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'Tis the season for leftovers management 

Don't let the pan dry out

The lights and festivities of the so-called Holiday Season have always been a response to the rude levels of cold and darkness with which we must contend around the winter solstice. Given the coping mechanisms we come up with, this time of year could just as easily also be called drinking season, or gluttony season, or leftovers management season. But whichever way you run with it, all of these seasonal roads will eventually lead you to the same place: a glazed situation on the morning after. This is a story about how to deglaze those greasy leftovers with heat and booze, and do it again through New Year's Eve and beyond.

Leftovers, of course, are a year-round fact of life. But during the holidays the stakes are higher — if for no other reason than because of the sheer quantity. But it is the nature of these leftovers, stuffed birds in greasy pans, trays of roasted roots, vessels of sauce — not to mention all the half-drunk bottles of booze on the counter — that all conspire to make this an especially good time of year to build a pan sauce with which to drench the reheated beast.

Part of the beauty of refried leftovers with pan sauce is that it is different every time. Each rendition incorporates and combines the browned bits of various one-of-a-kind dishes from the nights before. After cutting your teeth on these techniques during Leftovers Management Season, you will soon find yourself in a position to pull glorious sauces out of numerous pans year 'round.

The making of a good pan sauce hinges on the simple, crucial act of deglazing the pan. To do so requires a hot pan, the contents of which are about to burn, and some liquid to pour into the pan in order to avert that disaster. The liquid not only prevents burning, but loosens the browned bits of goodness from the bottom of the pan. This caramelized leftovers residue stuck on the pan contains the remnants of the feast, the turkey skin, buttered mashed potatoes, glazed parsnips and whatnot. And it has a name in French. Fond, which also means "base" or "foundation," is indeed the base or foundation of the flavor of your pan sauce. In order to develop proper fond, the pan should not be of the non-stick variety. You want a full-stick pan, like cast iron.

The act of scraping off the fond is deglazing. As cook mixes fond into the bubbling pool of flavor, pan sauce is born.

Ideally, your deglazing liquid will be determined by what you are cooking, or reheating, in that pan. If it's leftover turkey, you can get away with using either red or white wine, as they will both blend pleasantly with the big brown bird. The deglazing fluid doesn't even have to be alcoholic. Apple juice works well if you're cooking a pork chop, for example. Vinegar can work great, but must be chosen carefully and used sparingly, perhaps mixed with some water. Fresh, chopped tomatoes can be used too, depending on the dish. But some of the most versatile and user-friendly deglazing fluids are fortified wines like sherry, Madeira or Marsala. Fortified means their alcohol contents are jacked to 17-18 percent, levels at which they won't quickly turn into vinegar, and can thus sit around for weeks after being opened. They also drink reasonably well, if you're in a pinch, especially for the price: my go-to deglazer is a bottle of Fairbanks Dry Sherry that retails at $6.50.

Of the three, Marsala is the sweetest, and dry sherry (not to be confused with cream sherry) is the driest. Madeira is in the middle, leaning sweet.

Whatever you use, it takes at least a one-half cup of deglazing fluid for a typical pan. There is no penalty for using more.

When ready to deglaze, remove the food from the pan and put it on a plate or serving dish. After the liquid has been poured and fond has been scraped into the bubbling sauce, turn the heat to a manageable level and stir obsessively, as the liquid evaporates away, carefully reducing in volume.

The next step is called the "building" phase, where the sauce is customized to your particular dish. Minced shallots, garlic, stock, butter, fruit, flour, cream, herbs, and many other ingredients can be used to bring the sauce into proper harmony with the food. In the case of leftover turkey, some leftover cranberry sauce in the pan would be an obvious choice.

After the building phase, the sauce will have bulked up in volume, and some of the ingredients, like fruit, stock and onions, will have contributed moisture to the pan. So the sauce needs to be reduced again. Sometimes it reduces too fast and becomes dangerously low in moisture and must be deglazed, again. As long as nothing burns you can do this all day. When ready to serve, season with salt and pepper, and pour it on those leftovers.

This sequence, deglaze, reduce, build, reduce and finish, can be used in almost any context, not just leftovers. All you need is a pan that's about to burn. And it doesn't even need to contain meat. I like to sauté mushrooms with shallots and butter, and a pinch of nutmeg, and deglaze with sherry, followed by a shot of cream. (Of course, if I did this in a pan in which meat had just been fried, it would be better.)

New Years Eve, the climax of the holiday season, is also a time of personal deglazing. We pour down those penetrating fluids, in hopes that something will unstick and leave us a little cleaner, a little newer. And if they ask why you're drinking so much, tell them it's because you're so fond of it.

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