My great-grandmother Teresa Pizzamiglio (Nonna) immigrated to the US in 1913 with her husband, Angelo Danese. She was a superb cook, and a master gardener. What she was not was generous with her recipes and techniques, nor was she patient with teaching either. My grandmother, Lena Danese (Giggi), was not allowed in the kitchen as a young girl, so it’s something of a miracle that she ended up as wonderful a cook as she was. To the kitchen, she took the exact opposite approach, letting my mother and her sister experiment wildly and make a mess. She could entertain both lavishly (the family backyard clambakes were renowned) and humbly (serving BLTs for dinner and calling it a night). It is from her that my mother learned to make a festa out of niente, and it is the gift that’s been passed down to me.
I remember most holiday feasts being at Giggi’s house in Syracuse, and always on Thanksgiving and Christmas was served Nonna’s Stuffing. I don’t know if Nonna created this dish herself, or copied something that was served in Italy. I don’t know how, if she was indeed so parsimonious with her cooking knowledge, Giggi got the recipe out of her. But somehow she did and she made it, and my mother and my aunt made it, and now I make it and my cousins make it. This year, Panda helped me make it. It was very interesting watching her because right up until I was her age, I turned up my nose at Nonna’s stuffing. So did my brother and my cousins. It was weird looking. It was green. All the adults raved about it so it had to be awful. But right around 11 or 12 years of age, we started coming around. We would verify that it would be served, “You’re making Nonna’s stuffing, right?” To which the adult in charge that year would look at us as if we were witless, “Of course!”
This year, Panda was sneaking bites right and left. And so another sheep is brought into the Pizzamiglio-Danese fold, and I will tuck this recipe into her little Hope Chest, and I have dreams of sitting at her table one day when she brings out the pan of Nonna’s stuffing with a mixture of pride and trepidation, “I hope it came out right…”
There is no other stuffing but this.
- 2 lbs sweet Italian sausage
- 1 1/2 – 2 lbs Italian bread, shredded into small pieces
- 2 cups chopped onions
- 2 cups chopped celery
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup fresh chopped parsley
- 2 tablespoons each fresh chopped sage and rosemary
- 1 1/2 cups Parmesan or Asiago cheese (Nonno imported Asiago cheese so that’s what we use)
- 6 bags (you heard me) baby spinach
- Salt, pepper, and Bell’s poultry seasoning to taste
I do this all in a particular order and the prep time takes longer than the actual cooking.
First I have to find the recipe which always causes a small panic attack. The past couple years I’ve been very careful to put it back in the pages of the Martha Stewart Cookbook. The recipe itself, as you can see, has gone through several annotations over the years. I don’t like making a clean copy because all those scribbled notes are just so wonderful.
This is made in the 20-million-gallon size Madame Le Creuset pot. Hold your applause.
Prepping the bread is the worst part. I hate it, there’s no good way to do it. I get 2 1-lb loaves from the store, tear one apart with my hands, crust and all, and then the other loaf I sort of peel away the crust and then shred up the soft insides. I always stress that there’s too much bread so I put some in Madame and then have a separate holding tank. Whatever I don’t use goes to the birds.
Prep everything: chop the onions, celery and garlic and have that in one bowl. Chop your herbs and have that ready. Grate the cheese, or get a small child to do it, put that aside.
Squeeze the sausage out of its casings and brown well in the largest skillet you have. Good luck getting a small child to help with the squeezing without making any poop jokes. As the sausage browns, crumble with the side of a wooden spoon. I hate this. I don’t know why, but standing by the pan, breaking up clumps of sausage makes me want to scream.
This year I got the brilliant idea of using my pastry cutter to do this job and I will never again use the wooden spoon.
When the sausage is done, dump it into a colandar in the sink to drain well, you can even rinse it if you wish. Do not wipe out the pan.
In the same pan you fried the sausage, with the drippings still there, saute the onion, celery and garlic about five minutes or until translucent. Add the fresh herbs and saute another 2-3 minutes. Scrape all this into the pot with the bread, and put the pan back on the stove and add a little olive oil.
One at a time, saute each bag of baby spinach. I know 6 bags seems like a lot and every year I think it’s a lot, it’s too much, it’s crazy. But every year each bag wilts down into a pathetic lump and then I panic that it’s not enough. It’s enough, just go with it. As each batch is done, put it in the colander in the sink and press out as much juice as possible, then put into the pot with the bread and vegetables.
Now you can turn off the heat, finally. Add the sausage and cheese to the pot and mix well. Use a big spoon or your hands. Now taste. You can add salt, pepper (I like 1/2 teaspoon of white pepper) and Bell’s poultry seasoning as needed. But the best way to really see if you have it right it to take a little stuffing, make a small patty, and fry it up. And then make another because you are the cook. This year during the tasting phase, I found the stuffing had far too many savory notes, something wasn’t right. So I chopped up another onion and 2 ribs of celery, sauteed them quick, mixed it in and that did the trick – it needed that extra bit of bright sweetness. Every year it’s different.
Pat into your baking dish. I always make a regular 9×13 dish to serve, and then there’s another 9×9 pan for my brother. At this point you could wrap the dish in foil and freeze it until show time. Otherwise it goes into a 350 oven for an hour.