Thursday, December 11, 2014

America Recycles Day at PHL

Stephanie Rukowicz
On November 13th, in anticipation of America Recycles Day, Philadelphia International Airport organized and hosted many different local groups to present different methods of recycling to travelers and airport employees at the food court in Terminal B/C.

Benjamin Cromie, Master Gardener and consultant to the PHL recycling program, invited the Master Gardeners to set up a table at the event to talk about composting as a way to recycle food and yard waste. Ilana Grubin and I attended the event on behalf of the Master Gardeners and were pleasantly surprised by the number of employees and travelers who stopped by our table and took the time to talk with us about how to get started or to troubleshoot any issues they might be having.

Ilana showed off the compost sample from her at home bin.

The attendees had wide range of composting experience, from those who weren't sure what composting was, to others that already had a successful system in place. We talked to residents and assured them that yes, it is possible to compost in the city. The at home composting methods we talked about included:
  • Prefabricated compost bins - Earth machines, tumblers
  • Pile system - no equipment needed
  • DIY bin system - create out of garbage cans or free pallets
  • Vermicomposting - can be done indoors
  • Trench composting - bury your food waste to improve your soil
 We promoted the city's yard waste recycling sites and also talked with a few people about the city's hearing on food waste recycling that took place the day before (Nov. 12th). The Philadelphia Prison System had a table next to us, and they were also talking about food waste recycling through composting, and the work they do at their facilities to divert tons of food waste from the garbage stream. Note that they offer free finished compost for pick up. The compost they make consists of food waste from prepared foods and wood chips from a neighborhood tree removal service.

Curby, the Streets Department Recycling
mascot, made an appearance at PHL.
The Streets Department had the most
popular table, as they were giving away

free blue curbside bins.
Here are some links with info about the city's hearing:
 Although curbside food waste pick up (like that found in San Francisco) might be a long way off for Philadelphia, there are options for city residents who want to recycle their food waste, but aren't interested in maintaining an at home system:
  • Bennett Compost offers $15/month weekly curbside pick up
  • The Dirt Factory is open to University City residents twice weekly for drop off
  • The Compost Coop is open to Fishtown and Kensington residents for an annual membership fee of $25-$50 for drop off, included in the fee is finished compost

For more information on composting:

For more on the extent of food waste in our garbage:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Community Orchard Planting

~ Rebecca B. Frimmer

On a beautiful November sunny day with a brisk autumn breeze, I had the opportunity to volunteer with Philadelphia Orchard Project to plant the beginnings of an urban food forest in Gorgas Park, in Roxborough.  The orchard was going to be a joint community urban farming effort between Philadelphia Orchard Project (POP) and Roxborough’s Northlight Community Center, and Teens 4 Good.  The Gorgas Park property borders the fence of Roxborough High School, and the gate to the orchard is right next to the school, with hopes that the biology classes will get involved.  Penn State Extension Master Gardeners have taken on the role of helping to maintain some of these new urban orchards in their neighborhood parks.


Last year, the Extension Philadelphia Master Gardener class hosted Phil Forsyth, the Executive Director of Philadelphia Orchard Project, to teach about fruit trees, and ask for Master Gardener trainees to come volunteer at their plantings or even be a liaison for a new orchard.  Liasions for POP take on a volunteer role to help organize orchard maintenance and volunteer days, keeping on top of communications between the community organization's host site and POP.  POP has planted over 35 orchards – almost 700 fruit trees, not to mention thousands of shrubs, vines and perennials.  From persimmons to hazelnuts, POP isn’t shy about planting interesting and delicious fruit and nut varieties that are not widely commercially produced in our region. It is really exciting to introduce people to elderberries and kiwi berries while also seeing their delight in delicious favorites like apples and raspberries. 

Many of the Master Gardener trainees participated in the orchard planting behind the horticulture center in Fairmount Park last year. That Food Forest will be maintained by the Master Gardeners along with their Edible and Pollinator Demonstration gardens nearby. 

For more information:
Food Forest Horticulture Center     Food Forest Horticulture Center Part 2            

It all came full circle last Saturday at the orchard planting.  At the outset, all three community organizations shared their missions with us, followed by a tree planting demonstration, and then the planting itself.  The morning culminated in a group of a dozen happy volunteers proud of their plantings, sharing soft pretzels and local apples, looking forward to seeing the next phase of the food forest in the spring.  At that time, POP will come back and plant the understory of herbs and perennials to truly make this orchard site into a food forest.   

The Orchard Planting:

Philadelphia Orchard Project’s Executive Director Phil kicks off the day by offering a tree planting lesson.  We dug wide holes 2-3 times the width of each plant pot, and matched the depth to the current planting depth of the plant in its pot.  The orchard site and volunteers are watching the lesson here:

As you can see here, Phil is removing some of the topsoil because the tree is planted too deep.  He’s pulling the topsoil back to just above where the main root branches horizontally. Sometimes nurseries can even plant too deeply, when planting a tree its important that the depth is right, many novices have a tendency to plant just a little too deep for optimal results.

