My mother loves Thanksgiving. Being an Italian immigrant, she feels like it's the one American holiday that is celebrated the way most Italian ones are: with food.
Every year she would commence Thanksgiving dinner shopping no less than two weeks before. First came the tableware and decor. Then, new ingredients she had never cooked with before like marshmallows for yams ("This isa wha the America eats for the Thanksgive.") so she could put some traditional American dishes on the table and, finally, items for the Italian dishes like her Italian stuffing — which was more of a deconstructed Sicilian meatball than traditional stuffing.
Made with golden raisins, pine nuts, two types of meat, and imported cheese, the oddity of ingredients this Italian immigrant was buying in American supermarkets raised an eyebrow. "Raisins and meat together?" they would always ask. "What are you making?"
"The stuff," she replied proudly.
Making "The Stuff"
Making a classic American meal was something she was excited about. The fact that she figured out how to make it from an Italian dish was even better. The combination of sweet golden raisins and meaty beef and veal is a flavor combo that works really well together, especially with the added saltiness of grated Parmesan cheese and buttery pine nuts.
She talked with butchers days before about the beef and veal she wanted to use. Obviously, the fresher the meat the better, but she also felt it important for them to know what she wanted: freshly ground chunks of beef and veal. Pre-ground beef wouldn't have the same flavor as the fresh stuff. And since meat wasn't something we ate often, this was important.
Making this stuffing for our Thanksgiving table was a way for her to bring her past together with her present — and with our future.
As a way to stretch the dish to feed more people and make it more filling, a couple handfuls of seasoned breadcrumbs made their way to the recipe. Some purists might be shocked at the addition of breadcrumbs to a meatball recipe, but for the stuffing variation, it make sense. Seasoned breadcrumbs help bring all the ingredients together before baking, and the seasoning adds a bit more flavor.
My mom tried her hand at American dishes like those yams and marshmallows in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, but ultimately couldn't and wouldn't let go of Italy. Making this stuffing for our Thanksgiving table was a way for her to bring her past together with her present — and with our future.
We appreciated her experiments, though, because it meant we might get peanut butter and jelly for lunch the next day instead of eyebrow-raising Italian lunches like potato croquettes, zucchini fritters with marinara dipping sauce, and pan-fried pasta leftovers. I hated them when I was a kid; I just wanted to be American and eat regular American food. But those lunches and the once-a-year Italian stuffing are exactly the meals I crave now when the memories and missing become too much. They can only be softened and celebrated in one way: with food.
Sicilian Meatball Stuffing
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 bunch celery, finely chopped
1 large white onion, finely chopped
6 cloves garlic, thickly sliced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3 1/2 pounds ground beef
12 ounces ground veal
1 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup golden raisins, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes, then drained
1 bay leaf (optional)
3/4 cup dry red wine
2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 1/2 cups Italian-style breadcrumbs
1 large egg
Freshly ground black pepper
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350°F. Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium-low heat until shimmering. Add the celery, onions, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 4 to 5 minutes.
Add the beef and veal and cook, breaking up the meat into small pieces, until cooked through and browned. Add the pine nuts, parsley, raisins, and bay leaf if using. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pine nuts are lightly toasted, about 3 minutes.
Increase the heat to high. Once the ingredients start sizzling, add the wine and stir until reduced by half, 3 to 4 minutes.
Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and let cool until you can handle it with your hands. Add the cheese, breadcrumbs, and egg. Mix well until it forms a moist mixture. Season with salt and pepper as needed. Transfer to a 9x13-inch or 3-quart baking dish. Bake until heated through and golden-brown on top, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve immediately.
- Make ahead: The unbaked stuffing can be covered tightly and refrigerated for up to 1 day. Let sit out at room temperature while the oven is heating.
- Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to 2 days.