Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cooking to Save the Planet: Traditional Southern Cornbread Dressing

I can't imagine that anyone celebrating Christmas hasn't already planned a Christmas meal, but on the off chance that some reader might still be shopping around for menu ideas, I thought I'd share a recipe that I shared a year ago with a number of readers who emailed me to ask about dressing, when I talked in a posting last year about chicken and dressing.  This isn't an easy recipe to share, because I don't really have a recipe at all for dressing, made (as my family has always made it) in the traditional Southern way.  

I can, however, try to walk any reader interested through the steps of dressing-making, at least, the steps my family uses.  I hope that this recipe (such as it is) will be of interest to any reader who might want to add another dish to his/her holiday repertoire.

I can't comment intelligently on the dressing-stuffing debate, except to say that the former word has long standing in the American South, though--as with our Southern dialect in general--it's now being supplanted by the term considered more standard in American English, stuffing.  I have the impression that, as with many of our traditional foodways, we inherit the term "dressing" from our colonial English forebears.  I've seen the term used in 17th-century cookbooks on both sides of the Atlantic to refer to side dishes that "dress" the main dish of meat.  And, though we do, in fact, stuff the turkey itself with some of the dressing, we also bake a large dish of dressing as a side dish to serve with the turkey, and this dish thus "dresses" the main dish of roasted turkey.

As is also well-known, Southern dressing relies on cornmeal rather than bread made of flour as its basis.  And so it begins with cornbread, a dish surrounded by some unvarying shibboleths in much of the South, and certainly in my family.  Cornbread must be made with white cornmeal.  Don't ask me why.  That's why these are shibboleths: they're dictates that can't be contravened, and they seem to have no strong basis in fact.  And it must never contain sugar.  Using sugar in cornbread--even a speck of sugar--places one on the Yankee side of the line, and why be there if you're cooking a traditional Southern dish?

My mother never used a recipe to make cornbread, nor do I.  My family's traditional recipe is simple: in a mixing bowl, pour several cups (perhaps three or four) of white cornmeal, add a good pinch of salt (say, a teaspoon) and some baking soda (a half-teaspoon, perhaps).  Mix the dry ingredients well.  Meanwhile, melt some bacon fat in a black iron skillet (shibboleth three: one must bake the cornbread in a black iron skillet) until it's smoking hot, letting the fat anoint the sides of the pan as you do so, since you will be baking the cornbread in this skillet.   

How much fat?  Perhaps a quarter of a cup, or a third of a cup?  And if you don't have or want to use bacon fat, you may use vegetable oil, heating it in the skillet as you prepare the cornbread mix.  When the oil or fat is near smoking point, pour it into the meal and immediately add one or two eggs and buttermilk sufficient to make a stiff batter--say three-quarters to a cup of milk.  Beat well and pour the mix into the hot skillet.  

My family then lets the batter begin to brown a minute or so over the stove flame before popping the skillet into the oven.  Bake a half hour to 45 minutes at 350 until the bread is browning on top.  When you turn the pone of bread over ("pone" is the word we use to describe the round of bread that's the final product; the word apparently comes from one of the native American languages), the bottom should be a rich brown and crusty.

And so dressing: we generally used about three or four pones of cornbread, but that's to feed a large group of people.  You may wish to make a more sensible amount if you're not feeding large numbers. And I can't give you precise measures, since I don't know or use precise measures.  I make the dressing according to sight, feel, and taste.

Crumble your cornbread in a large mixing bowl, and to the crumbled cornbread, then add crumbled dried wheat bread ("light bread," we always called it) and crumbled dried biscuits.  These are American biscuits, of course, not British ones--the hot breakfast bread made with flour, leavening, salt, fat, and buttermilk.,which have been dried on cookie sheets in the oven in the days before the holiday.  My mother always added not quite the same proportion of dried, crumbled bread and biscuits as crumbled cornbread--not as much of the former as the latter, that is.  You want the cornbread taste to predominate.

Then add finely chopped celery, onion, and parsley--perhaps a chopped stalk of celery for every four cups or so of bread crumbs?  And a finely chopped medium onion for the same amount of crumbs.  Add salt if your taste calls for more, along with several good ladles full of turkey broth, which we always simmer alongside the dressing as it's being made.  That is, we simmer the giblets of the turkey and any bony parts we may have cut from the bird, along with a scraped carrot, a coarsely chopped stalk of celery or two, an onion, a handful of parsley, a crushed toe of garlic, and a bay leaf.  And salt and pepper.

Ladle several ladles full of this broth into the breadcrumbs, and then immediately beat in several raw eggs--perhaps an egg for every two cups of crumbs.  At the same time, mix in melted butter--a good bit of butter, perhaps a quarter cup of melted butter for every three cups of bread crumbs?

The point here is to have a nice, moist dressing that will appear to be on the soupy side before it's baked.  Nothing is more insipid and unappealing than stodgy, dry dressing.  If you're in doubt, it's better to err on the side of a moist dressing, and if the dressing appears not to be baking properly, you can always beat in another raw egg or two as it bakes, to help bind it together.  Even though it looks soupy when it goes into the oven, I can assure you that it will bake into a glorious pan of moist dressing.

And now, the final step before you begin baking the dressing: you must season it with black pepper and sage, and add any salt that appears still to be required.  And here, I can encourage you only to rely on your taste, as you add the final seasonings.  Sage is tricky.  Too much can impart a bitter taste to dressing.  For my family's taste, however, the category "too much" didn't apply.  Most, but not all, of us liked what we called a "sagey" dressing, one with a strong, pronounced sage flavor.

And here's the other trick: the flavor of sage takes a bit of time to mature, so what you taste immediately after adding, say, two tablespoons of sage to the dressing won't necessarily be what you taste after you've let the mixture sit a few moments and then tasted again.  And so I encourage you to add the seasonings bit by bit, tasting as you go along, and not hurrying the process along.

When you have the mix to your taste, then pour it (or, that is, the portion of it you're not using to stuff the turkey) into a buttered casserole or baking dish and bake at 350 degrees until it's fully baked and brown on top.  We leave the top uncovered for the first part of the baking process, until the top is beginning to brown, and then we cover the dish with a lid or tinfoil for the final leg of the baking.

That's it in a nutshell--traditional Southern cornbread dressing.  It's a comfort food for my family and, I suspect, for many other Southern families.  I have relished the oyster dressing I've eaten in New Orleans, made with crumbled French bread, but even as I ate it, I longed for the comforting taste of the dressing of my childhood--a sagey cornbread dressing.  Which we make in abundance so that we'll have it to warm up the next day and the next again, following Christmas or Thanksgiving day. 

Finally, as Christmas nears, I want to thank readers (again) for your comments on postings here.  In the past few days, I've been traveling, and haven't had much time to reply to comments, as I try whenever possible to do.  Please don't think I'm ignoring you--just not finding time to write replies.

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