We had Thanksgiving this year with friends, a lovely shared meal, and as we were packing up to leave I asked our host if he had any plans for the turkey carcass. It was a big one, originally an eighteen-pounder, most of the meat already carved off, and I had the feeling that it, like millions of other turkey carcasses that day in America, was heading for the trash. Like the ham bone in a ham and the fish bones in a fish, wasn’t its function primarily structural, with a little bit of flavor enhancement thrown in? But ham bones give split pea soup real guts, and a clever new trend in restaurants is to fillet your little fish at the table, whisk the skeleton away to the kitchen where it is deep-fried, and then return it as a crispy crackling delicacy, like an offering to a gourmet cat.
For years I also chucked the turkey carcass, but never without hearing the voice of a colleague of many years ago who said that it was the best part of Thanksgiving leftovers. She said made stock out of those already roasted bones and used it for pumpkin risotto. The fact that she’d previously worked in Saveur’s test kitchen gave her credibility, but it was the way she punctuated the word risotto with a sexy lipsmacking sound that made me remember it.
There is, I think, or should be, a leftover spectrum. On the one end there are those who, call them Alphas, waste nothing, whittling away at the meal, day after day, until not a scrap is left. On the other hand there are the Omegas, who start scraping the plates into the garbage while still chewing last mouthfuls. Most of us probably fall somewhere in the middle, dutifully saving what looks savable; eating a percentage of it, maybe; and using the refrigerator as a holding station to “cure” the food and assuage our guilty consciences.
I think Alphas are born, not made. But I also think it’s possible to move closer to their end of the spectrum by consciously channeling the basic motives that make us cooks in the first place, whether it’s simple need, love for the process, the belief that homemade is better, the creativity and escape the kitchen offers, or just the old-fashioned virtues of economy, thrift, and DIY.
Which brings me back to that Thanksgiving turkey. This was the year. I asked, our host offered, so we went home with the carcass wrapped in tin foil, which seemed to tear at every sharp point. I put it in the refrigerator in the basement, promising myself not to leave it there until it was too old to use.
Grillers will tell you, rightly so, that there’s no more elemental act of cooking than meat over fire. But boiling bones has to come in second. It’s a different kind of primitive alchemy, slower, subtler. Grilling takes the edible and makes it delicious. Boiling bones takes the inedible, and coaxes out of it a new life of nourishment.
It's a cold weather activity, perfect for this season of big meals, with its big birds and big roasts. And it hardly needs a recipe. What I did was hack the carcass into a more manageable form, so that it would fit in a roasting pan; roast it in a 350 degree oven for about twenty minutes, just to give it an extra browning; and then jam the pieces into a stock pot, bones, flaps of skin, cartilage and all, cover it with water, bring it to a boil, skim, and then simmer for between an hour and two hours. Every recipe will advise you to chill the just-cooked stock in an ice bath before refrigerating. I did: I strained it into a bowl that was nested in a larger bowl with ice and ice water. Then the next day I skimmed the layer of fat from the surface, tasted, seasoned, and froze the broth, measured as cups and quarts, in ziplock bags. It’s our own private stash of burnished liquid gold, filled with flavor and body. Our own act of Alpha-like waste-not.
And now, that turkey can truly rest in peace.