A Very City Paper Thanksgiving: Gluten-free stuffing that doesn't suck

Those of us living the gluten-free life, whether by choice or medical necessity, are used to either settling for so-so substitutes or just skipping baked goods entirely. Because, face it—many gluten-free foods are just awful. No-wheat bread that tastes suspiciously like a recycled Styrofoam cooler, yet costs $5 per diminutive loaf. Leaden cookies that could double as street hockey pucks. And gluten-free items purporting to be pastries like doughnuts or danishes? Shudder. Better to just order Asian take-out.

And then comes Thanksgiving. Stuffing is not only a traditional, highly ritualized centerpiece of the entire meal, but an important gravy delivery vehicle in its own right. We gluten-free folk refuse to be left out of the joys of stuffing ourselves with stuffing! Fortunately, my own favorite stuffing recipe from my LBGF (Life Before Gluten-Free) adapts almost seamlessly since it's cornbread-based. Cornbread, like most quick breads, stands up pretty well to gluten-free adaptation because it does not depend on the gluten "developing" (fancy baking term) to give the bread its texture and loft, as do typical raised yeast breads. As a matter of fact, the quicker you stir, and the less you stir the ingredients together, the better it is.

I adapted this cornbread recipe years ago from a half-remembered article I'd seen in Texas Monthly. It's not for the faint of heart, since it sports the robust flavors of jalapeño, blue cheese, and pecans. But the buttery, stalwart cornbread bears up these flavors, delivering them in a savory symphony of umami richness spiked with jalapeño heat. Forget "Good for being gluten-free"—this recipe is a knockout.

Do use the buttermilk. It's important. Cultured buttermilk is high in lactic acid, which combines with the baking powder to form zillions of tiny little fizzy lifting bubbles—giving lightness and loft to the cornbread's body and saving it from that lead-balloon state so many gluten-free baked goods sadly subside into.

Gluten-Free Jalapeño Cornbread
1 cup buttermilk (not optional!)
1 egg, beaten
6 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
1/2 cup butter, melted
2 cups frozen, defrosted corn kernels (optional but good)
2 large jalapeños, seeded and diced
2 1/4 cups yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup your favorite GF flour mix (I used Trader Joe’s)

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Combine the first 7 ingredients and set aside. Mix the cornmeal, baking powder, and gluten-free flour in a separate bowl, then—stirring quickly, until just incorporated—mix the dry ingredients into the buttermilk mixture. Pour into a greased 8-by-8-inch baking dish and bake for 30-40 minutes or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cornbread cool completely, ideally for 24 hours, before using for stuffing.

Show-Stopper Gluten-Free Stuffing
Serves 8

Cornbread, crumbled or cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes (recipe above)
2 cups chopped red onion (about 2 medium onions)
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup butter
2 cups crumbled blue cheese (about 1/2 pound)
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup pecans, toasted, cooled, roughly choppped
1/2 cup chicken stock
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 350 F. In a large skillet sauté the onion and garlic in butter until translucent. Transfer to a mixing bowl and add the remaining ingredients except the stock and pepper. Combine, then slowly add stock, mixing until well incorporated. Add pepper to taste. Bake in a covered casserole dish for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

But then there's always the chance that your family tradition falls firmly in the Stove-Top-in-a-box end of the stuffing spectrum, and fancy-pants stuffing featuring jalapeños and pecans is simply not welcome at the Thanksgiving table. Maybe blue cheese gives Aunt Gloria bloating and gas, and nobody wants that. So here is a recipe for a traditional stuffing that is quick to make, tastes at least as good (in a low-key way) as Stove Top, and is a mighty fine gravy delivery vehicle.

Short-Cut Gluten-Free Bread Stuffing That Doesn't Suck
Serves 10

1 ½ loaves Udi’s gluten-free bread, regular or multigrain, torn into 1-inch pieces (12 to 14 cups)
10 tablespoons butter
3 cups chopped onions
2 cups chopped celery stalks, leaves and all
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
2 1/2 tablespoons fresh sage leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon fresh thyme
½ bunch Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
1 1/2 to 2 cups turkey or giblet stock, or chicken broth

Preheat oven to 300 F. Gently tear bread into 1-inch pieces and spread them out on two large rimmed baking sheets. Bake the bread until completely dry and pale golden, about 25 to 30 minutes. Let the bread cool. (This step can be done up to 3 days ahead; keep the toasted bread cubes in an airtight container.)

Increase oven to 400 F. Melt the butter in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, then saute the onions and the celery until softened and beginning to brown. Add the herbs and the salt and pepper and stir together, then remove from heat. Toss the toasted bread with the onion mixture in a large bowl, then transfer to a buttered 3- to 4-quart shallow baking dish.

Whisk together the eggs and stock (more if you like your stuffing moist, less if you like it crisp) in another bowl and drizzle it over the stuffing. Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake the stuffing for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to bake it until the top is golden and crisp, about 10 more minutes.

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