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Using Leftovers To Your Advantage

meg's picture

If there's anything that pains me greatly in the kitchen, it's wasting food. Most tasks, including washing dishes (and we don't have a dishwasher), I perform without complaint. This may be because I've resigned myself to doing them or because I genuinely don't mind. However, cleaning out the refrigerator is always sobering.

Food waste is a persistent problem that we've been trying to eliminate from our kitchen. We do pretty well, especially considering that we test a lot of recipes, and we're only two people. But I still find myself tossing out odds and ends that were forgotten or leftovers that were unloved. While there are worse things than wasting a bit of food here and there, it's not something that I ever want to be comfortable with.

But as any persistent home cook knows, using up leftovers is fraught with little cumbersome details. It's not always a matter of reheat and eat. Just as some foods taste better the second, third, or fourth day, others are noticeably the worse for wear, developing a "warmed-over" taste and unappealing texture. What's more, attempting to combine leftovers often results in something inferior to the original dishes, muddying flavors and textures.

A third problem that I have often experienced is the leftover feedback loop phenomenon: taking leftovers to make something new and then having leftovers of the new dish, etc., etc. You could theoretically eat leftovers for the rest of your life if you're not careful.

In short, leftovers can be a reward for taking the time to cook something, or they can be a punishment. Take care lest the latter usurp the former. Below are some basic tips for using leftovers, with an eye towards economy and flavor.

--Limit the number of leftover ingredients you are working with so that they retain some semblance of identity.

--Freshen up leftovers by serving them with fresh greens (chopped herbs, for instance) or with a freshly made sauce.

--Create a contrast in texture. If your leftovers are soft (or, heaven forbid, mushy), add minced celery or peppers, nuts, water chestnuts, crisp bacon, herbs, or buttered bread crumbs.

--Have a small store of leftover components in your fridge and freezer--cooked beans and grains, roasted vegetables, bread crumbs, poached meats, etc.--as these can greatly reduce the time it takes to get dinner on the table. For instance, in the photo above, I made a gratin of leftover black eyed peas and cooked wheat berries. I spruced it up with fresh kale and grated cheese from some odds and ends knocking around in my cheese drawer. For a flavor boost, I sautéed some onion, garlic, and the chopped up remnants of a package of salami and added this to the bean mixture. My Pumpkin and Black-Eyed Pea Cakes were also a happy result of leftovers.

--Use leftover pasta in pasta salads, thrown into soups at the last minute, or in croquettes or frittatas (frittatas happen to be a great vehicle for all sorts of leftovers).

--Don't throw away those chicken bones! Use them, along with vegetable trimmings, to make flavorful stock.

--Tuck leftover cooked meats into savory pies, frittatas, enchiladas, or casseroles (if the word "casserole" gives you chills, call it a gratin and no one will be the wiser).

--Use leftover potatoes in potato cakes (add onion, garlic, and herbs for flavor), dice roasted or boiled potatoes and panfry them until golden, or use mashed potato leftovers as a quick topping for meat pies (think Shepherd's Pie).

--At the risk of stating the obvious, don't make more than you know you'll need. If you're not a fan of leftovers, try halving large recipes to suit your family's needs. If you still end up with more than you need at the moment, freeze the leftovers in individual portion sizes. In a few weeks, when that chicken casserole is but a memory, you may benefit from being able to pull a few servings out of thin air at a moment's notice.

--While it may take more time initially, roasting large cuts of meat such as pork shoulder are worth the time investment. The leftovers can be used for a week's worth of meals: think burritos con carne, tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, stuffed peppers, sandwiches, pizza, lasagne, hand pies, and a variety of other dishes.

Other articles you might enjoy: Venison Black Bean Chili, Celery Revisited, Using the Bountiful Harvest


Pauline Beard's picture

I used the Kale and Potato recipe in the 75th Anniversary edition of the Joy of Cooking, page 278, and it has not cheese listed in the recipe. Fortunately I spread some cheddar and fresh Parmesan over the last layer and it was tasty. Is this an error? I can't see any mention of it in the eratta section on this edition on line.

meg's picture

Nope, there's not supposed to be any cheese in the recipe, but you did the right thing--you took a recipe from the book and made it your own. That's essentially what JOY is great at--giving you a guideline (and most recipes are just guidelines) that you can tweak to suit your tastes.

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