A few months ago, my sister and her boyfriend engaged in a Whole 30 food challenge to help them feel healthier and more in control of their diets before the holiday season. As part of the challenge, and to silence naysayers convinced this would mean a barrage of boring, bland food, my sister took photos of almost every meal they ate. Some of these looked so good I was ready to hop on the bandwagon myself (though, as she admitted, going without cheese for that long was a hardship. First world problems, I know).
One dish in particular caught and held my imagination. R. called it “hazelnutted mushrooms.” The combination of two much beloved, earthy, woodsy ingredients made me think of Oregon and long for its damp autumnal glory as Los Angeles cycled through week after week of 80 degree days.
As the idea simmered in my mind, I kept thinking of other ingredients that would pair well with hazelnuts and mushrooms. Sage, certainly, with its dusty sharpness. Whiskey, to deglaze with that sear of burning honey. Maybe even chestnuts, with their curious texture and meaty sweetness.
Once chestnuts entered the picture, there was no doubt this was destined to become a stuffing. With half a loaf of dark pumpernickel rye bread in the fridge longing for an application, I took action. Butter, onions, celery, deeply caramelized mushrooms, and the crunch and odd sweetness of chestnuts bolstering the broth-moistened bread and toasted hazelnut bits. The whiskey adds just a gentle flavor and a great smell to the stuffing that backs up the flavor of the chestnuts and somehow makes them make more sense as an ingredient – I wouldn’t do without it, but you can if you wish.
You’ve likely noticed there are fewer photos here than usual – it turns out that though “brown food tastes goooood” as Anne Burrell is apt to note in her throaty growl, it doesn’t always produce the most flattering or interesting photograph. Regardless, this brown food is indeed good, and deserves your attention. Though we weren’t willing to put this on the Thanksgiving menu (we are
boring sticklers, and this big a shift in the sides might cause turmoil), it has considerable promise as a winter companion to roasted meats at other cold-weather holidays, especially if you tend to go with pork or beef. I think stuffed pork chops would be a particularly nice application. We kept it simple, though, and went (almost) vegetarian, pairing moist, heaping spoonfuls with mashed sweet potatoes and salty, crispy roasted brussels sprouts.
Rye and Mushroom Stuffing with Chestnuts and Hazelnuts
Serves 6-8 as a side
6-8 slices dark rye bread, preferably stale
¾ cup raw, unsalted hazelnuts
6 tablespoons butter
½ a red onion, diced
2 large ribs of celery, diced
¾ pound (12 ounces) crimini mushrooms, stemmed and quartered
½ cup (6-8 ounces) cooked, peeled chestnuts, roughly chopped
8-12 fresh sage leaves, minced
¼ cup whiskey (I used Jack Daniels – you use what you like, or omit it and use extra broth instead)
2 – 2 ½ cups broth, chicken or vegetable
Salt and pepper to taste (how much salt you use will depend on the sodium content of your broth)
- Preheat your oven to 350F and position a rack in the middle slot. Fill a baking sheet with your hazelnuts. Place a wire rack in the tray (it should fit over the hazelnuts) and spread out your rye bread on a single layer atop it. Toast in the preheated oven until the bread is quite dry and the hazelnuts are starting to look slightly oily; 10-15 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool.
- Meanwhile, heat your broth in a small pot or in the microwave – it doesn’t need to be boiling, but it should be quite hot. If it does boil, turn it down to avoid losing too much through evaporation.
- Melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the diced onions and celery and cook until softened and translucent; 5-8 minutes.
- Add the mushrooms and cook for an additional 5-8 minutes, until the mushrooms have soaked up much of the moisture in the pan and are soft. They may begin to brown a bit; that’s a good thing.
- Add the chopped chestnuts and the sage and let them warm through for 1-2 minutes.
- While the vegetables are cooking, chop your hazelnuts into rough chunks (it’s wise to wait until they are cool enough to handle), then add them to the vegetable mixture in the skillet.
- Turn off the heat and immediately add the whiskey, which should bubble furiously when it hits the surface of the pan. Stir to combine – much of the whiskey will evaporate.
- Tear or cut the rye bread into small pieces or cubes. It should be quite dry. Add the bread cubes to the pan and stir well to combine.
- Now, add 2 cups of the hot broth and stir to combine. If the bread still seems fairly dry, add the remaining ½ cup. Season with salt and pepper to taste, then put a lid on the skillet and let the mixture sit for five minutes to allow the bread to absorb the broth.
- After five minutes (or more – allowing it to sit a while at this stage is fine), deposit the stuffing mixture into a greased 9×9 inch baking dish, spread or pat into an even layer, and bake in your preheated 350F oven for 30-35 minutes, until the top layer is crusty but the interior is still nice and moist.
- Serve hot, as an accompaniment for meat or veg.