I’m still brainstorming this dang cookbook. I’m torn between thinking it’s genius or it’s idiocy. Story of my life, right? Who needs to be told to use up leftovers? I did.
In theory, you’ll eat them later and they will taste just as good as they did the first time.
I hate that theory. Pfui! I spit on that theory.
There are a few things that are good as leftovers: pizza and fried chicken are good. Mashed potatoes, good.
Half a soggy sandwich in a takeout box, not good. That cooking experiment where it went okay and then you dumped everything into a container and threw it in the microwave but now you’re afraid to eat it. Not good. The perfectly grilled steak that you brought home from a friend’s house that now is covered with some kind of coagulated grease and takes like leather when you heated it up again.
Okay. The thing is, you were probably raised like me, with the idea that you could just throw leftovers in the microwave and have them be magically all better. And you never really learned how to deal with them otherwise.
I’m going to say this, and it’s going to make me sound like an idiot to some people, but it needs to be said: before there were microwaves, people had waaaay more interesting, tasty ways to deal with leftovers. They would cook things in order to have the leftovers they needed to make something else.
I bet you could never imagine saying “Oh, yay, leftovers,” but that was how these pre-microwave savages operated: deliciously.
- Chicken pot pie is a way to use up leftover roast chicken. Same for chicken salad.
- French toast, croutons, the breading crumbs on a lot of deep-fried dishes, bread soup, bread salad–all ways of using up stale bread.
- Fried rice. Oh, how I love you, fried rice.
- Broth. All broths are just ways of using up leftovers.
- Burritos? Leftover roast meat, rice, and beans.
- Dim sum: leftover bbq pork, shimp, veggies, and more.
- Even the classic roast beef au jus is just a way to use up…roast beef.
There are probably a thousand other tricks that we’ve been losing out of our cooking repetoire, because of microwaves.
However, there are some new tricks that we’ve made up, because of the era in which we grew up (and went to college). Here’s one:
Kitchen Sink Ramen (Pan-Asian Version)
Prepare a package of ramen following the package directions–or however you see fit.
Add a half-cup or so (total) of the following:
- Protein that isn’t a) nasty-smelling or b) covered in dairy products
- Ditto for veggies.
- Peanut butter.
- Pieces of fruit (because sweet and sour is a thing, right?)
- The little side dishes of whatever came with your takeout (no dairy).
- I advise against adding other types of starch unless you’re desperate. Leftover starch can quickly turn into mush.
Supplement with a couple of tablespoons of the following flavor-boosters (mix and match at your own risk):
- BBQ sauce.
- Hot sauce.
- Lemon/lime juice.
- Sweet/sour sauce.
- The packets of whatever came with your takeout.
- Soy sauce.
- There is, in fact, a world of Asian sauces to explore.
And, as with almost any type of dish designed to use up leftovers, you can always top it with a fried egg, and it’ll be brilliant.
Variations & Further Research
Rice + leftovers + soy sauce + egg = fried rice (or bimbibap).
Potatoes + leftovers + beef broth + onion = hash (e.g., corned beef hash).
Macaroni + leftovers + cheese + milk = deluxe mac’n’cheese.
Rice + leftovers + tomatoes = Spanish rice (a knockoff version of paella by the way).
Beans/lentils + leftovers + broth = bean/lentil soup (in fact, most non-classy soups can be treated as a repository for leftovers).
Leftovers + bread crumbs + eggs = croquettes (ham croquettes, salmon patties, crab cakes, mac’n’cheese balls, etc.).
Leftovers + sour cream/mayo/plain yogurt + green onions/jalapenos/lemon = dip (onion dip, artichoke dip, shrimp dip, roasted red pepper dip).
Dessert + oatmeal + yogurt = parfait.
Leftovers + hotdogs + sauces and raw onions = yum (chili dogs, anyone? how about kim chee dogs?).
Something that I’ve been noticing is that a lot of the things we buy or make from scratch are really meant to absorb leftovers, but people don’t necessarily write down recipes that start out with “first get your leftover chili…” We’re losing touch with what, exactly, we can do with leftovers and how fundamental they are to a lot of home-cooking dishes that never really got written down. Everyone thinks, “Crap, who wants to see a recipe for ramen with stuff in it?” But that’s how classic dishes get made: people looking to stretch their budget take the cheapest ingredients around, add all the leftovers they can gets, and use a couple of tricks to make it actually taste good. Look up the history of a lot of traditional dishes, and you’ll find a hidden stash for leftovers in it.
Your Go-To Leftover Dish
What about you? What if you don’t like ramen, or you have a lot of dairy mixed in with your proteins and veggies?
Here’s my suggestion:
- Figure out your favorite cuisine. American, Thai, Mexican, Italian, Greek, what have you.
- Do a search for “[Name of Cuisine] leftover recipes.”
- Because of the power of the Internet, you will strike gold. LOTS of gold.
- Pick a dish that you really, really like. And always have the stuff on hand that you need to make that dish, other than leftovers. I mean, write it on a permanent grocery list and tape it to the inside of a cabinet, so when you go out for groceries, you take a quick look and make sure you have all the stuff you need to make your leftover dish.
As a matter of fact, identifying your favorite cuisine can have a side benefit, too. While you’re on the Internet, do a search for “How to stock a [Name of Cuisine] pantry.”
In a lot of cookbooks, you’ll see a section about how to stock your pantry, based on whatever the cook’s idea of what should go in it, but they don’t necessarily address the reason for having a pantry:
A pantry is a collection of stuff that makes leftovers taste good.
Okay, to an overachiever cook, it’s really a collection of items that you use in all your cooking. But for our purposes, it’s really just a storehouse of what you need to get by with your leftovers. So when you’re building your initial pantry (or taking a look at your overstuffed pantry and trying to figure out what you really need), look at your favorite leftover recipes, and prioritize the stuff you need to make it. That’s your pantry.
Other Tips for Leftovers
- When you throw the leftovers in the fridge, don’t mix everything together. It’s easier to adapt leftovers when they’re in separate components.
- It’s okay to throw out wilted bread, lettuce, and veggies and just eat the meat.
- The mix seems to run about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of cooked starch with about 1/2 cup of other stuff, with a bunch of flavor-boosting sauces and possibly an egg on top. (Of course there are exceptions, like dips.)
- When you are making something basic, like roast chicken or mashed potatoes, make a lot of it. Because you’ll be using some of it for leftovers later.
- I’m not going to lecture you on food safety. I’m no expert. But store your food safely.
If you liked this blog post…consider signing up for my newsletter or check out a free copy of the first episode of Alice’s Adventures in Underland: The Queen of Stilled Hearts. I have other (much older) foodie posts at http://foodie.deannaknippling.com. Thanks!