Once we were finished planting all of the fruit trees inside the gate, and berry bushes around the perimeter, we spread mulch around all of the fresh plantings, with a well to hold some water.  Here, Corrie Spellman, Teens 4 Good farmer who will be managing the site, gets ready to spread some mulch.  The volunteers also helped water in these new trees.


The orchard included Asian Pears, Currants, Raspberries, Blueberries, Sweet Cherries and Sweet Goumi. I’ve never had a Goumi berry before, but supposedly they are a sweet and sour red berry that is very high in Vitamin A & E and has the highest lycopene content of any food – even more than tomatoes!  I am looking forward to sampling some Goumi in the spring.

A Little More About The Orchard Hosts:

Philadelphia Orchard Project: The Philadelphia Orchard Project plants orchards in the city of Philadelphia that grow healthy food, green spaces and community food security. POP works with community-based groups and volunteers to plan and plant orchards filled with useful and edible plants.

Teens4Good: Teens 4 Good, a program of the Federation of Neighborhood Centers, is a youth-led entrepreneurial farm and nutrition business that transforms vacant lots into urban farms, improving access to healthy food for communities, creating meaningful jobs for at-risk youth and empowering youth to become healthy responsible stewards and leaders who give back to their communities.

Northlight Community Center: Their mission is to enable people of all ages and abilities in our communities, especially those most in need, to reach their full potential as productive and responsible citizens through initiatives that support and enrich children, teens, and families.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

For The Birds...

Jessica S. Herwick...

One of the more interesting signs that the weather is turning is the behavioral changes of my back yard birds.  The robins and finches that frequented my garden all spring and summer, pleasantly nibbling at insects and seeds, arrive now in flocks of a dozen or more.  They form alliances.  Although I have no evidence of this except my own observations, I am pretty sure they are grumpier, less tolerant, and more likely to fight among themselves.  I swear, you've not seen angry birds until you've seen cute little robins turn and fight over the last of my raspberries.  This is how I am certain that temperatures are taking a dive and thus begin to set out the feeders.
I don’t put feeders in my yard through the warmer months of the year because I find my garden and backyard habitat offer enough nutrition for wildlife.  

Now that we are putting our gardens to bed, tending to trees and placing pumpkins on porches, consider that there are many species of wild birds that stay the winter and brave the weather along with the rest of us Philadelphians. The change of season means big changes for all living things - including wildlife.
Juncos and cardinals struggle with some of the same troubles we humans face in the hard freeze of January. Days grow shorter, nights longer and colder; the garden that had until recently overflowed with berries, vegetables, seeds and other preferential food sources have been shut down, hidden by the snow, or frozen under thick layers of ice. The insect population disappears.

Unless you’re lucky enough to live among a forest of evergreens, optimal conditions for shelters are gone.  Old nests may need reinforcements.  Water becomes more difficult to find.  Then, of course, unpredictable storms arrive with high winds and wintery mixes.  To make matters worse, birds are warm blooded.  In order to survive, a bird must maintain a body temperature within a certain range.  They might be seen fluffing up to create warm pockets of air within their feathers or standing on one leg at a time, warming the other by pulling it in towards their body.  Sound familiar?  Well, all but the insect eating.

According to the Penn State Extension Wildlife Outreach Center, more than 35 species of birds can be spotted at feeders throughout the winter months.  You can attract different species by putting out specific foods they are the most attracted to, and that often varies by species.  Birds have preferences in seed and delivery system.  Some like to peck at the ground or a flat surface; some like to perch in the air from hanging feeders.   They don't all eat the same things (although there are some shared favorites among species).

What type of seed you choose will indicate what sort of feeder you will use.  Those two choices, combined with the habitat surrounding your feeders, will dictate what birds you see.  

WARNING!  This can become an addictive pastime!  Once you experience a taste of success - luring certain species by placing the right feed into the right delivery system - you may find yourself ordering specialty seeds, designing your own bird feeders, and perching by your window for hours to catch a glimpse of the woodpecker you hear pecking away in the distance.

See this November-time robin munching on wild cherries in a Manayunk tree.  

So what’s the best way to support our feathered friends in the wintertime?  Allow me to introduce you to some simple options to get you started.   

You can purchase pre-mixed seed in small and large quantities.  Pre-mixes will usually tell you what birds you will attract with their "special mix" so it’s certainly a time-saver.  Pre-mixed seeds are a great place to start if you’ve never maintained a feeder.  It is also great once you’ve found a brand that works for you but it does take a little experimentation.  It will help if you can figure out what wild birds you already see in your surroundings.  Then, find a mixed seed that includes those species. 

