Sunday, November 30, 2008

the tyranny of leftover turkey

So Turkey Day is over, doorstop sandwiches have lost their appeal, and there's still a mountain of leftover roast bird in the fridge. You have no cat. What to do?

I didn't grow up with Thanksgiving, for reasons that should be obvious, but destroying a turkey is among my family's Christmas traditions, and I am perfectly familiar with the attendant problem of leftovers.* Every year, the post-dinner scene is absolutely the same: no more mashed potatoes (my fault), leftover corn, leftover peas, and however much white meat is usually found on a turkey intended for a family of four, minus a slice or two.

(In my family, white meat is what you end up with if you're not quick enough to claim a leg.)

It tends to show up in sandwiches a day later, slathered in mustard in an effort to give it some kind of moisture and flavor, before my mother adds it to the soup she's already made from the carcass. Then it sits in the bottom of the stockpot until the soup runs out.

(In my family, the roast turkey dies not one, but three deaths.)

Which is why I decided that for my first Thanksgiving at home (rather than as a guest in someone else's home), I'd rather not have turkey at all.

Had I been alone, I might have made a mountain of mashed potatoes and gravy and called it good, but Lucille came to stay with me, and she had her own ideas for the menu. We ended up eating a meal of roast Cornish hens, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, white asparagus, and tiramisu. (Yes, tiramisu. We're neither of us fans of pumpkin pie.)

Unfortunately, a Cornish hen, though a lot smaller than even the smallest turkey, is still a bird with a lot of white meat. I knew the rest of the leftovers weren't going to be a problem, but it appeared that I had not succeeded in escaping the tyranny of leftover roast bird. The specter of dry sandwiches loomed large in my future.

Desperate to escape my fate, I engaged in some rapid thinking. The antidote to dry white meat is, of course, gravy. Lots and lots of gravy. The best way to get a good gravy-to-meat ratio is to cut the meat into small pieces. Gravy and meat in small pieces... pot pie!

So it was with considerable relief that I cut the leftover meat into small pieces, cut up some of the leftover vegetables into small pieces, whisked up another pan of gravy, and made a batch of biscuits for pie topping. The pot pie made for a satisfying dinner, and I knew that I wouldn't be worrying about leftovers later.

If you have that mountain of leftover roast bird and no cat, you may want to try doing the same.

(Photos will come if and when Lucille gets around to sending them to me.)

Poultry Pot Pie

Works for turkey, chicken, and any other bird that has bland white meat.

(Will serve one, because it freezes, but exact number of servings is determined by the quantity of leftovers you're trying to use up.)

Begin by assessing your leftovers. You'll want all the meat on whatever bird it was that you chose to roast, plus any remaining gravy. (If it was a particularly enormous bird, you might want to make more than one pot pie.) You might also be able to use some of your leftover vegetables if they weren't served in any kind of sauce or casserole, but you'll have to find something else to do with the rest.

To make poultry pot pie, start by taking a big, stove-and-ovenproof pan (a cast iron skillet is ideal) and putting it on the stove over low heat.

Add a small knob of butter. Once the butter melts, add one finely chopped white or yellow onion and two or three diced carrots to the pan. Let the vegetables cook, giving them an occasional stir.

Meanwhile, set a saucepan on the stove over low heat. Add a small knob of butter. Once it melts, sprinkle it with flour. Use a whisk to blend the flour into the butter until you have absolutely no lumps remaining, then pour in a generous amount of chicken stock. Turn up the heat slightly; keep stirring with the whisk until the mixture thickens slightly - it's supposed to be on the thin side. Whisk in any leftover gravy. Season with thyme and sage, or herbes de provence if you have no objections to something not entirely traditional. Turn off the heat.

Take all the meat you pulled from the carcass of the roast bird (you're going to use the carcass for stock, right?) and cut it into small cubes. Add it to the pan with the onions and carrots. Pour over the gravy mixture from the other pan, and give everything a good stir. If, by some freakish chance, you're a little short on leftover meat, you can add a handful of white rice to bulk up the mixture. (You can add it to the pan raw. It'll finish cooking when the pie is in the oven.)

If your leftovers included plain green vegetables, like green beans, you can cut them up and add them to the pan. If not, throw in a handful or two of frozen green peas.

Turn up the heat a little, and let the mixture simmer for ten to fifteen minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Turn off the heat.

Preheat oven to 350F.

Time to make the biscuit topping. Take out a big mixing bowl and dump in three cups of flour, two teaspoons of baking powder, and a half-teaspoon of salt. Cut in three-quarters of a stick of butter. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips until you get coarse crumbs with the occasional lump.

You have a choice at this point. You can use milk, half-and-half, cream, or sour cream as the liquid component of your dough. If you don't have a cholesterol problem, I strongly recommend the sour cream. Measure our one-and-a-half cups of the liquid of your choosing and add it to the other ingredients. (You may need a little more.) Mix lightly until a soft dough forms.

Pinch off small handfuls of the dough and shape into rounds. Place the rounds atop the pie filling in the pan. Put the pan in the oven, and bake for thirty-five to forty minutes, or until the biscuit topping is golden. Serve immediately.

*Australians do not celebrate Thanksgiving. I have met a surprising number of people who have failed to grasp this concept.


Kim said...

I love what you did with the leftovers, Adele. Leftovers are my favorite part of a Thanksgiving meal, and this was the first year I did not cook the dinner. Which meant I didn't get any leftovers. I am one of those people that loves a dry sandwhich! Hope all is going well with you.

adele said...

Kim - Sometimes I think the whole point of Thanksgiving is the leftovers. :)

Yulinka said...

Bah, another turkey nay-sayer. I *love* turkey--light meat, dark meat, hot, cold, etc. But if I did have lots of leftovers (which I didn't this year, sniff), I'd make a pot pie like yours.

adele said...

Yulinka - Sorry. If they can breed a bird with enormous legs and very little breast, then I'll roast a turkey. :P

Julie said...

I can't believe I wasn't reading your blog already--looking forward to the holidays to catch up on these great recipes! From one amherst alum with a food blog ( to another :

adele said...

Julie - Hello! I think there's a handful of us with food blogs - there's also Clean Plate Club and Feeding a Rhino.