Savory turkey in a rich, creamy sauce is perfect over flaky biscuits and mashed potatoes. Pimentos add unexpected brightness. This West Virginia favorite is the ultimate comfort food, and the best way to use leftover turkey.
I would imagine most kids don’t exactly look forward to “hot lunch” days. I know I was probably ambivalent at best most of the time, but in the Brooke County, West Virginia school system, there was one day everyone counted down to: creamed turkey day. Chills.
When I say everyone, I do mean everyone—students, teachers, staff, I even remember some friends timing their visits back from college to have it—cafeterias were standing room only. The only other hot lunches I can remember getting a sniff were pizza turnovers and chicken fries.
When creamed turkey came up on the school lunch schedule, you circled it in red marker. It even got a shout-out in my high school yearbook.
Luckily for me, creamed turkey wasn’t just a school treat. It was one of my Ya-ya’s specialties. I’m not sure exactly how far it goes back, but I know she got it from her mother, my Nee-nee. Born out of frugality, this rustic recipe was created to use up and stretch out holiday leftovers so nothing would go to waste. Over the years it’s become a tradition just as important as the main event.
This is actually the first time my family’s version has been put to paper, or even quantified into exact measurements. My Ya-ya taught me how to make creamed turkey after I moved to Tennessee. I’d never really been homesick before, but then again I’d never lived out of state, even if I was hours from home.
West Virginia has a sense of place that I didn’t realize was so strong until I started feeling like I wasn’t fully a part of it anymore. Recipes like this help me feel rooted no matter where I am.
Our Weese family recipe is a unique in that it uses pimentos. I love the unexpected brightness they bring to this dish, which is rightly heavy. I mean, it’s mountain-region comfort food, right? We serve it over mashed potatoes and biscuits for the full effect.
If you’re a little wary of this, I honestly don’t blame you. If this wasn’t a childhood favorite, I’d think it was a little suspect. The first time I saw it I was a towhead, gap-toothed, tartan-uniformed little girl in St. John (the Evangelist) School’s noisy K-8 cafeteria. So much peer pressure with the older kids around, but I was not an easy sell.
On the beige, segmented tray it looked… odd. Okay, it looked like slop. DELICIOUS slop. I wasn’t that picky an eater, but I was a kindergartener—I sulked and ate the mashed potatoes, biscuits and plasticky peas around the creamed turkey. At some point I accidentally got a little of the gravy on my fork. Then I accidentally got a little more.
Then I devoured pretty much all of it like food was a new concept.
As an adult, I don’t generally go out of my way looking for such hearty food, and I would imagine it looks off-putting to newbies. I made some for my parents-in-law last month when they visited and not gonna lie, I was a little relieved when they said it looked delicious before tasting it.
My father-in-law says creamed turkey was a big event at his school in Southern West Virginia as well, made from one of his teachers’ recipe for special occasions. His mother asked for the recipe and made it since her three boys loved it so much. I’d guess it’s probably a fairly similar recipe, though they ate it over toast.
A little extra I’ve added to our family’s recipe is infusing a little thyme and sage into the cream sauce. It’s totally optional, but it’s an easy addition and I think it’s worth it. Herbs make pretty much everything taste (and smell) better. Thyme is a fragrant chameleon, and I think sage may have actually been made for this.
One of the great things about creamed turkey is that, as with most recipes, it can teach you how to make so many other recipes. You could do this with chicken, with veggies, or if you make it with beef and mushrooms you have your own version of beef stroganoff. Step 6 alone can help you thicken just about any soup or stew with a flour slurry (use cold water instead of hot cooking liquid for a cornstarch slurry). Just keep it in your back pocket.
The tip, not the soup. Don’t put soup in any of your pockets.
I mentioned in my last post that this would be a bonus recipe for this week. That was… Tuesday? It’s the holidays and we’ve been making our way to family things and trying to get all our shopping in since we don’t exactly have free time in the fall. It’s Sunday, and according to my personal calendar, that’s the same week. Please forgive me if you don’t agree. Make this if you need a more persuasive argument—I’m confident it will help my case.