All Natural Repurposed Wooden Feeders
By: Patrick W. McCloskey.  See me for orders!  
Read the labels before you purchase, especially with pre-mixes!  Most big name brands will list the types of seeds in the mix, recommendations for what sort of feeder to use, and an analysis of the nutrition content.  Watch out for unnecessary ingredients like food coloring, corn syrup, or fillers that keep the cost of the seed low.  

Fillers are cheap ways to increase the weight of the feed bag.   But because filler is completely unattractive to birds (and they do know the difference!) it is really just money wasted.  Some feeds may have vitamin enrichment.  (Most commonly seen on pre-mixed bags are vitamins D and A and those are okay.)     
Typically, the information label on your mixed seed will tell you the best types of feeders to use.  Mixed seeds can go into any feeder and work best in tube feeders or something similar, like the DIY bird feeder that a friend of mine makes by repurposing trees that are being cut for convenience in his neighborhood.  "My birds" love it! Notice the many perching options.

Delivery System:  Mixed seed can typically be used in most any bird feeder.  However, it's a good idea to check the label, as most mixes will recommend the best feeders for their seed.  

Who to expect for dinner:  When talking about purchased pre-mixed seed, you should expect the mix you purchase to attract the species of birds the package advertises.  Pre-mixes should help take the guesswork out of what to put out.  If the wild bird seed mix you purchased claims it will attract 7 types of birds, but you only ever see house finches, you should try a different seed mix.  Typically you'll see various ratios of species, but if it's a good seed mix, depending on your location, expect what they're selling or find another brand.   

SUNFLOWER SEEDS:  There are two types of sunflower seeds that are especially intriguing to a large number of bird species.  Purchasing a bag of 100% sunflower seed might be a little more expensive than the mixed seed, but it is attractive to a wide range of wild birds.  The high oil content of the seeds is an essential part of most wild winter bird diets because it provides them with energy to create body heat on cold days. 
Black Oil Sunflower Seed
Black Oil Sunflower Seed
Black oil sunflower is by far the number one choice of many birds. It has a higher oil content than the standard Mammoth sunflower seed.  Smaller birds like it because the softer shell is easier to crack open (as compared to the Big Mammoth sunflower seeds that have a tougher casing.)  Larger birds like them simply because they are sunflower seeds and they are delicious.

Big Mammoth Seed

Mammoth (or other common) Sunflower Seed

Big Mammoth sunflower seeds are the typical white and black striped seeds that we ourselves roast, salt and enjoy eating.  Birds use their beaks to crack the seed casing open and eat the seeds inside.  Some bird-feeding aficionados do not like the mess that all those hulls leave behind.  In that case, you can spend a few extra dollars to purchase pre-shelled 100% edible sunflower seed which leaves no mess at all. 

Delivery System: Hand Tossing, Platform Feeders, Hanging Feeders, Hopper Feeders, Tube Feeders (if the openings are large enough for seeds to fit through).  You can also purchase feeders just for sunflower seeds. 
Who to Expect for Dinner:  Chickadees, cardinals, all finches, grosbeaks.  

DISCLAIMER: I’m never surprised when I see an unusual or uncommon species at these seeds.  They really seem to be loved by most all birds.

Dark rice-like black nyjer seed, above, in a finch mix.
NYJER SEED (thistle):
Oftentimes referred to as thistle, nyjer is actually the dried seed of the nyjer plant, native to Ethiopia.  It looks a little like small grains of wild rice and offers a high concentration of protein and fat, desirable to cold weather feeding finches, juncos, mourning doves, and sparrows.  Most commonly known for luring all varieties of finches, Nyjer seeds bring color and a vibrant social life to your feeding stations.
Finch sock in action.

Delivery System:  Finch socks can be purchased where you find your bird feeding supplies.  Finch Socks are made from mesh or other fabric with small holes sewn up into a shape resembling a tube sock.  The socks are then filled with Nyjer until the seeds are pushing at the holes in the mesh.  Finch Socks usually come filled, ready to hang, and in a range of durable materials.  
Open finch sock
Most finch socks are refillable. When empty, if the birds haven’t completely destroyed the sock from picking at it, Finch Socks can be refilled and reused!  Nyjer can also be mixed with other seeds and placed in hanging or tube feeders.  Be warned:  house finches love Nyjer and may be tempted to nest in your eves or attic if you feed them regularly. 

Who to Expect for Dinner: Goldfinches, purple finches, pine siskins, juncos, mourning doves, and sparrows.  But mostly finches.

All natural, store-bought suet cakes fresh out of the wrapper. 
Suet is a high-quality rendered animal fat that birds are attracted to throughout the winter, especially those who eat insects as a primary food source. The fat helps keep them warm and provides the nutrients and oils that their bodies need.  Sometimes you can purchase suet from a butcher or grocery that has an on-site butcher.  Suet is typically set out in a mesh bag or a thick layering of cheesecloth and hung like a finch sock but it does have a tendency to break down quickly in its all natural state.  Suet will melt into an oily mess if there’s an unusually warm sunny day but there is a solution.
Above:  Suet cake in cages.

