The right stuff for your fes­tive bird

Once used to bulk up mea­gre pro­por­tions, stuff­ing is en­joy­ing a re­vival with some de­li­ciously mod­ern takes on a tra­di­tional dish

The Field - - Contents - writ­ten BY hat­tie el­lis

Hat­tie El­lis gives ad­vice and recipes

Stuff­ing is a great way to add ex­tra sea­son­ing and flavour to a roast

While many food dishes and tra­di­tions fall away from daily use, they tend to con­tinue at Christ­mas. So it is with our densely fruity Christ­mas pud­ding, its ori­gins in me­dieval feast­ing, and stuff­ing.

Stuff­ing used to go be­yond Christ­mas, too. In many house­holds, the Sun­day roast would come with a dol­lop of home­made sage-and-onion, or else Paxo, the packet mix cre­ated in 1901 by a Lan­cashire butcher to sell some­thing ex­tra to his cus­tomers for their main week­end meal.

Yet the his­tory of stuff­ing is more dis­tin­guished than these rem­nants sug­gest and it is now ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a re­vival that makes it any­thing but old-fash­ioned.

As well as be­ing put in­side the handy cav­ity of birds – game as well as poul­try – stuff­ing was used to re­place the bone and keep the shape of the joint, mak­ing it look good and be easy to carve.

Tra­di­tional butch­ers still find plenty of uses for this method of bon­ing and stuff­ing, in­clud­ing the clas­sic Christ­mas ex­trav­a­ganza of boned birds stuffed in­side each other, a dish that harks back to the con­ceits of me­dieval and Re­nais­sance chefs.

Stuff­ing, as a tech­nique, was used to play culi­nary jokes: you’d cut into some­thing to find the un­ex­pected, such as the four and

twenty black­birds baked in a pie from the nurs­ery rhyme Sing a Song of Six­pence.

He­ston Blu­men­thal and Ash­ley Palmer­watt’s iconic Meat Fruit, served at the his­tory-in­spired Lon­don restau­rant Din­ner, con­tin­ues this tra­di­tion. Chicken liver par­fait is en­cased in man­darin jelly that is moulded to look like cit­rus skin, a dish that was in­spired by Tu­dor cook­ing.

Home cooks keep their stuff­ing sim­pler. To start with the ba­sics, to­day as much as for yes­ter­year, stuff­ing is a great way to add ex­tra sea­son­ing and flavour to a roast, as well as mak­ing the meat go fur­ther. Fatty mix­tures, rich in belly fat and but­ter, lu­bri­cate the meat and hence its use in poul­try and game.

Here we hit con­tro­versy. At one time, stuff­ing was al­ways cooked within a bird, which meant it flavoured the meat and was, in turn, flavoured by the meat juices, gain­ing a de­li­cious, slightly of­fally flavour.

How­ever, some food safety ad­vice is now to cook stuff­ing sep­a­rately. Oth­er­wise, it can en­cour­age harm­ful bac­te­ria be­cause the roast heats up less quickly and may cook less thor­oughly. Cooks also know that a longer cook­ing time can mean the breast meat dries out. In­stead, cook the stuff­ing in a sep­a­rate dish along­side the roast (see recipes be­low). Just make sure you put some but­ter on top to pre­vent the mix­ture dry­ing out.

How­ever, not ev­ery­one agrees. Food writer Cather­ine Phipps mounts a strong de­fence of in­ter­nal stuff­ing in her ex­cel­lent book Chicken. “I don’t al­ways make roast chicken with stuff­ing but I al­ways re­gret it when I don’t, it’s such a wasted op­por­tu­nity not to bother,” she writes. “Stuff­ing out­side the bird isn’t stuff­ing.”

What mat­ters, says Phipps – and some other food safety ad­vice – is to use a dig­i­tal ther­mome­ter to check that the stuff­ing in­side reaches 75°C, as well as roast­ing the meat care­fully so it doesn’t dry out.

FORCEMEAT

Stuff­ing doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily con­tain bread. The French term for stuffed, farci, gave rise to the old term ‘forcemeat’ and is as­so­ci­ated with finer tex­tured, elab­o­rate mix­tures used to stuff fish as well as meat. As well as bread­crumb or meat-based stuff­ings, Phipps ex­plores us­ing root veg­eta­bles and grains, in­clud­ing the mod­ish freekeh (a de­li­cious smoky wheat) and quinoa. Pota­toes are a clas­sic stuff­ing for roast goose – an in­te­rior, non-crispy ver­sion of goose-fat pota­toes.

