Love Your Leftovers


Continuing in the theme of saving money on food costs, I want to talk about an often-overlooked resource right in your own kitchen. That’s right, leftovers. Unless you have a very unusual family, you will always have something leftover. What you have, however, is not necessarily enough for another meal or even a full serving. So you have to get creative. Amy Dacyczyn (The Tightwad Gazette) had what I considered the easiest solution – she froze all reheatable leftovers individually until she had enough for a family meal, then brought them out for a potpourri of leftovers. She also kept a container in the freezer into which she put all leftovers except desserts. When it was full, she made a pot of soup. Before I embark on this topic, however, let me offer a couple of thoughts.

Serving Food

Serve from bowls or platters rather than plating food. The rule of thumb is everybody takes one or two serving spoons full and eats that, then goes back for more if still hungry. This avoids the leftover food on the plate that you may not want to serve tomorrow. Although, if you’re talking about food left from a family meal, there really isn’t any reason you can’t use that food, especially if you’re cooking it again. The idea behind not using food from diners’ plates is to prevent the spread of disease. The people who live in your house have already been exposed to all your germs and vice versa. Leftover peas from Johnnie’s plate can certainly go into a pot of soup – the cooking should take care of any germs. Just make sure you’re refrigerating it promptly and use it within a day or two.

If using leftover food from diners’ plates triggers your “ick” factor, mix the plate leftovers with some dry or canned dog food and give it to the family canine. Don’t do this with cats – they are meat eaters while dogs can handle a broad range of foods. You’re still cutting overall costs and avoiding food waste, which is the important part.

You’re going to come up with some “interesting” taste combinations. It will be hard to replicate the ones you really like, but it adds to your eating adventure. Generally speaking, it’s better not to mix distinctly different ethnic sauces – personally, I don’t recommend combining spaghetti sauce and teriyaki. On the other hand, orange or plum sauce plus teriyaki isn’t bad at all.

Leftover Vegetables

Any mom knows that kids and husbands tend to ignore the “eat your vegetables” mantra. Luckily, veggies are one of the easiest things to re-purpose. Drop them into a mixed vegetable soup. Add to a frittata or omelet. Toss them with pasta or add them into a salad. Mix vegetables with leftover rice and mix up a stir-fry sauce. Use for quesadillas. A caveat here – cruciferous veggies like broccoli tend to develop a sulfurous taste if overcooked. They’ll do better in a salad. Or make a soup base and cook it to a full rolling boil. Whiz the broccoli or cauliflower in a blender with a little of the soup base, then stir into the soup and warm it gently for a few minutes. Eat as is or add a little cream.

Leftover Potatoes

You can do darned near anything with a potato, cooked or not. Mashed potatoes can become soup, croquettes or patties. Hashed browns make a good base for a fried or poached egg. Baked potatoes can be jazzed up with cheese and toppings for a loaded potato or stuffed into split hot dogs, sprinkled with cheese and baked until the cheese melts. Make potato bread. Fry some chopped onions, combine with chopped cooked meat and cooked potatoes or french fries to make hash.

Leftover Meat

Some of these are leftover meat classics for obvious reasons – the chef’s salad, the sandwich, the wrap. Add meat to stews or soups, or create a soup from the pan juices and chopped meat, plus whatever veggies you have. If you have a few relatively large slices, whip up a fancy sauce and top the reheated meat with that. Chop very fine or run it through the food processor; mix with mayo, other condiments, pickles, celery, olives and onions to make a sandwich spread. Unless you really like your meat well done, I recommend rare to medium when serving it the first time, as it will be better when reheated.

Leftover Breads

For most of these, we’re talking stale dry bread – an oven with a pilot light is a good place to do the drying. You can store in an air-tight container or the freezer. For bread crumbs, dry, toast and crush before storing to save space. Lots of classics here – strata, bread pudding, croutons, stuffing for poultry, French toast, panzella, fruit betty. Mix bread crumbs with butter to top leftover veggies and casseroles. Use bread crumbs to stuff vegetables like zucchini or mushrooms, to bread things you want to fry or as meatloaf filler. Or you can make bread crumb cookies.

Leftover Desserts

Yes, occasionally you may even have leftovers in the dessert department. Cookies and brownies can be dried, crushed and sprinkled on ice cream, custard pies or frosted cake, used for cookie crumb crusts or mixed into streusel for a coffee cake. Substitute slices of stale pound cake for the stale bread in your French toast. Chunks of almost any leftover cake can be turned into a trifle. Leftover pudding, fruit or custard sauce can also go into that trifle. Use the food processor to turn dried cake into crumbs, mix with leftover frosting or cream cheese and roll into cake balls or truffles. Dip the truffles into melted chocolate.

Leftover Cheese

You can mix a little leftover cheese into anything. Well, OK, maybe not ice cream. But it’s good for topping veggies or casseroles, mixed into mashed potatoes or in almost any kind of soup. If you grate and freeze chunks or have leftover grated cheese in the first place, you can freeze it until you have enough for a mixed cheese sauce or cheese soup. Add it to dips, make quesadillas, sprinkle grated cheese on popcorn with butter and salt.

Leftover Noodles or Pasta

How you use leftover noodles and pasta depends on whether it’s plain or mixed with sauce, cheese or meat. If any of the latter, my usual strategy is to freeze and then mix in the next time I make the dish. But you can also turn any of these into soup – spaghetti with meat sauce can become pasta e fagioli when mixed with some leftover beans, veggies and broth. Any kind of cooked pasta can become a pasta salad, frittata or the base for sausage or hamburger gravy. Pan-fried spaghetti or linguine is a good base for vegetable lo mein.

Why should you use leftovers? Here are three reasons. Saving money; when food is costly, that’s pretty darned important. It reduces food waste. Finally, it expresses reverence for the miracle of life and the effort that goes into producing the food we eat.

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