A much simpler, more sanitary way to deliver this incredibly beneficial food is by purchasing pre-made suet cakes. The cakes are basically the suet, sometimes with flavor (like peanut butter), pressed together with seeds or sometimes dried berries.  Pre-made cakes are treated so they do no melt when the weather gets warmer although I’ve never seen a suet cake last that long.  Once I put them out, the birds eat them up within 2 days.

I recommend reading the labels carefully for these pre-made products as well.  To make them look more attractive, or different when there’s a big selection of flavors, companies add corn syrup, food coloring, dyes, and other unnecessary ingredients that are of no interest to the birds.  Featured in the photos here are peanut butter and natural suet cakes which I find are most commonly additive free.  

Delivery System:  Specially designed suet cake cages can be purchased (usually for under $5.00).  You’ll find them alongside the selection of suet cakes at your hardware or home and garden store.  You can also cut the cakes into pieces and place them on your platform feeders.  If you really want to see a show, just place the whole cake on a platform feeder and observe the social behaviors of the birds.   

Who to Expect for Dinner:  Chickadees, titmice, finches, bluejays, cardinals, grosbeaks, nuthatches, woodpeckers, mockingbirds, orioles, wrens and warblers.  Although some of those are not abundant in our area, you never know!

See the below video for a peek at suet cake cages in action...

Dried mealworms.
Mealworms can be purchased alive and set out, still alive, for birds.  Insect eating songbirds especially love them.  I personally don’t like to buy anything living if I know I’m about to lead it to certain death.  Lucky for me, there are professionals doing that dirty work! Resealable bags of dried mealworms can be purchased at most home and garden stores.  This is an exceptional substitute for birds who rely on insects in their diets.  Mealworms are nutritious and the high protein and fat content of these little creepy crawlers provide the birds with a source of energy. 

Delivery Method:  Platform feeders are best and recommended by most seed companies.  I recommend using a platform feeder with high walls. Another option is to place feeders near fences or structures that will break the high winds.  Dried mealworms are very light and blow around easily.  Bluebirds love mealworms so you can use your bluebird feeders if you already have something special in your yard.  

Who to Expect for Dinner:  Robbins, woodpeckers, cardinals, bluejays, mockingbirds, tanagers, titmice, wrens, grosbeaks, nuthatches, bluebirds, and most other winter song birds. 

A Note About PEANUTS and CORN

There are a few interesting bird species that enjoy cracked corn or peanut hearts, both of which can be purchased as bird seed and appear often in mixed seed.  Although cardinals, doves, sparrows and other ground feeding birds will be drawn to these food sources, I warn you all out there, so are the squirrels!  City squirrels are notorious for attacking bird feeders to munch on the treats.  If there is a lot of peanut or corn in your mixed seed, you might have more than feathered guests to dinner.  

Other food sources like sunflower seed and suet will feed the same birds that enjoy peanuts but won’t be quite so attractive to the squirrels, although nothing is completely squirrel-proof.

Hint:  Sometimes (and only sometimes) squirrels will leave your feeding stations alone if you give them their own.  Dried corn on the cob, or even piles of peanuts laid out on a platform or squirrel feeder, placed far away from your bird feeders, may distract enough squirrels to prevent them from being destructive.  However, I do not recommend feeding the squirrels in the city.  They will become a pest much faster than you think. 


Consider Providing a Water Source. 

A water source doesn’t have to be a fancy marble carved birdbath. My neighbor who is an avid bird watcher keeps a heated birdbath in her yard through the winter and early spring.  It is an expensive system, but it certainly is pretty and keeps the water flowing!  I myself do not get quite so dramatic, but I do provide water. 

Most birds bathe by rubbing and fluffing themselves in dry dirt or sand.  But they need drinkable water to be present, especially when fresh sources are frozen solid. 

I have a large lid from an old garbage can that I keep upside down on the ground next to my feeders.  I place several rocks inside the lid.  On very cold days, I bring a small pitcher of water out and fill the lid to about 2” deep.  During the rest of the winter I keep my eye on where melting icicles or similar situations create puddles.  When there is nothing liquid to be seen, I fill the lid to be sure no one goes thirsty.  Pretty simple.

Consider Habitat and PREDATORS!?

Be sure to consider the habitat that surrounds your house and your feeders.  Birds need to perch and move around.  Consider the space you are working with and try to establish feeding station(s) in places that have a suitable habitat.  I hang my suet cages on my fence, where there’s plenty of room for everyone to find a perch.  Trees are important as well.  Even without leaves, birds enjoy hopping from branch to branch.  