Then there are other ways of us­ing stuff­ing. Smaller house­holds can have a Christ­mas din­ner by care­fully cut­ting a pocket in a turkey breast, fill­ing it with stuff­ing and tieing up this mini-roast to cook along­side roast pota­toes and other trim­mings. You can slide stuff­ings or flavour­ings un­der the loos­ened skin of a bird – herby but­ter, spices mixed into olive oil – or even slith­ers of truf­fle if you’re feel­ing flush.

French chef Stéphane Rey­naud, in his book R™tis, gives many dif­fer­ent op­tions, in­clud­ing the ul­tra-sim­ple. One of his drily writ­ten recipe reads: “This is a com­pli­cated process con­sist­ing of care­fully un­wrap­ping

I don’t al­ways make roast chicken with stuff­ing but I re­gret it when I don’t

a Boursin cheese and stuff­ing it into the chicken.” The cheese melts into the cook­ing juices as the bird cooks.

Stuff­ing is not just for meat. “Life is too short to stuff a mush­room,” de­clared Shirley Con­ran in a ral­ly­ing cry from the early days of Women’s Lib­er­a­tion.

But, nowa­days, such kitchen work can be seen as re­source­ful and canny. Clas­si­cally, you can use bread, rice, meat trim­mings and left­overs to trans­form hum­ble veg­eta­bles. Mid­dle Eastern cook­ing is strong on stuff­ing veg­eta­bles and the ul­tra-fash­ion­able Ot­tolenghi cook­books are full of such recipes.

Alex Jack­son of the much-lauded Lon­don restau­rant Sar­dine takes his in­spi­ra­tion from south­ern French food, par­tic­u­larly dishes from Provence, where petits far­cis, or stuffed veg­eta­bles, are a cel­e­brated dish.

“Stuff­ing is a good way to make a veg­etable the cen­tre of a meal,” says Jack­son. “It is quite an in­volved, labour-in­ten­sive process but it’s the max­ium way of get­ting some­thing de­li­cious into a small par­cel.”

For his petits far­cis, Jack­son uses an ap­ple corer to take out the cen­tre of cour­gettes and small aubergines. He re­moves the cen­tre of medium-sized toma­toes, salts the pulp so the de­li­cious juices drip out and puts this brightly acidic liq­uid into a bak­ing tray with cream and tar­ragon. The hol­lowed-out veg­eta­bles are stuffed, per­haps with a mix­ture of veal and pork, or with a veg­e­tar­ian stuff­ing based on fine bul­ghar wheat and herbs. Ei­ther way, it’s cru­cial that the tex­ture is ho­moge­nous and slightly wet – and roasted with its sauce.

Sar­dine’s an­nual game din­ner brings out some other stuff­ing recipes. Jack­son crum­bles up a Ly­on­naise boil­ing sausage called cerve­las into a sof­frito of diced veg­eta­bles and red wine. This goes in­side grouse. “Grouse is very strong but you get this rich, slightly porky and aro­matic mix­ture that flavours the meat,” says Jack­son. “You scoop it out and that’s your sauce.”

CAB­BAGE CAKE

An­other clas­sic French dish us­ing stuff­ing is a Char­treuse, which at Sar­dine might be pheas­ant but is most com­monly made with par­tridge. A poached cab­bage leaf ‘cake’ is cut open to re­veal its stuff­ing of lay­ers of

Stuff­ing is a good way to make a veg­etable the cen­tre of a meal

braised game, mush­rooms and onions. The dish was cre­ated by the Carthu­sian monks and so named be­cause their or­der was partly founded in the Char­treuse moun­tains. It was orig­i­nally all veg­eta­bles – the meat ver­sion gives rise to the joke that monks would try to hide a bit of meat in a cab­bage dish.

At its best, stuff­ing is about sur­prise, flavour, mois­ture, tex­tures; about cre­at­ing some­thing spe­cial out of the ap­par­ently hum­ble and pack­ing a dish to the max. In other words, far more than a bor­ing packet mix and def­i­nitely worth ex­plor­ing well be­yond Christ­mas.

In Rôtis: Roasts for Ev­ery Day of the Week, Stéphane Rey­haud of­fers such sim­ple sug­ges­tions as stuff­ing a chicken with a packet of Boursin cream cheese

Top: if stuff­ing is cooked sep­a­rately, en­sure it doesn’t dry out. Above: stuff­ing at the cen­tre of a three-bird roast

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