Sunday, December 4, 2011

Thanksgiving Leftover Mayhem- Pasta Shells with Turkey Gravy

This pasta dish is a natural candidate for a post-thanksgiving meal that makes use of the mass quantities of leftover turkey lingering for days afterwards in refrigerators across North America. It is inspired by a simple dish my Mother used to make to use up bits of leftover steak or roast beef. Her dish involved re-warming the leftover beef in a beef gravy, then using the concoction to dress egg noodles. Using the same basic idea, I'm substituting leftover turkey for the beef, pasta shells for the egg noodles, and a fresh turkey gravy made from leftover bones instead of a jar of store-bought gravy.

The first thing you will need is your gravy- and in order to make a turkey gravy, you're going to need turkey stock or broth. This, however, is very easy to accomplish if you have large amounts of leftover turkey. Start with a few of the larger bones- in my case I used a leg bone that still had a little meat and bits of cartilage attached to it. I also used a chunk of meat that still had parts of the thigh bone- especially the joint where it meets the leg. Put your bones and bits of meat in a pot with a few small carrots, a bay leaf, and season with salt, pepper, and a little thyme and sage.

Let your pot simmer over a low heat for about two hours, or until the liquid becomes a nice golden color. If you notice a large amount of fat floating on the surface, use a spoon to skim it off, and if the liquid level drops too far, add a little more water as the stock cooks. When it is done, taste it, and adjust the salt and pepper levels if needed, then strain the liquid into a bowl. Set the stock aside for now, we will need it later.

When your stock is ready, start boiling water for your pasta, and get down to the business of preparing the gravy. The base of our gravy will be a simple roux of oil/butter and flour, just like the one from my chicken gravy post. You'll want to make a slurry out of equal parts oil or butter and flour. Just to make things interesting, I'm using a mix of about half oil and half butter. I don't really come up with exact amounts- I just make enough to coat the bottom of my saucepan with a decent layer of the stuff.

You'll need to spend a little time cooking your roux. Keep the heat at a medium-low level so the flour cooks slowly, and be sure to keep the slurry moving around using a whisk or a wooden spoon. Gradually, the roux will become darker and darker. You can choose to make your roux as dark as you like- dishes such as gumbo actually insist on a very dark roux- but for our purposes, we just need a nice golden brown. You'll probably need to devote almost all of your attention to your roux for about 10 to 15 minutes to get there.

Once your roux is cooked, we can turn it into a gravy by adding in our turkey stock. Keep whisking as you add the stock to bring the stock and the roux together, it may appear a little watery at first, but it should thicken up and begin to reduce into a gravy-like consistency in a few minutes. You'll still need to keep stirring your gravy as it thickens, but you won't be chained to it the whole time. If you haven't done so already, this is a good time to drop your pasta into the boiling water, and chop up about a cup or two of turkey meat into little chunks- I like to use a mix of white meat and dark meat.

While your pasta cooks, you'll need to warm up your turkey, and give it a chance to get to know the gravy, so take your chopped turkey meat, and add it to your gravy. Let the mixture simmer over a low heat, and keep an eye on the thickness. If the gravy seems to be getting too thick, thin it out by adding in a little of the starch-laden pasta water, and stir to combine. Since we're dressing pasta, it's ok if the gravy is a little on the thinner side since it will pick up additional starch from the pasta.

Hopefully, your pasta should be just about ready by now. Drain your pasta well, and toss it with enough of your turkey gravy to coat it well without drowning it, like you would any pasta dish. Since we're mixing a pale colored pasta with a pale colored sauce, we need some thing to break up the visual monotony, so we may as well add in a few nice green herbs and take advantage of the extra flavor while we're at it. I'll use something that complements turkey well- in this case parsley and sage. You will probably have plenty of extra gravy to go around, so you can top your pasta with a little extra gravy, and another shot of parsley when you serve it.

All in all, this is a heavier dish, but every component is packed with intense turkey flavors, and herbs that complement turkey. Using this basic idea, you can easily add on dozens of variations- maybe add in a handful of peas, or diced carrot, or something like a handful of dried cranberries. Basically, it's a thanksgiving dinner in pasta form, and a great way to break up the monotony of thanksgiving leftovers. Making a good dinner out of leftovers is an essential skill that every home cook should make an effort to develop- and is, to some extent, becoming a lost art in today's "need it now" society.

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