Anything that simulates this type of situation, even twigs in a pile, can become a popular hang-out area.  The more wooded the area, the more likely you are to see more than a few species… and a few predators.  Especially in my city neighborhood, outdoor cats and feral cats will come creeping and snack on the birds you’ve lured to the feeders.  Consider the height of the feeders and the length of the grasses and shrubbery near your feeding station.  Don’t provide predators with hiding places.  As seen in the photos here, I didn’t cut my lawn soon enough and the neighbors feline snuggled right up to my feeders!

Want To Learn More?  
Penn State Extension 
Wildlife Outreach Center:  Winder Bird Feeding:  The Basics
** This publication includes a recipe for a simple bird feed you can make at home! **

Penn State Extension 
Landscaping for Wildlife: Wildlife Outreach Center Resources & Publications Page

Birdwatcher's Digest Home Page
This is a bi-monthly publication all about bird watching.  Whether you are an amateur just wondering what you're looking at through your window, or striving to reach genius expert levels with binoculars on-site, the Birdwatcher's Digest will have something of interest to you!   

Philadelphia Master Gardener Pollinator Garden………..The most beautiful garden in the park

Michele K Koskinen

Fairmount park and photography go hand in hand if you know where to go.
The Pollinator Garden in the spring and summer along with the Japanese Tea House are favorites. The fall has it's own pleasures as the trees are turning, the squirrels are scrambling for acorns, the bees and other insects are preparing for the cooler weather, and everything is quieting down.

On one morning recently I saw a woman and her dog walking toward the garden and she looked as if she had visited before. I was curious to hear what she liked about the garden.

Hi "Could you tell me about this garden?"

She replied "It is the most beautiful and my favorite garden in the park to visit in the summer, really all year."

Her name is Vanessa A. Hunter and she is the President of the National Association of Professional Women King of Prussia Chapter. I introduced myself as a Master gardener and part of the organization that provides the public with the two gardens here at the Horticulture Center. We chatted a bit and I found that she visits on a regular basis and loves to come and have quiet time, watch the butterflies and walk around the park.

We also talked about the Food Forest and she was excited about the fig and fruit trees that were installed. Originally from New Orleans she said she had grown up with a fig tree in her back yard.
We talked about how she would pick the ripe ones before the birds ate them and then her family making jam and how she missed it.
I replied " it's a food forest maybe she could learn to make jam here in her new home".

The garden is a success and the team of Master Gardeners should be applauded.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

STUFF IT! A Guide to Thanksgiving Compromises

~Jessica S. Herwick

We humans like to fill things up.  It’s true.  We stuff our pockets, backpacks, purses until they overflow. We can’t ignore holes in the lawn.  We fill grocery and garbage bags alike to the very top before we realize their weight.  Ever have to sit on your suitcase to zip it closed?  We’re all guilty of it in some way.  Many of us have competed with friends to fit the most of some small edible treat in our mouths.  I myself won the skittles contest we held on the wing of my college dorm during a blizzard.  Eighty-nine at one time!  It would’ve been 90 but I accidentally swallowed one. Why, exactly, we feel this impulse is unknown.  Personally, I believe scientists and sociologists will someday discover there is a gene - a stuffing gene - that compels us to fill empty spaces, like gangs of eternal optimists.  This primal urge doesn’t just apply to pockets and holes in the wall.  Our most favorite place to stuff is… well, you know where.
 Photo by Jared B. Herwick
Something about food filled with additional flavor and texture generates a feeling of adventure, decadence, and brings an overall unique quality to that eating experience.  Even a green olive becomes more intriguing with that little piece of pimento peeking out at you.  It would make sense, then, for the most special of meals, we go the extra mile to build those exact qualities into the feast.  As our traditions have evolved, so has our understanding of how food works.  There are a few questions out there that seem to arise annually, just about this time of year, when chefs and home cooks are planning out the big menu.  Really, it’s all about the stuffing, right?  Or do you call it dressing?

I set out this year in search of some answers and some solutions to the ever-evolving Thanksgiving debates.  Although I will not be able to help you with arguments about who’s going to win the big game, we might be able to settle a few other looming questions before that debate begins.  To help me out with this task, I enlisted the advice of Mike Chowansky, graduate of Johnson & Whales University, who lives with his wife and two children in Havertown and has over 10 years of experience in the Philadelphia food scene. He’s also most often the Thanksgiving Dinner chef, so he knows his turkeys.  According to Chowansky, “There are more recipes for stuffing than there are pizza shops in New York City.  It is the quintessential Thanksgiving dish that everyone makes, has a secret recipe for, and is used to judge the overall Thanksgiving feast.”  No wonder we take it so seriously!

