Bernice, my father’s mother, was of French ancestry and the head cook at the local Eagle’s Club in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. I remember her mostly in her kitchen, almost always wearing an apron, and her hands always busy with a knife or a peeler or a stirring spoon.
Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, my father would herd us into the Rambler and we’d make the two-hour drive to her house for a feast that now seems unimaginable. Such holidays would fill her kitchen and dining room with aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, and sometimes the parish priest. Altogether we must have been close to 30 people, sometimes, sitting down to one of her meals. Thinking about her roast turkeys (two were needed to feed that clan), stuffing, green beans, mashed potatoes, gravy, coleslaw, and apple or mincemeat pies still makes my mouth water.
Stuffing, or dressing—the terms were interchangeable—seemed a fantastic and somehow mysterious food to me as a child. How could bread mixed with chopped hearts, gizzards, and liver become so savory and delicious?
For my holiday meals here in Tokyo, I have always taken the shortcut of buying a box of herb-flavored croutons that could be turned into “stuffing” in a few minutes. Last autumn, however, I decided to make a stuffing that my grandmother would approve of.
Autumn is chestnut time, and I had recently discovered Tokyo’s best roasted chestnuts, Hisaya kyo-yakiguri, at a Yamanote Line station kiosk. These chestnuts, the size of golf balls, have a tangy wood-smoke aroma and are conveniently pre-split for very easy snacking. Some ten tiny Hisaya kiosks are scattered about the city in major train stations.
Autumn is also when pears, one of my favorite fruits, finally become affordable. I decided to use both in my stuffing.
Research on the Internet revealed that chestnuts and dried cranberries was a popular stuffing combination. So, after turning to the Joy of Cooking, and experimenting with several recipes, I came up with a recipe that Bernice might have liked.
• dried cranberries (130 grams)
• two shallots
• one can low fat chicken broth
• roasted chestnuts (300 grams)
• shiitake mushrooms (5 to 6 mushrooms)
• one medium yellow onion
• six-eight slices bread (white and/or whole wheat), less bread means moister stuffing
• one stalk celery
• Italian parsley
• two large pears
• hearty bottle of red wine
First, preheat your oven to 150 degrees centigrade. Arrange eight slices of bread (I use four white and four wheat) on a cookie sheet (or two) in one layer and let them toast lightly for 20 minutes. The bread won’t color much, but the slices will become dry and crisp.
Get small bowls ready for each chopped ingredient. While the bread is drying in the oven, dice one onion and finely chop two shallots.
Dice one stalk of celery (about one cup). Finely chop the parsley to obtain two tablespoons. Peel 300 grams of chestnuts and try not to eat too many. Usually I quarter the chestnut meat because I want big hunks in the stuffing.
Because there are no giblets in this stuffing, I needed something to provide umami, the deep savory taste. Shiitake mushrooms and red wine do the trick by adding richness and depth.
Cut the shiitake into large dice. Wash the pears, core them, then dice—not too small. Make sure to use pears that are quite firm. There is no need to peel them. Measure out ½ cup dried cranberries. Don’t skimp. The Mannao brand cranberries are tart and delicious. They’ll plump up nicely in the stuffing.
By now the bread should be dried. Remove from oven and turn up oven to 180 degrees C.
Cut the slices of bread into approximately 2 centimeter cubes and put them into the largest bowl you can find. After cutting the bread, you’ll have some breadcrumb dust on the cutting board. Be sure to add it to the bowl of bread cubes.
In a large fry pan or skillet, melt two tablespoons of unsalted butter over medium heat. When the butter foams and starts to sizzle, add the shallots, onions, celery, parsley, and one teaspoon of salt. Cover and let them sweat and soften for about 5 minutes. Stir occasionally. Add one tablespoon of Herbes de Provence (an indispensible herb blend of rosemary, marjoram, basil, bay leaf, and thyme), the chestnuts, shiitake and cranberries. Stir gently to mix well. Let cook uncovered for 2-3 minutes.
Add diced pears and ½ cup of red wine. Make sure the chef gets a sip. A Beaujolais nouveau works well.
Stir gently again and let cook uncovered for another 2-3 minutes.
Now comes the tricky part. Add the contents of the skillet to the bowl of bread cubes. Mix gently but thoroughly until all the bread cubes are coated. Pop open the can of chicken broth and pour over the mixture. Mix gently, but well, again.
Grease a 2-quart casserole dish with one tablespoon of softened butter. Add the stuffing. Cover with aluminum foil and slip it into the oven for 20 minutes. Then remove the foil and bake for 5-10 minutes longer. The top of the stuffing will brown slightly and crisp along the edges.
Of course, instead of baking the whole batch, you can stuff your holiday bird with as much of this ambrosia as it will hold and roast it. The remaining stuffing should be baked as above.
You’ll be surprised how good this stuffing tastes the next day, with the sweetness of the pears nicely balanced by the tartness of the cranberries. In warmer months, when making this stuffing, I substitute a couple of apples for the pears.
Before tasting this dish the other night, Nick, my eldest son, asked, “There’s no liver in this stuffing is there?”
No, not a bit, I assured him, and he proceeded to wolf down three helpings in a row. Maybe even Bernice would ask for seconds.
For more information and locations of Hisaya Kyo-yakiguri kiosks in Tokyo, go to www.kyo-yakiguri.com