I grew up eating fairly typical bread stuffing and dressing for the Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys. My Mom and Grandma would take white bread, cut into cubes, and toast it in the oven until they were crisp, and then on the day the turkey was cooked, they would mix it with broth in which they had cooked giblets, onions, celery and sage, then use this mixture to stuff the turkey and fill the roasting pan around the bird.
And it was very tasty and good. Nothing wrong with it at all.
But, as I was in the produce aisle of the grocery store about six or years ago, I had an inspiration.
What if I made a cornbread-based dressing and added to it a bunch of ingredients native to the United States? What would it taste like?
And what ingredients would I use?
Well, I had already decided to use corn. Cranberries came to mind next–and since the new dried “Craisins” had just come out on the market, those are what I picked up. As I had just addicted Zak to chiles–chipotle en adobo seemed a natural choice–especially since it involved both chile and tomato. Two native ingredients in one! What else could I add to the mixture?
Maple syrup is the native sweetener–and I love the flavor of it with turkey anyway, so of course, in that went. I thought I might want something crunchy, so I added both pecans and black walnuts–both native to these shores. While I was grabbing ingredients, my eye fell upon the long, graceful black quills of wild rice and I nabbed it up, and threw it in the cart. It may not really be rice, but it tasted delightful, and so into the recipe it went.
Wild rice is interesting. It grows on the edges of standing water and in boggy ground up around the Great Lakes region, and was (and still is, in some places) harvested by Native Americans in canoes. One person paddled, steering the canoe alongside stands of the grass, letting the grain-laden stalks droop over the floor fo the canoe, while their partner used sticks to knock the grains into the canoe.
While it isn’t really a rice, it can be used like rice. The black, shiny grains are generally cooked in a lot of boiling water–three times as much water as grain–until they are at several levels of doneness. To do a pilaf style rice, it can be cooked al dente. To mix it with white or brown rice, it can be cooked a bit softer (just to the point where the glossy dark seed coat starts to split and show the white interior) then stirred into the rice.
I have learned over the years that in order to use it with this dressing recipe, it is best to cook the grains fully–until the starch inside the seedcoat bursts and the seed splits entirely, as shown on the left. While I like it best al dente, especially if I am eating it seasoned as a side dish, if you put it in the dressing cooked that way, it dries out in the oven way too much and become crisp and tooth-breakingly hard.
So, I just boil it until it is completely soft, and the black coat has turned to a rich brown and the starch inside is fully exposed. When it bakes in the oven, mixed with all the other ingredients, it takes on a delicious, nutty chewiness that is similar how it tastes al dente.
I also added sausage, onions, apples, garlic, sage, rosemary and thyme to the mixture. Venison sausage is my first choice–it carrying on the Native American theme beautifully–but regular pork breakfast sausage does just fine as well. Apples–well, they are not native to the United States–they are originally from the steppes near China, and were brought here by British colonists. However, they taste good and all over the country, one can find apple trees from long-forgotten orchards just growing wild in pastures and in thin woodlands, still bearing flowers and fruit.
One could, if one harvests ramps, substitute frozen ones for the onions and garlic and keep to the theme of native foods, but one doesn’t have to–I generally only eat ramps fresh myself, as I don’t care for how they can stink up an overstuffed freezer. (My freezer is always overstuffed.)
The way the dish goes together is simple. First, a few days before you plan on making the dressing, bake a pan or two of plain cornbread. By plain, I mean nothing overly sweet or fancy, just cornbread. (I will include the recipe that I used below.) After you take it from the oven and cool it completely, break it apart into bite-sized and slightly smaller pieces, and allow it to sit out at room temperature for a couple of days to go nice and crispy stale. Or, you can crisp it in the oven–but I will warn you–if you don’t pay attention, you can easily burn it.
Then, you cook up your wild rice, and when it is fully exploded, drain it and refrigerate it. You can do both of these steps two or three days before you cook your feast.
Then, on the day you are making the dressing, you saute all of the flavoring ingredients together until everything is browned and nicely scented. Then you add the wild rice and fry it a bit longer, then add maple syrup and about a quart or so of chicken or turkey broth.
Then, you pour all of that over your cornbread crumblies and mix that in until everything is nice and moist, with your hands. Then, you pack it in a buttered baking dish, pop butter on top of it and bake it until it is golden brown and dried to your liking.
About drying it to your liking–some people like squishy, wet dressings and stuffings, and some like them dry and toasty and crumbling. This is a matter of personal taste–I like them either way, to tell the truth, but I tend to make this dressing pretty much on the dry side. Wet, gooshy cornbread is not something I am into, so I bake it until you can scoop the dressing out in cohesive lumps, but it isn’t so sticky that it has the texture of granular wall paper paste.
If you make this recipe, bake it until the texture is where you like it.
As for the name–it refers to the sacred four directions that many Native American tribes spoke of. Being as many of them deified the land itself, they spoke of the spirits of the North, South, East and West. Since I ended up choosing ingredients that are native to this continent in many directions, I felt that the name was especially appropriate.
Four Directions Dressing
Ingredients for Cornbread:
1 cup stoneground cornmeal
1 cup flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons baking soda
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon oil
2 eggs, lightly beaten
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. If you are going to bake this in a cast iron skillet heat skillet in oven while preheating.
Mix dry ingredients together in a medium bowl. Mix wet ingredients in a measuring cup or small pitcher until well combined.
Pour the wet into the dry and stir into a nice, thick batter.
If you are using the cast iron skillet, take it out, grease it well, and pour batter into it. Bake for about 20-25 minutes if using preheated skillet. If using a regular baking pan–not preheated–then bake for 25-35 minutes, or until toothpick inserted in center of bread comes out clean.
Cool completely on wire rack, then crumble and break apart into bits.
(I use two pans of this for one 9″X13″ pan of dressing.)
Ingredients for Dressing:
2/3 cup wild rice
2 cups water
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, diced finely
1 apple, peeled and diced
1 teaspoon lightly crushed celery seeds
5 cloves garlic minced
1 or 2 chipotle en adobo, minced
1 pound sage breakfast sausage
3/4 cup dried cranberries, roughly chopped
1/2 cup pecans or black walnuts, roughly chopped
1/4 cup fresh sage, minced
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, minced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2-3/4 cups maple syrup (this is to your taste)
1 to 1 1/2 quarts chicken or turkey broth
1 tablespoon butter, cut into small pieces
Put the wild rice and water in a pan, and bring to a boil. Boil until the grain bursts, then drain and set aside.
Preheat oven to 350 and grease or butter a 9″X13″ baking pan.
Heat olive oil in a frying pan or saute pan. Add onions, apple and celery seeds, and cook, stirring, until onions are dark golden. Add garlic, chipotle and sausage–break up the sausage, and continue cooking, until sausage is completely browned. When the sausage is still about halfway pink, add cranberries, nuts, herbs and the drained wild rice.
When sausage is completely done, add maple syrup, and stir in to combine. Add broth and heat until it is warmed through, but not boiling hot.
Pour over the cornbread crumbs, and stir with your hands to moisten and combine everything. Pat mixture into the prepared pan and bake for about 15 minutes. At that time, drop butter pieces onto top of dressing and keep baking until it is as browned and dry as you like it.
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