Thanksgiving Produce Update and the Best Stuffing Debate

Produce expert James shares the outlook for the harvest of Thanksgiving favorites. Join him in assessing what (or who) makes the best stuffing.

You never know what Mother Nature will throw at Thanksgiving. November is always an interesting weather month but the build up to the biggest food holiday of the year starts much earlier in the fall and is almost never without some drama. Tubers (potatoes) and onions have been dug up and cured, so the first phase of the holiday build up has come off well. Apple and pear producers report some labor shortages but fruit is still coming off the trees despite the tight labor market. The big remaining question is: what will the weather will do to all the green onions, herbs, celery, Brussels sprouts, radishes and other row crops in the last few critical weeks of growing before they are harvested for Thanksgiving dinner tables all over the US.

The demand for fresh produce for Thanksgiving is enormous. The holiday also coincides with the end of the fall harvest season for the northernmost farms in the US, so demand for transport also increases throughout the month. This can be problematic towards the end of November as fresh produce competes with Christmas trees for trucks in the Pacific Northwest and Southeast regions of the US. Transportation is further complicated by gradually deteriorating road conditions as the arctic jet stream dips further south and the first of the winter weather systems form, so we try to build in slightly longer delivery times as a safety precaution.

Despite the seasonal challenges it is still a very exciting time for produce. The 2011 harvest in organically grown cranberries, for example, is shaping up to be a record crop. Past years have delivered spotty availability and, depending on how far from the source you lived, high prices. This year Wisconsin organic production has increased significantly and if all goes well with the final weeks, we should see ample supplies of very reasonably priced organic cranberries all over the US.Thanksgiving is also a time when family food traditions are combined and regional differences really stand out. Nowhere is this more evident with my family than with stuffing (or “dressing” if you are cooking it outside of the turkey). Growing up in the south, my stuffing is cornbread based and my wife’s family recipe is sourdough bread based. I have often argued the merits of mine over theirs but have for the most part given up since mine continues to evolve and I happen to love them both. Here they are:Aunt CeBelle’s Cornbread Pecan Stuffing1 package cornbread muffin mix – enough to make an 8x8” pie or cake pan (roughly a pound)3 tablespoons olive oil (or pecan oil if you can find it)1 medium yellow or white onion, coarsely chopped1 fennel/anise bulb, top discarded, coarsely chopped1 ½ cups celery, tops included, coarsely chopped2/3 cup curly parsley, chopped½ cup green onion, chopped3 tablespoons fresh thyme2 tablespoons fresh sageSalt and pepper to taste1 small loaf of sourdough bread, cubed and dried (or 8oz of your favorite pre-cut stuffing)12 oz fresh pecans, coarsely chopped14 to 16 oz chicken, turkey or vegetable broth

Bake your cornbread according to package directions and set aside to cool, then cube.In a large skillet, heat the oil and sauté the onion and fennel for a few minutes and then add the celery, parsley, green onion, thyme, sage, salt and pepper and sauté for about 4 to 5 minutes or until the celery color gets deeper and the vegetables are well combined.

I like to roast my pecans briefly (2-3 minutes) to bring out the oils and the toasty flavor.

In a large mixing bowl combine your bread, cornbread, sautéed vegetables and pecans until well blended, adding the broth to whatever level of moisture level you prefer (I generally used an entire 14 oz can or two cups if I am making fresh turkey broth). Stuff in bird or bake separately at 375°F for 25-30 minutes, or until the top browns and gets crunchy.

John’s Northern California Stuffing(for an 18 to 25 pound turkey)

2 Bags of sourdough bread cubes or 1 pound of sourdough sliced bread lighted toasted at 375°F and then cubed2 cups yellow onions, chopped1 cup celery, chopped1/2 cup parsley, chopped1 teaspoon dried sage1 teaspoon dried thyme½ teaspoon black pepper¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg¼ teaspoon ground cloves4 cloves garlic, crushed1 stick unsalted butter, melted1 egg, lightly beaten3/4 cup chicken broth

In a large baking pan combine sourdough bread cubes, onions, celery and parsley. Mix with spoon or washed hands. Add sage, thyme, pepper, nutmeg, cloves and garlic and mix. Add melted butter and egg, stir into mixture. Add chicken broth slowly while stirring.Note: The stuffing mixture should be moist, but not wet. You may need to add an additional 1/2 cup of broth.

Place stuffing in turkey. Bake per your turkey recipe’s directions.

Alternatively, place stuffing in a baking dish sprayed with oil and bake at 350°F degrees for onehour. Add 1/2 cup of broth after 30 minutes.

Stuffing is only one of many family differences I am reminded of (and cherish) every Thanksgiving. I also marvel at how the same debate plays out all over the country as families everywhere combine old food traditions to form new ones. Food is the common thread and on the farms and in the fields the ingredients are slowly, silently growing.

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