Here in New Jersey, Italian-Americans make up almost 18% of the state's population-- surpassed in overall number only by our neighbor to the north, New York. This means that, despite the fact that I have not a drop of Italian blood in me, I'm surrounded by plenty of sources for a peek into Italian-American culture. Or perhaps I should say a taste of it.
One of the most obvious Italian influences in my home state is the food, for which I am forever grateful. It's not just the hand-stretched pizza or plethora of restaurants I love, but also the home-cooked meals that my friends' families invite me to enjoy; Sunday sauces complete with tender meatballs, big pots of bright peppers and sausage, hand-filled ravioli, tiered tiramisu... I could go on for days. Italian-American culture intertwines food, family, and celebration so tightly that it's no surprise to see a slight Italian twist at all of their holiday dinner tables. Yes, this includes Thanksgiving.
James and I typically don't do holiday dinners together, since we're both very family-oriented and our parents live over an hour apart. However, we always make sure to give each other a play-by-play of what delicious dishes make up our dinners. Thanksgiving at my mom's typically consists of turkey, gravy, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing, assorted vegetables, sweet potato casserole, and an array of pies to choose from for dessert. James' mom's Thanksgiving spread consists of all of that, plus stuffed mushrooms, stuffed artichokes, meatballs, lasagna, and plenty of cannoli. It goes without saying that James comes from an Italian family, right?
And while I thought that all of those add-ins were somewhat strange at first, I'm really all for it now. As I already mentioned, I love Italian-American food. There is no occasion where it's not welcome on my buffet table or in my belly. But what's more important is remembering that Thanksgiving is all about celebrating what you have. Your family. Your traditions. Your favorite foods. The life you have in America, and the things that your ancestors have contributed to the melting pot. If that means a big tray of baked pasta on Thanksgiving, I'm sure not going to argue against it.
I embraced the idea of an Italian-American twist on Thanksgiving this year with open arms, since it will be the first year that I'll be experiencing it with James' family. To bridge the gap between the traditional dishes I'm used to and the Italian foods I love, I decided to make an Italian Style Stuffing, complete with ciabatta bread cubes, fennel, sweet Italian sausage, parmesan cheese, and of course, plenty of garlic.
Let me tell you, if this is what an Italian-American Thanksgiving table typically tastes like, I can definitely get behind it.
This Italian Style Stuffing is made like most stuffings-- baked together in a casserole dish with just enough chicken stock to moisten the bread and keep everything together. However, instead of sage and southern influence, you taste rustic Italian ingredients and the strong presence of alliums. Despite the difference in flavor, this stuffing tastes just as wonderful as a side dish for your turkey and gravy as any.
Now, the recipe is very simple to make, technique-wise. You won't mess it up. However, it's notably important not to get too heavy-handed with the chicken stock. Flooding the bread cubes with liquid, even they seem to absorb it all, will result in a very soggy final product with stock pooling in the bottom of the casserole dish. Start slow and add a tablespoon of stock at a time if you find it necessary. Remember, you can always add more stock, but once it's in there, you can't exactly wring out your ciabatta.
That's really the only tip that's necessary. Once you've got that down, it'll be smooth sailing.
Try this recipe out for Thanksgiving or Sunday supper, it'll be a hit. Don't forget to take a photo and tag #hostthetoast on Instagram or Twitter to show off your side dish! I can't wait to hear what you think.Print
- 1 (1 pound) ciabatta loaf, cut into cubes (about 5 cups)
- 5 tablespoons butter, melted
- 1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
- 5 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 1 bulb fennel, chopped, fronds reserved and chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped
- 2 ribs celery, chopped
- 1 ½ cups low sodium chicken broth, or more
- ½ cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated, divided
- ¼ cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped
- Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a large baking dish and set aside.
- Toss the ciabatta cubes with the melted butter.
- If using fresh ciabatta bread, place on a baking sheet and toast in the preheated oven for 20 minutes. If the bread is stale, skip this step.
- In a large skillet over medium-high heat, cook the de-cased sausage meat, breaking apart with a wooden spoon as it cooks, until browned all over. Remove the sausage from the skillet and pour off all but 1 tablespoon of the rendered grease.
- Return the skillet to the heat and add in the garlic, onion, fennel, rosemary, and celery. Reduce heat to medium and saute until the onion and fennel are soft, about 10 minutes.
- In a large bowl, toss together the ciabatta, garlic mixture, and sausage until evenly distributed. Add in the broth, a bit at a time, until the ciabatta is all moistened but not soggy. Make sure to toss the ciabatta as you add in the broth to make sure it's all evenly saturated. Add additional broth if necessary. Mix in half of the parmesan cheese, half of the fennel fronds, and all of the parsley. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
- Transfer the stuffing mixture to the prepared baking dish. Top with remaining parmesan. Cover with a lid or foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the cover and bake for another 15 minutes, or until the top has browned. Top with the reserved fennel fronds and serve warm.
- Prep Time: 20 mins
- Cook Time: 1 hour