Everyone has their favourite part of a traditional roast. Whether it's a crispy wing or leg, a Yorkshire pudding, bread sauce or pigs in blankets, a Sunday lunch or a Christmas meal would be incomplete without it. For many people, that crucial ancillary dish is stuffing. That herby, pungent mixture that doesn't seem to be a whole lot of anything yet can bring such intense flavours to the plate.
As Christmas is a time really to go overboard on the side dishes (on top of everything else), it is pretty much mandatory that stuffing features on your menu, whether or not you are a fan. And shame on you if you're planning to sneak a packet of Paxo into your Christmas shopping trolley.
We've been guilty of laziness over the years with our stuffing, whether that's making do with adding water to grey powders, having our heads turned by strange innovations (Nigella's gingerbread stuffing, anyone?) or letting Delia and Waitrose take the strain with a stuffing "kit", when rustling up a fresh stuffing is actually incredibly cheap and easy. You can even prepare it the evening before, meaning all you need to do on the big day is stick it in the oven.
It's called "stuffing" because it is traditional to stuff the meat with whatever concoction you should choose. However, these days chefs tend to disagree over whether the stuffing should be put inside the meat or cooked separately, either in a baking dish or rolled up in balls on a tray.
"I prefer to put it inside the meat as it gets all the flavours from the animal when it's cooking," says Vincent Menager, head chef at The Balcon in St James's, London. While this method can certainly result in a tasty stuffing, it is not without its drawbacks. Raymond Blanc is one chef who believes that stuffing should be cooked separately from the meat. "It allows you to cook your meat and stuffing correctly," he argues. "If you were to stuff the cavity of your bird and cook them together, you would need to overcook the bird to enable enough heat to reach the stuffing."
Simon Wadham, head chef at the Rivington Grill in east London, also recommends approaching stuffing meat with caution. "Cooking stuffing inside the bird has been given a bad name over the years with people not doing it properly and getting salmonella and that type of thing. You've really got to know what you're doing."
Other than ensuring your stuffing is cooked correctly, there are few other rules when it comes to its constituent parts. Try new herbs and flavours and don't shy away from using a different meat in the stuffing from the one you're roasting. There are no hard, fast rules here. "A little bit of pork belly in your goose stuffing mix will not only add flavour, but the fat will add moisture to the stuffing," says Blanc.
So, what flavours go with each type of meat? "Sage goes very well with all poultry – it brings some very nice flavours to it," Menager says. "Rosemary or something a bit spicier goes nicely with beef. With lamb, I like to go for nuts, perhaps walnuts or almonds, or something a bit sweeter like apricots. Pork goes well with apple and cinnamon."
With so much potential for injecting different flavours into your roasts, it's time that stuffing started to get the attention it deserved and stopped being relegated to a culinary afterthought – or outsourced to supermarket chefs. "Stuffing can transform a simple roast into something extraordinary!" Blanc enthuses. "By adding all sorts of different spices, fruits and nuts to your stuffing, you will succeed in bringing a little extra flavour and texture to your meal."
Classic stuffing (suitable for Turkey)
By Vincent Menager, head chef at The Balcon
175g diced peeled onion
5g chopped garlic
Half a bunch of fresh sage (sliced very thinly)
1kg sausage meat
375g Cumberland sausage
To serve with a turkey for Christmas, just add:
100g dried cranberry
Mix all ingredients together, roll in plastic wrap (clingfilm is fine) and steam for 20 minutes. You can also cook it in a terrine dish in a bain-marie at 170C for 45 minutes depending on the size of the dish.
By Simon Wadham, head chef at the Rivington Grill
125g cleaned chicken livers
115g sausage meat
1 small onion, diced
Small bunch of sage
65g Japanese breadcrumbs (such as panko)
Salt and pepper
Sauté the chicken livers in a hot pan until just cooked. Add the port and reduce right down to a glaze.
In a separate pan, melt the butter and slowly cook the diced onion until soft and almost opaque. Add the sage, and cook for a little longer. Add the breadcrumbs, mix together over a low heat until combined. The breadcrumbs should soak up all the butter. Remove from the heat, and allow to cool. Mix in the sausage meat, and then the chicken livers. Fold them in gently to maintain good texture. Place the stuffing mix into a suitably sized baking dish and put in the oven for a further 10-15 minutes at about 160C.
Chestnut, walnut and fig stuffing for goose
By Raymond Blanc, chef patron at Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons
300g sausage meat, coarse textured
75g (half) goose liver, roughly chopped (optional)
40g (1) goose heart, roughly chopped (optional)
150g chestnuts cooked, roughly chopped
75g figs, dried, roughly chopped
25g walnuts, shelled, roughly chopped
40g cranberries, dried
30g breadcrumbs, brown, and 50ml whole milk, soaked together for 30 minutes
1 medium egg
1g allspice, ground
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Mix all of the ingredients together and season with salt, pepper and allspice. (To check the seasoning, make a small patty with some of the stuffing. Pan-fry it and taste.) Roll the stuffing tightly in tin foil, twisting the ends of the tin foil to seal into a large sausage shape. Cook in the preheated oven at 180C for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and reserve in a warm place until needed.
Raymond Blanc's Christmas Feast will be airing on BBC2 over Christmas