A Little History…
Like gravy on mashed potatoes, stuffing has a long history of appearing on dining tables throughout centuries of celebratory banquets all over the world.  The earliest recorded mention of stuffing our food appears in the oldest cookbook on record, ‘Apicius de re Coquinaria’, as recorded by Roman gourmet Apicius, so we’ve been doing this for a very long time.  Somewhere around the 1st century AD, Apicius and other Romans were stuffing dormouse, hare, pig and chicken.  Stuffing recommendations such as herbs, nuts, spelt, chopped liver, and occasionally brains were part of these early recipes.  The Native Americans and Pilgrims most likely stuffed the first Thanksgiving turkey, but according to assumptions by specialists, they used herbs and vegetables (most likely onions), to fill the cavity and flavor the meat.  It was not meant to be a separate dish for consumption.

The Bedouins may take the cake… or the camel as the case may be… for the most outrageously aggressive stuffing recipe in history, the Traditional Bedouin Stuffed Camel.  Yes, you heard that right... a camel.  According to legend, and a few travelers who claim to have witnessed such feasts, the traditional wedding dish served at the marriages of sheiks and of their family members was a whole camel, stuffed to unbelievable proportions and cooked for several days, much like a pig roast.  Mentioned by T.C. Boyle in Water Music, the Guinness Book of World Records as “the largest item in any menu in the world, occasionally served at Bedouin wedding feasts” and appearing on a “Breakfast Tips” card included with the remastered CD version of Pink Floyd’s album Atom Heart Mother, the recipe goes something like this.  Medium sized camel.  Skinned, trimmed and cleaned.  Stuffed with sheep - stuffed with seasoned bustards – stuffed with carp – stuffed with eggs and/or dates, and baked on hot coals for several days.’  Take that, Turducken!  

So Is It Dressing or Stuffing, Then?
According to the National Turkey Association, the terms stuffing and dressing can be used interchangeably.  I didn’t want to believe this was true.  So, once again, I sought out my expert.  And to my dismay, Chowansky agrees definitively, “Tomato, Tom(ah)to.  Stuffing.  Dressing.  It’s all the same!”  Whether you are passing the dressing or the stuffing, they are both “used to fill the cavity of the bird.  Dressing comes to us from the much more refined folks living below the Mason Dixon Line.  They wouldn’t be caught dead saying stuffing.  That was much too common.”  So, there you have it. This is a personal decision having nothing to do with where the filling cooked, but where the cook was born and raised.

To Stuff or Not To Stuff…
Photo By Jared B. Herwick
No matter what you call it, where you put it does matter, and will dictate the timing of your meal.  You’ve heard the warnings and concerns regarding the potential food safety issues related to cooking your stuffing inside your turkey.  

FACT – Turkeys and other animals contain bacteria that will make us humans sick.  The bacteria dies at certain temperatures, which is why we are so careful about cooking them. 

FACT:  These bacteria, especially those living in the turkey before you cook it, love your grandma’s stuffing as much as you do.  You may wish to bathe in it, but the bacteria don’t have to wish, they soak in it - at least until everything reaches 165°F.  And that means everything, right down to the center of the stuffing inside the cavity.  

Mike says it’s safer and tastier to cook them separately.  The culinary artist in him says, “I would never stuff a bird.  You have to cook it much longer when stuffed to properly heat and kill the bacteria that was living in the bird and that now resides in your stuffing.  Longer cooking time equals dry bird.”

Ready to Separate the Bread from the Bird? 
If you’re ready to start new stuffing... or dressing... traditions, and you're ready to roast the bird all by himself, consider these tasty tricks and compromises. 
*  Place fresh herbs such as sage, marjoram, thyme, rosemary or even thin slices of lemon if you like citrus directly under the skin of the bird before you put it in the oven to cook. 
*  When you make your stuffing, adding an egg (if you don’t already) will keep the bread moist and fluffy. 
*  If you miss that “wet stuffing” texture, try covering the stuffing with foil as soon as it’s finished baking to create a tight seal.  Do not remove until you serve.  The foil will condense and lock in moisture, increasing that “wet” feel as if it’s come from the bird (although you are giving up those crispy little ends.)  If left standing too long it can get soggy.  Keep your eye on it!   

Not Quite Ready? 
If you’re steadfast in your stuffing/dressing/filling traditions, know that the safe-zone for internal temperature is 165°F, for turkey AND the very center of the inserted filling.  See the following links for information on the USDA and National Turkey Association pages to ensure you’re meeting safety standards!  Always use a meat thermometer, and ensure the thermometer is calibrated.

Penn State Extension Publication:  Safe Turkey Handling Practices

National Turkey Federation Homepage:

Consider Putting It Somewhere Else Entirely!
I’m a vegetarian, so I agree with Mike, but for my own completely selfish reasons.  Keep the stuffing separate.  I can’t eat it if it’s come out of the bird (even if I secretly want slap it on my plate and slather it with turkey gravy).  I realize that’s a lot to ask at times, depending on whose table I’m joining. I often bring my own.  

