For most, Thanksgiving is a time of excess. The typical holiday table revolves around a massive turkey and dozens of side dishes of every shape, size and flavor. Many of us cook enough to feed an army and wind up munching on the leftovers until we swear we will never touch turkey again.
Seasons of excess also tend to be seasons of waste — in fact, the National Resources Defense Council estimates that Americans throw away 200 million pounds of turkey every Thanksgiving. So we asked readers and chefs what they do to cut down on the amount of good food going into the trash and for ways to spice up those leftovers to make them a little more interesting in the days following Thanksgiving dinner.
“Leftover deviled eggs can quickly be minced and turned into egg salad,” offers Aux Bar chef Steven Goff. “Cranberry sauce becomes the base for a cranberry vinaigrette with the addition of a little cider vinegar and olive oil. Stuffing can quickly be repurposed as a savory bread pudding, which it’s just a few ingredients short of anyway. The olive and pickle tray also gets minced and turned into olive salad or relish — think muffuletta — with a little olive oil binder. And, of course, the turkey carcass becomes the base for turkey gumbo stock. If you want to add more flavor, smoke or char the turkey carcass.”
Ingles dietitian Leah McGrath might catch some hipster attention with her suggestion of a pumpkin eggnog smoothie made with some of that eggnog sidelined in the fridge, a bit of leftover canned pumpkin, milk, ice and pumpkin spice. “You can, of course, use plant-based beverages instead,” she adds.
“I know that eating the same leftover food can feel redundant or get boring after a few meals,” says Alicia Nichols, who cooks at Buxton Hall Barbecue and The Times. “So I usually make a red enchilada sauce to change it up a bit. I make turkey or chicken tamales or enchiladas. I usually have some sort or beans — chickpeas more often than not — so I will refry those.”
But she also notes that a key to not wasting a ton of food is to be a little more conservative in what you prepare in the first place. “A really good way to curb holiday waste is to know your numbers,” she explains. “We tend to outdo ourselves because we want to make sure everyone is fed twice-over, but sending everyone home with plastic Tupperware full of leftovers they may or may not eat is wasteful.” And, she adds, it’s best to avoid using disposable roasting pans, pie plates, etc. “Use dishes that can be cleaned, even though it’s a hassle.”
Also, don’t be afraid to lean on your freezer. All of your trimmings, including every type of vegetable end (except rhubarb) and the skins from your onions, can all be bagged and frozen to make stocks at a later date. I always keep separate bags for things like corn husks (makes a great stock for grits) and squash and zucchini (makes for a good squash purée soup base later), and combine the trinity — onions, carrots, celery — for everything else.
Also, the stock you make from the turkey carcass can be frozen into resealable plastic bags of any size. I often stuff bags into pint glasses and fill them to measure perfect pint-sized portions and freeze them to make single-serving soups down the road.
Katherine Ehrlichman recalls her family’s tradition of making turkey and dumplings with a stock made from the turkey carcass, while Terri Lechner recommends making the classic Kentucky hot brown: a slice of toast topped with turkey, a Parmesan-laden gravy (another good use of your turkey stock), tomato and crispy bacon.
Michele Dohse makes wraps from the turkey, cranberries and greens, uses mashed or sweet potatoes in yeast bread and makes casseroles from cooked veggies. Have a waffle iron laying around? Well, Ben Matchar wants you to get crazy with it. “Put leftovers in the batter — turkey and cranberry waffles, mac and cheese waffles, sweet potato-stuffing waffles,” he says.
Faith Byer prefers to make a stir-fry, perhaps a tip of the hat to her time growing up in China. “Thanksgiving kitchen-sink stir fry! I pretty much stir fry all the leftovers together and top with gravy. I’m drooling just thinking of it,” she says. “My favorite is sweet potato, green bean casserole, turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, with a little gravy drizzled over top. I cook it on high heat so the outer layer of the potatoes is crunchy.”
But she warns, “If you have issues with mixing textures, this is not the leftover dish for you.”
Heather Masterton, sister of the late pioneering Asheville restaurateur, Laurey Masterton, sent along a snippet from their mother Elsie’s Blueberry Hill Cookbook, in which she recalls how she would save even just a small scoop of leftover gravy, adding it to a soup for extra flavor and body. Later, she would save the last bit of that soup to make gravy from it, and the cycle would continue.
“Not everything must be fixed a different way the second day,” she wrote in 1959. “But usually a roast with 24 hours behind it in the refrigerator is a bit on the dry side and needs some babying. If you get in the habit when you buy your meat or chicken, of thinking a bit ahead to one or two other things to do with it, you will be killing two birds with one stone: One, you will be cutting your food budget approximately in half, because nothing is more expensive than a constant diet of steaks and chops, and a remainder of a roast consigned to the garbage can is a financial debacle. Two, you will be lending interest to your family’s meals and at the same time, you’ll be having fun yourself.”
Ultimately, Elsie Masterton offered what is perhaps one of the most valuable directives for avoiding food waste: “You must be inventive — which won’t be difficult after you have had a little practice.”