself with more stuffing than you can possibly cram into your bird. The easiest thing to do is to stuff it around the bird, along with potatoes, and let it melt in the pan juices. Although not literally stuffed, it sucks up enough of the juices to potentially rule out gravy, and tastes like all the flavor and fat it absorbs.
Another option for too much stuffing: Pull the skin away from the bird and stuff it underneath. If basted properly, this layer of stuffing can help keep the bird moist. The skin might split, but the crusted stuffing becomes a new skin, absorbing as many bastings as you care to pour.
My favorite part of this dish is the clam juice brine, which keeps the meat moist and adds delicious authenticity to the feast.
The Right Stuffings
1 4-pound bird
1 10-oz. bottle clam juice (see note)
6 teaspoons salt (see note)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups minced onion
2 cloves minced garlic
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped carrots
1 apple, red or green, chopped
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
2 pounds seafood (for example: 1 pound mussels or clams on the shell, 1 10-oz. tub of oysters and the juice, 6 oz. scallops, 6 oz. imitation crab)
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup crouton-sized breadcrumbs
3 lemons, cut into quarters
4 potatoes, cut into quarters, to surround the bird
Rinse the bird, take out any giblets stashed in the cavity, and brine the bird in the clam juice with the salt and 2 cups of water.
Push down on the bird hard, so the body cavity fills with brine. Turn it occasionally, and marinate for at least four hours in the fridge.
Rinse the bird, pat it dry, and put it in a roasting pan.
Add the oil to a fry pan and saute the onions, garlic, carrots, celery and apple with the black pepper, thyme, rosemary and sage on medium heat. After 10 minutes, add the seafood, wine and lemon juice and squeezed lemons, and cook a few minutes longer, but don't try to cook all the seafood. Add the breadcrumbs, stir it all together and stuff it into the bird. Place the potatoes around the bird, along with extra stuffing if you go that route.
Cover with foil and place in the oven preheated to 350. After 90 minutes remove the foil. The skin of an extra-stuffed bird will have receded like the tide, leaving a bunch of mussels clinging to the bird like it's a beach rock. Turn the oven down to 300. Baste every 15 minutes until done. After about an hour, use a meat thermometer to make sure the bird's internal temp is at least 165. Rest, serve and eat.
Note: Some clam juice is salty, some isn't. Sometimes the salty ones don't mention salt in the ingredients, but it will show up in the RDA values for sodium. Taste your clam juice, and if it's really salty, reduce the added salt by a teaspoon or two.