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Thanksgiving Leftovers: Mom’s Turkey Soup and the Iron Bowl

Don’t just throw away those turkey bones.

THANKSGIVING MEAL ON A HEARTH Photo by Dayna Smith/for the Washington Post

I really enjoyed Ben’s weekly forays into tailgating and Alabama Football. Thanks, Ben, for all the time you put into it and the knowledge you shared.

Talking food and football are probably my two favorite things, and I’ll miss your insights into both. With a little encouragement from my wife, I’m going to give this now-empty space a whirl.

Warning to all: I’m not a chef. Everything I know comes from my mother or trial-and-error experimentation on my wife and kids. I’ve cooked for more than 10 people maybe 5 times in my life. I don’t tailgate; it’s not my thing (more than happy to enjoy someone else’s, though, and I will happily contribute a side and/or some alcohol). My family isn’t nearly as interesting as Ben’s. I’ll probably run out of steam waaaaaay faster than Ben did. And Ben, if you ever get the itch again, feel free to have Josh bench me for a week or three anytime you like.

So, what’s my contribution? Just random thoughts on favorite foods and hopefully a lot of info-sharing. Got a family favorite? Feel free to share. Remember one of Ben’s gems connected to this week’s game? Yank it out of the memory hole and link. No rules (well, one: #nopolitics). We’re just here to talk food and this week’s opponent.

On that subject: Thanksgiving leftovers and the Iron Bowl are interwoven for me by this point. My favorite leftover turkey application is just turkey dark meat on homemade bread with a healthy dose of mayonnaise on both slices, with enough fresh black pepper to make people gasp. I keep grinding until you barely see the mayo underneath. I’ve been known to skip straight to one of those for Thanksgiving dinner. Note: I hate mayonnaise in just about every application except this one (the other two: chicken salad with horseradish and blue cheese dressing, and a chocolate cake recipe I dust off once a year). That simple sandwich is why someone who hates mayonnaise learned to make homemade mayonnaise. Not because I was snobby about store-bought mayo - I just badly wanted one of those sandwiches, we were somehow out of mayo on Thanksgiving, and the closest open grocery store was an hour round trip plus shopping time.

Anyway, my mom’s Saturday-after-Thanksgiving tradition was her turkey soup, and it comes a very close second to the sandwich. A bowl of this soup with a side of sandwich? Dip a few bites of the sandwich into the soup, like a French dip? Oh man.

She got the recipe from her mother, who got it from her mother, who… you know. Anyway, that means this recipe comes from central NC. I’ll start with my mother’s version, and then I’ll add the various “kick it up a notch” contributions I’ve added over the years. Because my family’s absolutely not a hyper-competitive bunch that turned Mom’s turkey soup into a family competition. Or a hyper-nervous bunch that needs the distraction of a kitchen project for those afternoons when the Iron Bowl doesn’t go according to plan. Jalen fumbled? Let me check the soup. Levi tried to throw a guy out-of-bounds and ended up tossing him an extra 15 yards downfield? Is this too salty? How would I correct that? Mac bounce a pass off Najee’s back into a pick-6? How far can I push the celery in this thing?

This recipe clearly got its start in rural South thrift. Basically, you throw the turkey carcass, including skin, into a large pot, cover with water, boil, and then simmer. That’s essentially it. It removes all the meat in hard-to-reach-places, converts all that collagen into broth, and turns a sad, barren set of bones into a tasty and filling meal (you know, what Bama hopefully does to Auburn tomorrow). The trick is adding a lot of fresh celery and dried thyme about 30 minutes into the simmer, which would be about 90 minutes before serving. How much? For my mom, about 6 large stalks of celery chopped into 1’ lengths and a couple of teaspoons of dried thyme. Pepper? A teaspoon, maybe two, and then people could add more to taste. Maybe a teaspoon of table salt, depending on how much water she started with (usually about 3 quarts, depending on the size of the turkey that year). Those are the only flavors. I’ve tried adding some onion and carrots, on the thought that those ingredients go into most stock recipes, and this seemed basically a stock recipe. Nope. That added a layer of sweetness that doesn’t work. Not for my family, at least.

My mom originally would make dumplings to go with it, but I’m pretty sure she got tired of her kids fighting over the dumplings and having to make more. Whatever her reasons, she just started adding a 1/2 cup of dry rice to the soup about 30 minutes before serving. Note on the dumplings: I’ve tried both homemade and the frozen ones from the grocery store, and I’m not a fan of either in this soup; it ends up too close to turkey-and-dumplings for me. I stick to rice. But some of you may prefer dumplings. Go for it.

