Thanksgiving is the big deal food holiday in our national calendar. Yes, lots of other holidays have food traditions surrounding the celebrations, but for Thanksgiving the food is the celebration. Take away Thanksgiving dinner and all you’ve got left is football. No NFL for the Pilgrims – they were thankful for the bounty of the harvest.
However, there is a vocal minority who feel that that as central as the Thanksgiving meal is, the leftovers are just as significant (or even more so). Reheated the following day, re-incarnated in transforming recipes, or picked at from the fridge late at night, the remainders from the table are beloved and often as anticipated as the main meal.
My wife’s sister, Jana, traditionally celebrated Thanksgiving with the extended family an hour away, but she always cooked a small turkey at home so the house would smell right, and there would be some leftovers on the table through the weekend. This is real devotion to the importance of leftovers.
The turkey sandwich might be the most common leftover. Hot or cold, open face or double sided, cranberry inside, on the side or not at all, there are many variations. I’ve heard of putting stuffing in the sandwich. Does it replace the bread or is it in addition to? I’m not sure about this. I can see stuffing in an open face hot turkey sandwich, but otherwise adding stuffing to a sandwich seems too bready.
Leftover options are determined by the original menu. Strict constructionists are limited to the Thanksgiving menu for their leftover meals. A more liberal approach allows for the addition of new ingredients to the leftover menu, say making the turkey into a casserole.
The tradition in our family is to reheat (or not) the Thanksgiving meal – whatever is left. To insure the success of this approach, way more food than could ever be eaten at one sitting is prepared for Thanksgiving day, guaranteeing plenty of leftovers. The usual approach is to re-heat the vegetables, stuffing, gravy, and rolls, but not the turkey. It’s tough to reheat turkey without drying it out. The mashed potatoes are formed into fragile patties the approximate size and shape of restaurant hamburgers, then gently heated in a nonstick skillet with plenty of butter. The resulting potato “cake” is soft, moist, golden brown and already buttered. This method leads to a mixed plate of warm and cold foods – hot vegetables and cold turkey with warm gravy applied to all. It’s surprisingly tasty. The meal finishes with plenty of leftover pie – pumpkin with whipped cream or sharp cheddar and mince with hot rum sauce. Sometimes there’s a pumpkin cheesecake, too.
A turkey casserole is always a popular way to enjoy the Thanksgiving leftovers. Use the gravy as the base for a sauce, dice up the turkey (white and dark meat together), add any vegetables like peas, carrots or broccoli, include diced potatoes if available, alternately make a top crust with the remaining mashed potatoes like a shepherd’s pie, bake until bubbling and enjoy. Turkey Tetrazzini with turkey, mushrooms, pasta, cheese and cream sauce, is the Thanksgiving casserole cliché – but boy is it good!
Our neighbor Kirsten suggested turkey empanadas as a family-pleasing use for leftover turkey and mashed potatoes. A spicy, warming chili is a creative way to use up the turkey. I always like to take some of the turkey meat crumbs and make a turkey salad for lunch with mayonnaise, dried cranberries and a touch of mustard (add a little curry powder to make it more exotic).
After the first pass through the leftovers, there are still the turkey bones and some odds and ends of meat – the perfect makings for soup. Pick the meat off the bones (leaving a little), simmer the bones with some chunked up onion, celery, a bay leaf and whole peppercorns for a few hours and then drain to make a flavorful stock. Use this with the turkey meat for a great soup, adding vegetables, mushrooms, rice, pasta, tortillas or whatever is on hand.
Thanksgiving, with its highly anticipated traditional feast, is a beloved food holiday. But if you, like me, get additional pleasure from the leftovers so that the dinner lives on and the celebration extends into the weekend, all the better.
Drop me a note about your favorite Thanksgiving leftover recipes. I’d love to add them to my list of options.