Nancy Root Miller has been editing books (mostly cookbooks) since the late 1990s. One of her former editing clients, Bristol Press, hired her to write two cookbooks, Best 50 Ice Cream Sundaes and Best 50 Cookies; they were published in the early 2000s and are still available, though sadly, Bristol Press is defunct. This article is an as-yet-unposted entry for her food blog, Rivertree Kitchen. A cookbook based on the blog is in the works. With any luck, someone will publish it someday.
Renowned chef and author David Lebovitz said on a recent blog post about helpful kitchen tips that we shouldn’t substitute ingredients when following a recipe. His reasoning is that the author has put in a lot of time, experience and experimentation in creating that recipe, and you should respect that.
I certainly agree with the logic, even though it goes against my blog’s reason for being (“Think outside the recipe” is my tagline, after all). I do put time and thought into my recipes, tweaking them to get them just right. And I certainly have respect for the cooks who wrote the recipes in cookbooks or on blogs, as well as the brilliant David Lebovitz himself, who knows a heck of a lot more about cooking than I do. Here’s where I run into a problem with that sentiment: I think it’s essential for good cooks to be able to think on their feet. That skill develops when you are willing to veer outside the lines. This issue came up with our Thanksgiving dressing. (Yes, dressing; we are not “stuffing” people in our house.) My Grandma Ruth’s dressing is the only way to fly. It’s very simple: Riley’s beef sausage, Nabisco Royal Lunch crackers, onion, sage, and water.
Here’s the thing: Riley’s, a small-town butcher shop in Massachusetts who made their own sausage, closed a good twenty years ago, and Nabisco stopped making Royal Lunch crackers in 2007. (Onion and sage are still available.) Through experimentation, we’ve found that plain, uncooked (not smoked or cured) beef bratwurst is a very close substitute for Riley’s sausage. The crackers are more of a challenge. Last year, I used a combination of unsalted water crackers, oyster crackers, and stale but excellent white bread. The result was delicious, if not exactly the same as Grandma Ruth’s.
This year, my mother sent me a box of Heritage Mills Classic Milk Lunch Crackers, which are a near-perfect match. (We’re looking for a dry, very bland cracker; they are the blank canvas that lets the other ingredients shine.) When I was a youngster, we’d pull out the old cast-iron meat grinder when it was time to make the dressing. I use a food processor now. I finish by squishing the whole mixture between my fingers to get the right texture anyway, so I don’t miss the grinder. In the olden days, we cooked the dressing inside the turkey. Since I tend toward obsession with food safety, my dressing cooks alongside the turkey in its own pan. But without the constant bath of turkey juices, the dressing lacked flavor. So I now use chicken stock to replace half the water. The best part of the dressing is the crunchy golden crust. Enter the muffin tin; now each diner has a generous serving of crust. To prevent the dressing “muffins” from becoming too dry, I increase the proportion of liquid to dry in the mix, and lightly baste the tops with melted butter before they go in the oven. Boosting the oven temperature allows the crust to develop quickly, while keeping the centers moist.
What it comes down to is this: We honored Grandma Ruth’s recipe for as long as we could. It can be especially painful to experiment with holiday dishes, but if we weren’t able and willing to alter the original recipe, my grandmother’s beloved dressing would have been lost. I think of her every time I serve our version. She would approve.
Grandma Ruth’s Sausage Stuffing (modern-day version)
Makes a 9-inch pan or casserole, or about 9 “muffins”
1 box (1 pound) Heritage Mills Classic Lunch Milk Crackers (or other bland, dry, unsalted crackers) 1 medium onion, quartered
2 to 3 raw (not cured or smoked) bratwurst, preferably beef
3/4 cup chicken stock
3/4 cup water (or more)
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
1 teaspoon mild cooking oil
salt to taste
1 tablespoon melted butter, about, optional
If you can, prepare the raw dressing mixture several hours or even a full day before you plan to cook it. This allows the cracker crumbs to hydrate and the flavors to meld.
Break the crackers into the bowl of a food processor, and pulse until they’re mostly fine crumbs. Pour into a bowl.
Pulse the onion in the food processor until it’s very finely chopped