Anyway, before we turn to “upgrades if you have the time,” my mom just left the turkey bones in the pot. You got a ladle, fished around for meat, celery, and dumplings (or rice), and created a bowl for yourself. I miss that part, but I no longer do it that way. Why? Turkey has ton of tiny bones that like to stay attached to the meat. You had to chew carefully and make sure you weren’t about to swallow one. As much as I enjoy this soup, keeping a napkin handy to spit out bones became kind of annoying. And when we had kids, I spent too much time worrying about one of them getting a bone. The Iron Bowl is stressful enough without worrying about having to do a Heimlich on my kid.

And so, we come to upgrades. These are only in the order I attempted them. Most don’t require another. Mix and match at will.

Upgrade #1: I do the boil-and-simmer on Friday (with celery, thyme, salt, and pepper). I pour everything through a strainer, let the bones cool, and then pick out the usable meat. That and the broth go into a container in the fridge overnight. The fat separates and hardens, making it easy to skim off the next day. This avoids the occasional result of a greasy soup (turkey carcasses aren’t exactly uniform on that front), and it really reduces the odds of getting a bone. Not eliminate - I’ve had a few make it though the hand-picking over the years. Bring that up to a simmer, add some more celery stalk lengths and about a 1/2 teaspoon of dried thyme, throw in your 1/2 cup of rice, give it an hour for all the flavors to come together, and serve.

Upgrade #1A: for people who really dig celery flavor (like my wife). If you did upgrade #1, you can toss a couple of stalks of celery into a food processor and basically mince them. Take a couple of tablespoons of turkey fat skimmed off the top of your congealed broth, and sauté your celery. Then do all the rest.

Upgrade #2: Seaweed. Wtf?! Yes, seaweed. Kombu, specifically. Before the turkey carcass goes in, I bring my water to a boil, add sheets of Kombu (about one per quart of water), turn down the heat, and let that steep on low for about 30 minutes. Remove the Kombu, and start your turkey soup. Yes, the water will be slightly green and smell a little oceany as the turkey goes in. It’s cool, that all cooks out. Why the kombu? It adds umami, for a slightly richer, thicker broth. Probably not necessary if your leg and wing bones survived all the way to the pot, but they sometimes end up in the trash in our house, despite my best efforts to preserve. I picked up the kombu thing watching some chefs talk stocks and daiichi on TV.

Upgrade #3: Deglaze your turkey roasting pan if nothing burned (water, not wine, duh). Put all that, both liquid and gunk, into a container in the fridge to add to your boil-and-simmer down the road.

Upgrade #4: Add a few dashes of Marie Sharpe’s Green Habanero Pepper Sauce. 1 to 2 teaspoons, tops. Too much changes the flavor, but a little really brightens up the celery and thyme flavors. Or let people add their own. Or both. Warning: the red versions of this add flavors that compete with the celery and thyme. Doesn’t work.

Upgrade #5: If you smoke your turkey (or in our case, a turkey breast to go along with the whole turkey from the oven), you use a drip pan with some water in it, right? Toss some celery and onion into the drip pan with the water, being careful not to get any ash or charred grate remnants in it, and voila: smoked turkey broth. Smoked. Turkey. Broth. Makes a base for killer gravy. Or just spoon some over your turkey and dressing without worrying about gravy at all (you might have to cook it down; I put both on the table). Anyway, adding that smoked carcass and leftover broth to your soup preparation takes things to a whole ‘nother level. If nothing else, instead of starting with plain water, you’re replacing some measure of that with broth. The smoke’s a fantastic bonus. (I know I said “no onion” earlier, but the smoke seems to offset the sweetness, and the onion seems to balance out the broth for gravy and sauce purposes).

Warning 1: adjust salt accordingly if you’re starting with some combination of smoked turkey broth and water. I typically don’t use any salt at all if I’m going this route, because the broth is already bringing a lot of salt with it. I can always add more later, but I can’t take it out.

Warning 2: you’ll probably need more broth and water, probably about 4 quarts combined, if you’re using the carcass of both a turkey and turkey breast.

Warning 3: The leftover soup will probably turn to jello overnight. A jiggly solid. It turns right back into soup in the microwave. My kids freaked the first time they pulled it out of the fridge, thought it had turned bad or something. There’s a very good reason canned soup doesn’t do this (profit margins).

So, what are your Thanksgiving leftover favorites? Best Iron Bowl food memories? Any Iron Bowl food traditions?

Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. Roll Tide. Smoke Auburn.