Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cooking to Save the Planet: Making Use of Christmas Leftovers

Readers keep encouraging me to share more ideas about using local foodstuffs to make healthy, good meals that don't stretch budgets and don't require materials whose production stresses the environment. I doubt that turkey fits into the latter category, since turkeys are now mass-produced, for the most part, on factory farms that require huge outlays of petroleum (both to grow the corn to feed the turkeys, and to keep the turkey-plants going).

But since many of us continue eating turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas, I thought I'd provide two recipes I've developed over the years to make good use of the leftovers from a turkey dinner. Before I do that, I'll also share a memory of the one time in my life that I ever participated in the butchering of a turkey for the table. When I think of what's involved in bringing a farm-raised bird to the table--when I buy a non-frozen, locally produced turkey raised in free-range conditions with a minimum of chemicals--I invariably think of this story.

All four of my grandparents grew up, as most Southern folks of their generations did, on farms. In several cases, their fathers combined farming with other occupations that brought additional income to the family, and a venue for the talents of the pater familias. My great-grandfather Lindsey was, for instance, both a farmer and a country doctor, with a concern to see medical care provided for the poor of his Louisiana parish. And my great-grandfather Snead followed in his father's footsteps by combining farming with mercantile activities. Family stories indicate that my great-grandfather Simpson both farmed and assisted his Pryor cousins in running their community's government in one way and another in Mississippi.

But even with these add-on activities for the farm life of the families in which my grandparents were raised, the focus of their lives was still rural, still farm-oriented. During their generation, a significant shift began in the South, however, in which people began to leave farms and move into towns and cities. That shift was consolidated by World War I, which opened opportunities for women that had been previously unheard of. I suspect that many women's desire for a life transcending the drudgery of farm work and child-rearing, house-cleaning, gardening, keeping the dairy, and so forth, played a large role in moving many farm families to towns and cities in the WWI period.

By the time I was growing up, then, few of my great-aunts and great-uncles lived on farms, though my parents and grandparents retained strong ties to the rural ways of their forebears, with an appreciation for the fresh, locally-raised foods of their childhood--with an appreciation, that is, for the very best ingredients that could be found for their daily meals. To the extent that they could, they continued producing much of their own food even in town: though my mother's father was a merchant and the family lived in town, they had forty acres behind their house, on which they pastured a cow.

The cow provided milk, butter, and buttermilk. There was, as well, always a hog or two fattening in a pen behind the house, which was slaughtered at hog-killing time as the weather became frosty, its meat to be made into sausage, ham, and souse. Much of it was smoked in the smokehouse to preserve it for long use and to season the vegetable dishes that played such a central role in the family's diet.

My mother's family also kept chickens for eggs and for occasional chicken dinners, a Sunday thing, since killing a laying hen meant that you had one less hen to provide eggs. And they had a huge garden in which they raised every kind of vegetable imaginable for the table. They required little from the store except sugar, salt, coffee, flour and meal, to supplement what they produced themselves.

Only two of my great-uncles still farmed as I was growing up--a brother of my grandfather Lindsey, who raised watermelons on his land in Louisiana, and a brother of my grandmother Simpson, who had a small truck farm south of Little Rock. We made many visits to Uncle Pat's and Aunt Nellie's little farm as I grew up, to pick peaches and apples in the orchard, to get baskets of peppers, eggplants, squash, okra, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, collards, mustard, purple hull peas--anything in season--during the summer and fall.

And on one occasion, we happened to visit as a turkey met its fate. I must have been four or five years old, at an age at which such a memory imprints itself on one's mind forever. I can still see what happened as if I am back in the small farmyard, surrounded by chickens pecking and cackling, a grape vine running on the little fence separating the orchard and garden, dill for Uncle Pat's wonderful dill pickles growing up around the fence on both sides.

My great-uncle Pat caught the turkey, grabbed its head, gave it a quick twist as he swung the huge bird in an arc, and the head separated from the body. Which commenced to run and flap around the farmyard, blood spurting from its neck, its wings flapping wildly, as we children screamed and ran, while our elders doubled over in laughter.

That event taught me a lesson that children really do need to learn as they grow up: food doesn't appear on the table by magic. It is produced by someone, somewhere, and it behooves us to understand its production, if we want to eat wisely and well. The meat that we see packaged neatly on supermarket shelves was once a living, breathing animal, and someone had to slaughter it before it found itself in those packages.

The conditions in which it was raised make a tremendous difference in its quality, in how it tastes and nourishes us--in whether it harms or helps us as we cook and eat it. If we're going to persist in eating meat, we need to understand how it is produced, what happens as it makes its way to the table, and by whom and where it was raised for consumption.

And now for my two turkey recipes, neither of which I'll be making this Christmas, since we are not having turkey. We'll be having our family meal tomorrow, and it will feature chicken and dressing and a ham--a good, locally-raised ham whose quality we know we can depend on.

When we do have turkey for a celebration, these are two dishes that I frequently make as we eat the leftovers in the days after the feast. The first is a simple, old-fashioned pot pie.

To make it, I mix up a batch of pie dough for a double-crust pie, using butter instead of shortening. I sometimes add an egg to the dough, reducing the liquid called for in the recipe a bit as I do so. Pastry made with butter will not be flaky, unless you take the time to make puff pastry. But it is delicious with a pot pie, we find. And I don't trust the ingredients in vegetable shortening, and I find most store-bought lard rancid and inferior to lard rendered at home from good-quality pork.