So many traditional dishes all over the world stuff some form of pepper or other sturdy vegetable common to the various regions.  Spanish, Mexican, Mediterranean, Indian, Middle Eastern and Romanian cuisines all brag their own special blends of grains, herbs, spices and meats for their traditional stuffed vegetable dishes.  From dolma to pimientos rellenos, there’s quite literally a whole world of recipes out there to fill your fruits and veggies.  This time of year it seems most of the fruits and veggies in autumn harvest are practically cooking vessels by design.  
Over the years, I have experimented with a variety of recipes like this, seeking to replace some of those familiar comforts of the Thanksgiving feast without forgoing all the comfort.  Veggies are delicious, but they aren’t very cozy all by themselves.  With the debates about the food safety issues presented by our modern holiday habit of filling the raw turkey and cooking the stuffing inside, I thought it might be time to share some of my more refined recipes for bacteria-free stuffed fare and encourage all you chefs out there to consider a shift in your perspective on Thanksgiving stuffing.  You don’t HAVE to stuff the bird.  You don’t HAVE to stuff an animal at all!  Go ahead and remove that apple from the piggy’s mouth, carve it out, and put something delicious in there. 

The food is the casing, the insides that you dig out become part of the recipe, can at times be set aside for later use (like roasting your squash seeds), or go right back into your compost pile.  No waste.  At the end of the meal, if anything remains of your apples, squashes and peppers, you can rinse the remnants well and place them into the compost pile as well!  I like to think of it as eco-thankful!  And in a way, a return to tradition.  It’s easy to appreciate the sustenance of the harvest when the beauty of the pumpkins, peppers and apples are roasted and set on the table in their colorful original form.  This is much closer to the way our ancestors thought about and utilized their food back on that fateful day in Plymouth.  Neither Native American nor Colonist was interested in wasting any part of the food that would soon become scarce.  They might have stuffed their fowl with onions and garden herbs instead of bread cubes, but they utilized every possible piece.  I often wonder this time of year what the first people who sat for that Thanksgiving feast would think of our modern grocery stores and walk-in freezers.

Here are some of my favorite recipes that would not only fit right in at your holiday table, but have definite potential to become a traditional feasting favorite.  Prepare to hear requests when the next holiday rolls around.  It’s all stuffed!

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Bread Pudding Stuffed Apples (Serves 4)

List of Ingredients:  
4 large, crisp apples (carved and insides diced).  1 egg slightly beaten.  1 cup milk or half and half.  1 cup 1-inch moist bread cubes (one-inch cubes best).  2 tsp Vanilla.  3 tbs cinnamon.  1 tbs dried sage.  1 tbs   ¼ teaspoon nutmeg.  ¼ teaspoon cardamom.  1/8 tsp salt.  ½ cup brown sugar.  ¼ cup raisins (optional).  Muffin Tin.  Butter for greasing tin.

List of Instructions:  Preheat oven to 300°F

Prepare the Apple:  Cut apples at top like a jack-o-lantern.  Gently cut out most of the cores and set aside for compost.  Be sure to leave the bottom ½” of the core at the bottom as support for the body of the apple.  Gently cut or carve out the meat inside the apple making a cavern for the batter, leaving a thick layer of meat (at least ¼” thick) against the skin.  Set apple pieces aside, and chop into small pieces to add to batter.  Rub the skin of the apple lightly with olive or vegetable oil and place in muffin tin for support while baking. 

Prepare the Stuffing:    Combine all above ingredients in a bowl.  Stir until well blended with a wooden spoon or spatula. Do not use a mixer for this. Continue folding until bread cubes soak up the liquid and begin to break apart.  Allow batter to sit for a few minutes until all the liquid is completely soaked up and batter is fluffy.  Fill each apple half-way and sprinkle a little brown sugar on top.  Place in oven.  Bake until apple is soft (but not falling apart) and the stuffing rises and is no longer runny.  Serve warm with a dollop of whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. 

Cook’s Notes:  This batter expands to almost double in size.  Consider this when filling your apples!  Sometimes it is easier to use a fifth apple to make the diced apple portion.  Depends on how good you are at carving out the meat.  I always keep and extra apple set aside when making this.  For grown-up deserts, you can substitute Baileys, Kahlua or Cask and Cream for the milk.   

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Pumpkin Pie Stuffed Roasted Pumpkin (Serves 4)

List of Ingredients: 4 mini-baking pumpkins about 4 inches in diameter.  If your mini pumpkins are 5-6 inches in diameter, double the recipe and bake what remains in muffin tin or custard cups.  8 oz cream cheese softened.  1/3 cup brown sugar, 1 egg plus 1 additional yolk.  1/3 cup pumpkin puree.  1 teaspoon vanilla.  1 tsp cinnamon.  ¼ tsp sage.  ¼ tsp cardamom.  ¼ tsp nutmeg.  (1/4 tsp cloves.  I leave them out due to certain allergic reactions cloves can cause).

