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The Frugal Feast

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The holiday season lies in wait, coiled like a serpent yet ready to rear up and strike your finances, leaving you a reeling, weakened wretch from your temporary extravagance. Fear not, friends! We can slay this beast together. With good planning and some frugal tips you can create a feast worthy of envy without ruining your credit.

The first challenge we’ll tackle is the star of the show, the meat course. Though typically the most expensive of the food items, some foresight combined with a few leftover makeovers can carry the meat throughout the following week’s meals.

Whether you go with turkey, ham or some other succulent roast, it doesn’t hurt to buy one bigger than you think you’ll need, to ensure some will be left over. For maximum potential, the meat should have at least one bone in it! And, especially if you’re getting a turkey, it pays to purchase it well ahead of time. Many fine local farms allow you to preorder, so free up some room in your freezer and secure the bird or beast a month or two in advance. You can preorder natural turkey for about $4.29 per lb or organic turkey for $5.99 per lb. Get to it! The preorder deadline from the places I called is Nov. 3.

For this example, we’ll assume you’ve acquired a turkey, the iconic centerpiece of Thanksgiving. A turkey carcass makes a fine stock and, in my opinion, the most flavorful stock for soups, but anything with a bone will work.

Many people try to thin-slice turkey right off the bird, making uneven cuts and mangling the carcass. Much meat is wasted for leftovers this way. Instead, slice at the breastbone and follow the contour of the ribs, cutting each breast off in its entirety. Once those have been removed, carve the legs and wings, then flip the bird over and slice the back meat out in two cuts. You can now slice the breast meat as thick or thin as each guest desires, and leaving the rest intact keeps the turkey warm and juicy. The meat that remains can then be cut to suit any style of leftovers you wish to make.

As you’re prepping the vegetables for the meal, save aside any unused parts — stumps of onion, garlic, tomatoes, peppers, etc. — for use in the stock. I like to throw them in the pot on medium-low heat with a little oil to wake up their flavors, then fill the pot with fresh, cold water. Bring the water to a boil before adding the carcass. (A large turkey carcass will make gallons of rich stock, so it’s acceptable to freeze any unused bones for a future batch.) Once the water hits a boil, reduce the heat to low and throw in the bones. Too high heat will make your stock bitter.

There are many fine ways to make stuffing. My favorites are wild rice and bread-based stuffing. If you cube leftover bread throughout the preceding month, you can freeze it for this purpose.

The next line of defense for your wallet are the root veggies. What holiday meal would be complete without squash, potatoes and beets?  As with the meat, always make more potatoes and squash than you think you’ll need, in anticipation of the leftovers. Leftover squash can be made into breads, pies and soups. Leftover mashed ’taters are amazing once shaped into patties and fried, and they can also be incorporated into breads of many kinds.

Speaking of bread, dinner rolls are usually expected at a feast.  Though rarely appearing as leftovers, they make great late-night sammiches and can also be utilized as bread crumbs, bread bowls or croûtons.

Cranberry sauce is another versatile side. Not to be confused with the gelatinous, can-shaped abomination, homemade cranberry sauce is simple to prepare and a delight to eat. Fresh local cranberries are easy to find here in Maine. And the leftovers can be used in desserts to make fillings, or mixed into cream cheese for a delicious breakfast spread. My favorite option is to marble the sauce through a cheesecake.

Green bean casserole is another common companion at Thanksgiving. People either love it or definitely don’t, so there’s often some left over. These can be paired with leftover mashed ’taters, plus turkey topped with onions and cheese, then whipped into a new casserole quickly and easily.

Pies are at the end of the line, and not so useful left over, but consider making the crust from any graham crackers or holiday cookies not scarfed down earlier in the week. Graham crackers, by the way, are super easy to make at home — you can readily find recipes online, including mine! Another tip: save the guts from your Halloween pumpkins in the freezer for use in pumpkin pie long after the Jack-o-lanterns have wizened.

Fresh apple cider is in season now and goes great with the Thanksgiving meal. It has many uses as a leftover, too. One of my faves is making apple cider doughnuts, the dough of which can also use up some leftover squash. Another, less labor-intensive option is to add a bit of raw honey to the cider and let it ferment (and harden) in the fridge a few days.

Eggnog, with alcohol or without, is easy to make at home, and I find it tastes best with bourbon or brandy in place of rum. Eggnog is also filling, so serving it with the meal increases the leftover odds.

So does kettle corn, a great snack or appetizer that’s inexpensive, easy to make and quick to prepare. Consider adding nuts to the kettle corn rather than filling bowls of expensive mixed nuts for your gathering. For my kettle corn, I use ¼ cup coconut oil and add 1/3 cup sugar and 2 tsp salt to ½ cup popcorn. Heat the oil on high with three or four kernels in it. When you hear them pop, the oil is ready. Dump the ½ cup popcorn and 1/3 cup sugar in and shake every 10 seconds until popping slows — about three or four minutes. Quickly dump the popped corn into a large bowl, salt, shake and enjoy!

Gravy is useful in so many things, from topping your fried mashed potato patties to simply throwing it into your soup stock.

Cooking more than enough food seems counterintuitive to the frugal mind, but again, by planning ahead you can make the meal last well beyond the day of feasting. Keep it local and organic as much as possible. Holidays should be about health and happiness. You should feel good about the sourcing of the meal, happy you prepared it yourself, and also feel good after eating it, not bloated with a stomach full of regrets.