Back when I was a seven-year-old addicted to Europop, "The Sign" by Ace of Base was one of my favorite songs. I had a lot of tapes back then that I would listen to on the little boom box my dad kept on his work bench in the garage, but for whatever reason I never had this song. I would occasionally tune to the radio in the hope of catching it being played, an event which would become more and more rare as the years passed. At some point, a few years later, I did finally get it (on tape or CD, I can't even remember), and I quickly wore it out. But you know what happened? I got so sick of it. What had remained fresh for so long because of how rare and special it was quickly became irretrievably stale. To this day I still can't listen to it the way I can listen to other classics of that era.
I worry that something similar could happen with this recipe. Every year, forever, my mom has made this cornbread stuffing for Thanksgiving. I had never had it on any other day. I had never really known the specifics of how it was made. And it was always so special and looked-forward-to because we all knew that it was coming, that a fixed quantity would be made, and that once that was gone it would be another year before we could have it again.
But this year, Jeffrey came to Thanksgiving at my house for the first time. And he, too, loved the cornbread stuffing. He loved it so much that he insisted that my mom give us the recipe. I was unsure---why would you make stuffing on any day other than Thanksgiving?---but he insisted that he wanted it again, and soon. My mother was also unsure; having made it by feel for so long, she had no idea how to quantify it into a recipe. But she wrote it out for us, and we took it home to Chicago, and I hid it away in a drawer for as long as I could.
So I warn you---use this recipe wisely.
Chicken Cornbread Stuffing (or Dressing, if you're my mom)
For the Cornbread:
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 cup milk
1/4 cup canola oil
Preheat the oven to 400F and grease a 9 x 9 in casserole (I use a 9 in round springform pan).
Stir all ingredients together well, pour in pan and bake for 30 mins.
For the Stuffing:
You can use as much chicken as you want---we usually use chicken leg quarters, about three of them, but I think my mom often uses a whole chicken which makes it chicken-ier. However much you choose to use, boil the parts in water with salt (and other stock ingredients if you want, but it's not necessary) until the chicken is cooked through, about twenty minutes. Take the chicken out of the stock, pull the meat off the bone, and discard the skin and bones (or, if you're like us, save to make more stock).
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350F and grease a large casserole dish (we use a ceramic Emile Henry Dutch oven). Saute 1/2 cup of onion (about half of a large onion or a medium) and 1/2 cup celery (about two stalks) until tender. When all components are complete, crumble the cornbread into a bowl, add the chopped chicken, the onion and celery, and enough stock to moisten it. This is where experience really comes in---you want it wet enough that it's not dry, but not soggy or soupy. Finally, season to taste with poultry seasoning and salt and pepper. (My mom suggests 1 tbsp of poultry seasoning, but I have to warn you: every year, she complains before it's been cooked that she has added too much seasoning, but when it comes out everyone loves it. I've never had it with too much, so don't skimp.) If you're assembling it ahead of time (like, for a large family gathering on a major holiday), heed her directions to bake it for an hour. But if, like us, you're just making it for dinner, just cook it until browned a bit on top, about 15 or 20 minutes.