For the pot pie filling, I fry in butter a stalk or two of finely chopped celery, an onion, and a carrot or two diced, until they have begun to be tender. To these I add some peas--what we call English peas, to distinguish them from the many field peas we also eat in the South, including the black-eyed peas that will soon be featured on New Year's tables for luck. I also mix in a few tablespoons of flour, stirring it well so that there are no lumps, and then add a cup or so of gravy from the turkey dinner, with a handful of chopped parsley.

About the gravy: I roast turkeys, rather than steam them. That is, I put them in a roasting pan with no liquid, slather them with a mix of soft butter and olive oil to which I've added chopped garlic, and then sprinkle on salt, pepper, and dried thyme. I turn the oven high (500 degrees or so), and let the turkey begin to brown for around 20 minutes, basting it constantly with its own drippings and more olive oil if necessary. I then gradually turn the temperature down by 15 degrees or so every 15 minutes, until the temperature is 350, at which point I let the bird complete its roasting. Constant basting is important, and if the turkey becomes too brown in some areas (especially the legs) before it's finished, it's important to cover those areas with foil. If the whole turkey begins to be too brown and to dry out before it's finished, you may also cover the roasting pan towards the end, though that defeats the purpose of roasting. It turns roasting into steaming. (For anyone reading overseas, I apologize for the American temperature scales--but they're the only ones available to me as I cook at home.)

The point of that digression is to note that the gravy I serve with the turkey is the rich, brown juice produced by the roasting process. I don't dilute the juice with flour. To make gravy, I simply skim off the bulk of the fat, and add to the turkey juices in the pan some fresh chopped garlic, salt, pepper, chopped parsley, and thyme to taste, letting the gravy reduce as I scrape the pan and bring it to a boil.

If I need more liquid, I add some of the stock I make with the giblets as the turkey roasts. I simmer the giblets with water, salt, pepper, garlic, a bay leaf, thyme, and a chopped, scraped carrot, a quartered onion, a stalk of celery cut into pieces, and a handful of parsley. I strain this when it's done, and if needed, add some to the gravy as I finish it.

It's this gravy that goes into the pot pie along with the ingredients I mention above and a bit of flour to thicken it. Then I add a cup or two of diced turkey and put the whole mix into a pie pan lined with half of the crust. The other half goes on top. I use a deep, old-fashioned pie pan for pot pies of this sort, since the filling tends to be be abundant. I also take care to seal the top crust well, using a bit of the gravy to moisten the edges of the bottom crust as I pinch the top crust onto it.

This makes a delicious and filling meal of some of the leftovers of a roasted turkey, an adaptable one, since you can use other vegetables, according to your fancy. My grandmother would, I'm sure, have put in a cubed potato or two, since she routinely did that when she made a chicken pot pie. And perhaps a chopped boiled egg.

My second post-holiday turkey recipe is a version of the lowcountry Georgia dish, country captain. To make it, I chop a bell pepper, onion, and bit of garlic and saute them slowly in some olive oil. When they are becoming tender, I add a cup or two of chopped tomatoes (canned, this time of year), an apple, peeled and cubed, a bay leaf, and two or three cups of cooked, cubed turkey. I then stir in a tablespoon or two of curry powder (I say "a tablespoon or two," because the quality and strength of prepared curry powders can vary wildly) and some chopped parsley.

I then cover the dish and simmer for half an hour or so over very low heat. A few minutes before I take the pot off the stove, I add a handful of raisins. If the sauce seems to need more moisture, I add some turkey gravy to it. I serve this quickly prepared curry dish over rice with roasted almond slivers sprinkled on top.

If you like a bit of heat with a curry, add a chopped hot pepper or two as you cook the sauce. I also often augment the prepared curry powder with some ground cumin and a bit of cinnamon and allspice. Chopped cilantro is a good addition sprinkled over the curry as you serve it, though it doesn't play a role in traditional recipes for country captain (which is also made with chicken rather than turkey).

Again, you can vary the ingredients depending on your tastes and what you have available. Some cubed potato is good in this dish, if you want to stretch it. I could also imagine adding some cooked lentils or chickpeas and perhaps even some sliced okra, though those ingredients would take it far afield from country captain.

The beauty of these recipes is, of course, that they help us to face yet another meal of turkey when we've grown tired of facing it for another day. These recipes take a meat that can be dry and bland, especially when it's served cold, and add moisture, texture, seasonings, and vegetables to stretch and enhance it, at a time of year in which our tastes turn to richer and more highly seasoned foods. And it goes without saying that the turkey carcass and any other scraps from the turkey eventually end up in a stock pot with onion, celery, carrot, bay leaf, and other seasonings, to be simmered slowly into stock for use in soups and other dishes in the weeks following Christmas or Thanksgivings.

And I should also add that I offer meat-based recipes with a divided conscience, since I'm inclined to a meatless diet, both because I prefer vegetables and because I have qualms of conscience about meat consumption. I'm a pallid and shamefully wishy-washy vegetarian, though, one who often fails to live up to his convictions, and who lives with a German-American farm boy for whom meat is, as some of his cousins say, the best vegetable of all. . . .