I’m at the stage in my life when the holiday traditions of my childhood are shifting. With three extended families and just a handful of holidays per year, it’s impossible to eat all of my favorite dishes with the people who make them best.
On my second Thanksgiving with my now in-laws, my father-in-law—the designated cook of my husband’s family—invited me to cook Thanksgiving dinner with him. We divided the work up between us for the following few years, each time with different turkey, stuffing and dessert recipes. He and I liked to experiment, so with the blessing of our trusting family, we brought a little change to a holiday meal where tradition means everything.
One year when my father-in-law and I were deciding on a stuffing recipe, he alerted me that we were expecting a few vegetarians at dinner. This parameter became a gift, as it gave me an excuse to bring back one of my long-lost Thanksgiving favorites: mushrooms.
Whenever I spent Thanksgiving with my mom, I could always count on eating her mushrooms with wild rice. Apart from her turkey with roasting juices (never gravy), my mom’s rice was my favorite dish on her Thanksgiving menu. It was salty, savory and comforting in the same way that a belly-warming risotto might be. I remember it vividly, even though it’s been six years since the last time I had it.
I channeled those flavors into my vegetarian stuffing that year, and combined mushrooms, rye bread, mushroom broth and vegetable broth into my baking pan. My in-laws accepted it, as they did all of my dishes—but I knew I could improve on it. Since then, I’ve spent the last few falls working out its kinks—transforming it into a Mushroom and Leek Stuffing I could serve proudly.
My stuffing works best with salted butter (for its ease in building flavor) and a round loaf of supermarket bakery bread. A squishy sourdough with a thin, crispy crust works perfectly.
The bread gets dried in a low oven (a step that can be done a day—or even longer—in advance), as each layer of flavor gets built in stages. The mushrooms get pan fried in butter over high heat to develop a crust, while the leeks get a more gradual sweat. With a little balsamic vinegar and a generous helping of sage and thyme, the savory base of the stuffing is complete.
In they go with vegetable broth, eggs and a generous dotting of butter. A low oven temperature with a foil covering ensures gentle steaming, while a final 15-minute blast with no covering builds a crisp, toasty crust.
Keeping my vegetarian friends in mind, I like to serve the stuffing alongside my Vegetarian Apple Cider Gravy. The sweetness of the gravy offers a refreshing bite to the smooth, salty and rich flavors of the stuffing.
Even though I worked out this stuffing with Thanksgiving in mind, I also like to serve it for a slow Sunday Dinner. With a roast chicken and a fennel salad to go with it (sorry, vegetarians), it’s become a fall staple in my home. Hopefully it can become one of yours, too.
Mushrooms, sage and thyme give this vegetarian stuffing a rich heartiness perfect for Thanksgiving or any fall Sunday Dinner. By cooking the mushrooms at high heat with minimal stirring, they crisp up and develop a deep, nutty flavor. Though you could certainly serve the stuffing with a savory gravy, I recommend pairing it with something sweet like cranberry sauce or my Vegetarian Apple Cider Gravy. A handful of dried cherries or cranberries right before baking would also be delicious.
Mushroom & Leek Stuffing
1 1-lb loaf of bread*, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 12 loosely packed cups)
1 lb cremini mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced (about 6 cups)
1 leek, white and light green part only, slit lengthwise and sliced into half moons (about 2 cups)
2 cups vegetable broth
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
7 1/2 tbsp salted butter, separated, plus more for greasing the baking dish
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, separated
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
3/4 tsp dry sage, separated
3/4 tsp dry thyme, separated
1/2 tsp Kosher salt, plus a couple of extra pinches
*I always use round loaves of bread from the bakery section of my grocery store—preferably with a thin, crispy crust and spongy interior. For ease, texture and avoiding waste, leave the crust intact.
9 x 13-inch baking dish
large frying pan
Prepare the Bread
- Preheat oven to 300°F.
- Scatter the bread cubes on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 25 minutes, giving them a quick toss after the first 15 minutes.
- Test the bread’s doneness by pinching a cube with your thumb and forefinger.
- If it’s rock-solid, the bread is dry and ready.
- If it gives or crumbles, lower the oven to 250°F and bake for 10 minutes (this allows the bread to dry completely without making it brown or burn).
- Set the bread aside and allow it to cool.** You’ll hear a crackle here and there.
**You can dry out the bread cubes at least one day ahead. Once the bread has cooled, store it in an airtight container until read to use.
Prepare the Vegetables
- Fry the mushrooms in two batches. Place a large frying pan over high heat. Add 2 tbsp of the butter and 1/2 tbsp of the oil to the pan and swirl them around.
- When the butter and oil begin to sizzle with seltzer-like bubbles, add half of the mushrooms to the pan. Scatter a pinch of salt, 1/8 tsp of the sage and 1/8 tsp of the thyme over the mushrooms.
- Allow the mushrooms to fry undisturbed for 3 minutes (this will help them develop a crust). Toss the mushrooms and seasonings around and fry undisturbed for 3 more minutes. Toss again and fry for one last minute, stirring frequently. They should be fully cooked and crisp at the edges.
- Transfer the first batch of mushrooms to an extra-large bowl. Without washing the pan or turning off the heat, repeat steps 1-3.
- Meanwhile, place the sliced leeks in a small bowl of water to shed any dirt or sand. Drain the leeks in a colander.
- Transfer the second batch of mushrooms to the extra-large bowl. Without washing the pan or turning off the heat, turn the flame down to medium. Add 1 tbsp of the butter and 1 tbsp of the oil to the pan. The pan will be pretty brown by now.
- Immediately add the leeks and 1/2 tsp of salt to the pan. Stir the leeks around. The brown bits will quickly deglaze as the leeks shed their water.
- Sauté the leeks for 10-12 minutes, or until wilted and softened. Pour the balsamic vinegar into the pan, and stir the leeks around for 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the leeks to the extra-large bowl.
- Toss the leeks and mushrooms with 1/2 tsp of the sage and 1/2 tsp of the thyme.***
***You can store the vegetables in the refrigerator overnight. Remove them from the refrigerator one hour before proceeding with the following steps.
Prepare the Stuffing
- Preheat oven to 325°F.
- Grease a 9×13-inch baking dish with a pat of butter.
- Toss the bread cubes with the mushrooms, leeks and seasonings.
- Pour the beaten eggs and vegetable broth into the bowl and toss to coat. The liquids may pool at the bottom at first, but keep tossing. The bread will absorb the liquids and become a little soggy.
- Scrape the bread mixture into the greased baking dish.
- Rearrange the bread cubes so they’re evenly distributed. Cut the remaining 2 1/2 tbsp butter into small bits and dot them over the top.
- Loosely cover the baking dish with foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil, raise the heat to 425°F, and bake uncovered for an additional 15 minutes.
- Remove the stuffing from the oven and allow it to cool for 25 minutes before serving.