At Thanksgiving, kill pathogens not guests

In her somewhat annual Thanksgiving message to, Michéle Samarya-Timm of the Somerset County Department of Health, NJ, gets stuffed.

At Thanksgiving, if conversation isn’t about the bird, it’s about the stuffing: in the bird, or outside the bird? I teach food safety to a variety of folks, so my stance on this stays consistent…outside and 165 F.

Attendees at my food safety class last week brought up a refreshingly different question….does it matter what the stuffing is made of?

I know the barfblog guys are particular about stuffing; Doug wrote about it last Thanksgiving. His refrigerator potpourri technique sounds tasty…a gourmet mélange of basic ingredients. Call it barfblog’s Best Thanksgiving Stuffing, if you will. But this recipe has competition.

Cookbooks and websites are chock-full of the best-ever stuffing recipes with subtle twists on traditional ingredients. Using bread? Options are endless: Cornbread, multi-grain whole-wheat, sourdough, rye, bagels, and the ever-popular squishy white Wonder Bread.

Not a bread person? How about a rice stuffing? You can choose from white, wild, saffron, risotto, or last night’s leftover steamed. It’s easy to see how basic substitutions have expanded the variations for grandma’s recipe.

The advent of processed foods managed to usher in some more kitschy offerings, that surprisingly have cult followings: Corn Flakes stuffing (featured this morning on NPR), Ritz Cracker stuffing, or even White Castle hamburger stuffing.

I began to wonder about alternate approaches to this traditional side dish. I’ve heard of stuffing made with items such as sausage, lobster, clams, chestnuts, pine nuts, zucchini, or bacon.

These can all be personalized marks of a creative cook. In addition, I recall many times in my own kitchen when I needed to get inventive for lack of an essential ingredient. So I might be able to understand why there is a recipe for popcorn stuffing. What surprised me were the more unique renditions of this holiday classic that could make a Thanksgiving one to remember:

Didn’t have time for breakfast this morning? No problem – you can make stuffing from oatmeal, grits, grape nuts or captain crunch.

Don’t like the taste of turkey? Pair it with stuffing made college-style with pizza…or Italian style with prosciutto, salami and pepperoni …or man-style with steak and bacon.

For a multi-cultural twist, try tortilla chip stuffing, lasagna stuffing, or a mofongo mix – a Puerto Rican specialty of fried green plantains mashed up with bacon, sofrito and olive oil.

You could consider the epicurean dish turducken (a chicken stuffed into a duck, which itself is stuffed into a turkey) as the ultimate in stuffing options…or is it?

I pondered…is there anything edible that can’t be cooked as stuffing?

I tried searching for the strangest options, and uncovered stuffing recipes containing alligator, applesauce, chocolate (now that may be onto something), peanut butter, Twinkies and donuts.

Devil Dogs, cookies, pop tarts, matzos, malted milk balls — you can pretty much put anything in; if it’s edible it can be made into stuffing.

The key is not the ingredients so much as the food safety. You can make stuffing from homemade cornbread, marshmallow peeps, bologna or rutabaga, so long as you cook it thoroughly and check it with a probe thermometer. 165 F kills a whole host of common pathogens. Kill the pathogens, not your guests.

Stuffing isn’t evil; cooking it incorrectly is.

Thankful for all those who keep our families, our food supply, and our country safe.

Real-time turkey: using a thermometer to ensure safety

Color is a lousy indicator. So are those pop-up thingies that Michele wrote about last night. There was one on my bird that I was apparently supposed to insert. Or not. It  popped after 20 minutes. Useless.

Poultry should be cooked to an end-temperature of 165F or 74C, as measured by a tip-sensitive digital thermometer. The problem with 15-pound turkeys is that the breast was creeping up to 140-150F, while the stuffing and other parts were languishing at 120. Foil over the breast helps, but it’s always a problem; and why gravy was invented.

This isn’t perfect, and cross-contamination is always a concern, but I removed the two turkey breasts, ensured they were fully cooked, scooped out the stuffing and brought it to a safe temperature in the microwave. The remainder of the bird went back in the oven.

A delicious meal was had by all. To avoid problems with Clostridium perfringens, I took the remainder of the turkey apart within an hour, the good meat in the refrigerator, the rest into the stock pot – turkey stock is really one of the best parts of the (subsequent) meal.

Stick it in.

Real-time turkey: stuffing and roasting the bird

I’m a fan of the stuffing. Not the stuff in the box but whatever’s leftover in the fridge.

Included this year are some freeze-dried chestnut slices I got for Amy last year – she’s a fan of the chestnuts – that never got used. For guidance, I use Google searches to find various recipes (my students, tiring of me asking to find this or that, finally showed me how to use Google about four years ago), and then I improvise, generally adding more vegetables.

This year, the stuffing contains leftover multigrain wheat bread ends, cubed and baked. Butter, onion, garlic, white wine, sage (lots), rosemary, zucchini squash, red pepper, celery, and chestnuts. Half goes into the cavity of the bird, the other half is baked in a dish separately for our vegetarian guests.

Cross-contamination is the big concern. Again, I prefer to handle the bird in the roasting pan to limit bug flow in the kitchen. Being prepped and having everything near the sink helps. Be the bug.

Safely back in the roasting pan, hands washed and counters cleansed, the turkey goes into a 450F oven for 30 minutes, a tin-foil teepee is used to cover the breast and the temperature is lowered to 325F. The bird is regularly brushed and injected with a citrus-based glaze.

Next: Thermometers