THE BLOG
12/02/2007 04:26 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Holiday Onslaught

"Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days.''

-- Benjamin Franklin

If any rule of thumb applies to holiday entertaining etiquette, be it Thanksgiving, Hannukah, or Christmas, this would be it: If you're someone else's house guest during the holidays, make yourself scarce after three days for both their sake and your own. If, however, you're the host and your guests have departed, build a long-burning fire in the fireplace, pour yourself a lovely glass of the best wine you can afford, and put your feet up. And then take a nap. Preferably until January 2nd.

But (and this is a big but, said in anticipation of the onslaught of holiday madness that awaits many of us) if your guests are still fluttering about well after the turkey or goose has been carved, the figgy pudding snuffed out, and the Brunello drunk, you're probably nearing your wit's end, no matter how much you love them. To add culinary insult to injury, you've probably been left with a hodgepodge of weird, seasonal food that everyone expects you to turn into fabulous and satisfying leftover meals so that they (the malingerers) don't go hungry or develop gout from eating goose every day for the better part of a week.

In this enormous melting pot of a country we live in, we have nearly as many gustatory holiday traditions as we have ethnic groups, so you could be stuck with leftovers of anything: brandade, baccala or bakalar if you're French, Italian, Croatian or Portuguese; lamb if you're Greek; potato pancakes and brisket if you're Jewish; suckling pig if you're Filipino; kielbasa if you're Polish; collard greens if you're African American; goat if you're from the Islands; goose if you're German; clams, hams, yams, Spam and, of course, turkey, if you're a combination of everything. What to do? Get creative, because leftovers -- regardless of what they are -- are very often actually better than the original dishes from whence they sprang.

If you've eaten turkey, our very own, true blue American holiday game bird with a texture not unlike balsa wood, it was probably concealed under a heaping load of sweet potato pie, cranberry sauce, stuffing, mashed potatoes, peas and carrots, gravy, gravy, and more gravy. It is also virtually inedible if roasted at a high temperature for an entire day, which is why most holiday turkey eaters live for The Day After. Like an old house, game birds (which include turkey, pheasant, goose, and duck) actually sort of settle with time. The meat grows more tender, mellow and flavorful, and so that first bit of leftover turkey, nestled between two pieces of good quality, toasted sourdough bread , is divine. But then it starts to get boring. Really boring. The leftover vegetable side dishes begin to take on an unappetizing gelatinous sheen, and the mashed potatoes you served turn into ballast. How can you get creative with that?

Sheer genius is what I called The Washington Post's longtime former food editor and author of a book I was editing, Phyllis Richman, when she offered me her holiday leftover ideas many years ago over cocktails at a New York restaurant.

"When God gives you turkey, vegetables, gravy and mashed potatoes, you're meant to do one thing with them, dear,'' Phyllis said.

"What?'' I asked, mystified.

"Make shepherd's pie in individual ramekins or souffle dishes, and then freeze them. They make great one-dish, late-night meals, and they keep for months.'' Phyllis was right: Nothing could be easier, more delicious or more comforting than a variation of shepherd's pie, the greatest of all British rustic dishes.

Over time, I've developed other leftover entertaining dishes so successful that I often want to celebrate winter holidays in the middle of June just to be able to eat the by-products: Minced leftover turkey, goose, chicken, ham or pork sauteed with diced potatoes, garlic, onion and fresh sage makes a terrific breakfast hash for morning stragglers who want something hearty with their eggs. Cubed, leftover ham is gorgeous in a simple, water-based yellow split pea soup, and the soup is even better the day after it's made. Leftover roast duck, goose or rabbit, pulled off the bone and stewed slowly in a combination of its own (creamless) gravy, red wine and canned tomatoes makes for a luscious ragu to be tossed with wide noodles, such as pappardelle or tagliatelle. And lest we forget, the old-fashioned croquette is arguably one of the universe's greatest comfort foods -- minced turkey or chicken combined with potato and egg (egg whites will do), formed into logs, rolled in breadcrumbs and then browned in anything from butter to cooking spray combined with a drop of olive oil. If you make any kind of salt cod for the holidays, specifically brandade or baccala (where the stiff-as-a-board fish has been soaked in water or milk for days and then baked with softened potatoes, extra virgin olive oil and an astonishing amount of garlic), then the greatest New England delicacy ever invented is in order. Add an egg or two (or just a few egg whites) to the mixture, form it into small cakes and proceed the way you would with a croquette. Served with a lightly dressed salad of tender greens or a cup of soup, cod fish cakes make for a delicious, satisfying meal that would turn even the crankiest host -- or guest -- grateful.

When your actual holiday repast is over and everyone is still lurking around and looking to you to feed them leftovers, remember that a guest is always a guest, even as time goes by. So smile, remember why you're together and thank your lucky stars, for tomorrow is another day, and another dish.

TURKEY SHEPHERD'S PIE

(Adapted from Phyllis Richman)

This flexible recipe is based entirely on how much you have left over and therefore does not contain exact quantities; you might have enough to prepare several small, individual souffle dishes that can be frozen, or you might have enough to make one large, family-size shepherd's pie in an oblong baking dish or a pie plate. Either way, make sure that you are using oven-to-freezer, microwavable bakeware.

Unsalted butter, or cooking spray

Leftover turkey, preferably (but not necessarily) cut into 1 inch cubes

Leftover vegetables: carrots, peas, green beans, broccoli, cubed turnips

Leftover gravy

1 medium onion, coarsely chopped

1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped

Leftover mashed potatoes, heated slightly and softened with 1/4 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Lightly grease your souffle pans, baking dish or pie plate with softened butter or cooking spray. In a large bowl, combine the turkey, vegetables, gravy, onion and celery, and gently mix well. Ladle into your baking dish(es), so that the mixture is half an inch from the top of the dish.

Spoon a half-inch layer of mashed potatoes on top of the baking dish, spreading carefully, covering the entire surface of the dish. Using the underside of a fork, flatten the potatoes evenly.

Set your shepherd's pie on top of a cookie sheet, and bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes or until the potatoes begin to take on color. Run under the broiler 3-5 minutes, until the top is brown and beginning to crisp.

Note: Let cool completely before freezing. To reheat, loosely cover pie with tin foil and place in a 350 degree oven for 35-40 minutes. Remove foil and continue to cook until heated through.

YELLOW SPLIT PEA SOUP WITH HAM

Honey glazed, hickory smoked, Black Forest or fresh -- ham of any kind works well in this hearty soup. Ham ends also work particularly well here, as they often tend to be the most flavorful, often overlooked part of the meat. Alternatively, prosciutto or pancetta can be substituted. This soup can also be frozen for up to three months, or refrigerated for up to four days.

Serves 8

1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped yellow onion

2 cloves garlic, peeled, smashed and minced

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups cooked ham, coarsely cubed

1 pound dried yellow split peas

1 1/2 quarts water

1 1/2 quarts low sodium vegetable stock

1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled

Salt and pepper to taste

In a large stockpot, heat the olive oil over medium heat until rippling but not smoking, and add the ham. Cook until just heated through, and add the onion, garlic and rosemary. Turn heat down to medium low, and cook onion and garlic until transparent. Add peas, water and vegetable stock, combine well, and cover. Simmer very slowly over a low flame for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Serve with crusty Italian bread.