List of Instructions:  Preheat oven to 350°F

Prepare the Pumpkin:  Cut top off and gut like a jack-o-lantern, leaving a thick layer of the pumpkin meat to support the frame.  Set seeds aside to be roasted later on.  

Rub the outside & tops of the pumpkins with vegetable oil. Set in lightly oiled baking dishes for support.

Prepare the Stuffing:  Mix the cream cheese, sugar, egg and yolk until they form a soft paste.  Add pumpkin, vanilla, herbs & spices and continue to mix until smooth and well blended. Pour mixture into hollowed out pumpkins about halfway (2/3 if the pumpkins are closer to 6”)  Bake in oven until filling rises and sets like a cheesecake, about 25-30 minutes.  Remove from oven.  Chill for at least an hour before serving.  Top with whipped cream and pieces of shortbread pie-crust cookies. 
Cook’s Notes:  This batter will expand to at least double in size (if not more before it cools and settles).  


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Fancy Cheese Stuffed Cherry Hot Peppers (or any pepper) (serves 4)

List of Ingredients:  12-16 (depending on size) small to medium sized cherry hot peppers, fresh. 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, 6-8 oz. goat cheese.  ½ cup soft bread cubes diced.  3 tbs vegetable broth.  1 tbs fresh oregano chopped.  1 tbs fresh parsley, chopped.  ¼ tsp ground pepper.  ¼ tsp ground sea salt.  

*You can add 1/4 cup vegetarian crumbles or cooked, ground beef to these. I like them without.
List of Instructions:  Preheat oven to 375°F

Prepare the Cherry Hot Peppers:  Cut the top off the peppers and scrape out seeds and pithy white insides.  Peppers can be cut at the top or down the middle.  Rinse peppers and dry.  Set each pepper in a muffin tin, or line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.  Rub the peppers inside and out with olive oil and set on baking sheets.

Prepare the Stuffing:  Combine bread cubes, vegetable broth and parmesan.  Stir until the bread breaks down and blends into itself.  Add goat cheese, oregano, parsley, salt and pepper.  Stir until well combined.  Fill cherry red peppers on baking sheets.  Sprinkle bread crumbs over the tops.  You can also use parmesan or mozzarella if you're playing with flavors.  Bake for 15-20 minutes until edges of peppers are soft and starting to crisp on the edges, topping is turning golden brown, and mixture is no longer bubbling heavily.  Let stand for 5 minutes and serve. 

Cook’s Notes:  When preparing the cherry red hot peppers, USE GLOVES!  Also, if you can work in a well-ventilated area, you should.  As soon as the seeds hit water and you continue to agitate the pepper releasing those oils, the fumes will cause skin, nose, eye and even throat reactions.  I like to serve the cherry hots with a little sour cream on the side for those who don't enjoy the good burn of a hot pepper quite as much as I do. 

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Soup in a Gourd (or Pumpkin) (serves 4)

List of Ingredients:  One very large baking pumpkin, hubbard squash or butternut squash.  4 small shallots, diced.  1 small apple, peeled, cored and diced (no more than 1 cup diced).  1 large clove garlic, diced.  1-2 cups vegetable broth (start with 1 cup and add depending on size of gourd).  1/2 cup heavy cream.  1tbs unsalted butter.  4 - 8oz goat cheese.  2 tbs fresh chopped sage.  2 tbs fresh chopped thyme. 2 tbs fresh chopped parsley.  1 tbs kosher salt.  1 tsp. ground black pepper.  Casserole dish to support pumpkin(s).  Emersion mixer.  Vegetable oil to rub pumpkin skin and top and grease casserole dishes.   
List of Instructions:  Preheat oven to 375 °F

Prepare Pumpkin as you would for a jack-o-lantern.  Gut, set seeds aside, leave as much meat as possible lining the edges of the pumpkin.

Prepare the soup:  Place broth, cream, apples, garlic, shallots, butter, salt and pepper directly into the pumpkin and stir lightly.  Place top back on pumpkin and bake in oven for 1 1/2 hours.  Remove from oven.  Stir gently.  Add goat cheese, sage, thyme, parsley and use a soup spoon to gently scrape the now softening pumpkin meat into the soup (careful not to dig too deep or cut through the pumpkin).  Stir, place top back on pumpkin and return to oven to bake for another 25-30 minutes.  Remove from oven, using emersion mixer, blend the contents directly inside the pumpkin (again, careful not to compromise the pumpkin shell) until it becomes a creamy, smooth liquid.  Serve immediately (in bread bowls if you have the time!)

Cooks Notes:  If you are reserving the pumpkin seeds, they make a great garnish all roasted up!
Click the link to connect to the Winter Squash Seed blog for a how-to.  

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