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In & Out of the Kitchen: Jazzing up Thanksgiving sides

For me, most culinary adventures involve experimentation.

My versions of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, home fries and tossed salads are all spiced and strengthened to my specifications. Light cream cheese, butter, chives and grated onion are usual suspects for my loaded, calorie-catastrophe mashed potatoes. Peppers, celery, croutons, beer and barbecue sauce are on the guest list when I’m in the mood for meat loaf.

For Thanksgiving, I’ll bet a lot of people jazz up their turkey stuffings. I know the mix of bread, spices and vegetables doesn’t cook inside a roasting turkey anymore; food sanitarians are against this routine. And I know some people call the gourmet side dish “dressing.” We always called it stuffing when I was a kid in Rochester, so that’s the term I prefer.

I’m not an expert on the subject, and have only put it on my holiday table a few times. But while my mother and grandfather used to invest hours on stuffing projects, I use prepackaged stuffing mixes. And have been surprised at how quickly the Thanksgiving staple comes together.

I think a lot of people use the shortcut, although it can’t be that tough pouring a can of chicken stock over croutons or bread pieces. They are free to add fruits, vegetables and meats to the mix, and give the stuffing a personal signature. That’s my game plan, and unlike recent Thanksgiving game plans of the Detroit Lions (winless on the holiday since 2003), mine generally succeed.

If I add crumbled sausage, pieces of apple and sautéed mushrooms, I make sure they are all cut small. And that’s really small — diced and double-diced to make sure no chunks of meat or fruit are sticking out of my stuffing. I want to make sure the croutons or bread taste of the stuffing is still the chief flavor.

I always use the aforementioned triple play, sometimes with some diced red pepper. The pepper doesn’t add a ton of flavor, but it does add a little color. If I want a little more color, green peppers and celery will also be tossed into the mixing bowl. One of these Novembers, I’m going to dice a few fresh cherries and introduce a new taste with my turkey.

Like meat loaf, I think a variety of foods succeed in stuffing. Pearl onions, walnuts, diced black olives are all on the roster. But some common sense must prevail. While crumbled sausage and diced mushrooms work, small meatballs probably do not. Neither will diced ham and eggplant — they just seem like the wrong flavors for stuffing.

Stuffing is not the healthiest of dishes, so I keep my helpings small and load up on tossed salad instead. Thanksgiving is for eating large and making merry anyway, so maybe the doctors give us a pass for the day.

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