How to make the most of your Thanksgiving leftovers

Roasted turkey with fried sweet potatoes and jalapeno-cilantro aioli.
Roasted turkey with fried sweet potatoes and jalapeno-cilantro aioli.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

I hate the word leftovers. One word and already you’re not expecting much, especially when the leavings are from Thanksgiving, the biggest food day of the year. I reached out on social media for a better word and got a deluge of alternatives. Rechauffees, meaning the unattractive “reheateds,” at least sounds pretty because, well, French. The Italian possibilities, avanzi and piatti di ricupero, meaning recovery or salvage, are equally attractive off the tongue. “Ingest-agains” was my favorite.

But in the days after Thanksgiving the entire country is awash in a mix of buttery mash, too sweet sweets, dry turkey and strange casseroles, all of it garnished with scarlet beads of syrupy cranberries. Whether you think of extra food as leftover or as a langniappe, a “bonus,” the time to plan for leftovers is when you’re creating your menu and making your shopping lists.

Before you set the table

The difference between skilled cooks and folks who cook occasionally is that we think ahead and love the process of MacGyvered possibilities. Make more of what you love and less of what you don’t. Make food that’s easily repurposable and have what you need on hand to create new meals. Buy herbs and aromatics for changing up the flavor profile after Thanksgiving — cilantro, ginger, green onions, lime. Most important, do not overcook your bird. Make at least one vegetable that will retain some semblance of texture and freshness that you can use to brighten up all the rich leavings. Seared green beans, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and braised or sauteed greens are good, as are crunchy salads dressed with vinaigrette. Add good bread for sandwiches and tortillas to your shopping list because we all need more tacos.


I can’t wait for Thanksgiving to be over so I can get my hands on all that mise en place, the French culinary term meaning foods prepared and ready for turning into various dishes. Think about what your everyday greatest hits are and tweak them using your mise. First, resist the impulse to throw away the carcass. You’ll be sick of the smell of turkey, but when you need some rich stock, you’ll be happy that you have a few pints in the freezer. Turkey ramen? A Sriracha-inflected bowl of broth with a squeeze of lime, a chop of cilantro, a bit of ginger, a couple tablespoons of coconut milk, a glug of fish sauce and soy and your choice of rice or noodle? I could go on.

Always room for tacos

While the broth is simmering, start deconstructing the remaining turkey meat. Shreds are good for tacos, fried rice and stir-frys. Slices are for sandwiches; diced meat is perfect for a turkey salad with lots of celery. Throw some of those roast potatoes in the mix and some of your vegetables, cut small. The Italian default for pasta is aglio, olio e peperoncino — that’s sliced garlic sauteed in olive oil, with red pepper flakes and a squeeze of lemon juice to finish. It’s the no-sauce pasta condiment easily made with braised greens or any chopped vegetables or even more turkey.

As for tacos, if you’ve never had one filled with mashed potatoes, green beans with cilantro, raw onion and Tapatio, it is epic. As are turkey tacos with cranberry sauce that’s been transformed with vinegar and chile. Turn more mashed potatoes into latkes; if you add some food processor-blitzed turkey to the potato mixture, you have turkey croquettes. For an abundance of sweet potatoes, add curry spices and make soup, topped with yogurt and fresh herbs.

Twice as nice with pie

For dessert, get out the extra pie dough and make Pop Tart-like pastries. Want a sweet one? Do a mash-up filling of all the pies together. Want savory? Bind your leftover vegetables with a bit of mashed potatoes. If you have too much pie, cut slices of pecan pie into squares, then freeze them on a parchment lined cookie sheet — the frozen bites are like confections. Or just have those extra slices of pie for breakfast with a strong cup of coffee or tea. Of course you have to get to that point, so go make your lists and don’t let the anxiety get to you — it will all work out, and soon enough you’ll be sitting happily in a kitchen filled with avanzi, recovering yourself.

To read the article in Spanish, click here