Leftovers and I are not friends. I’ve given them multiple chances, but we just don’t click. Sure, the food is fun the first time around, but by the next day, they just become a nuisance. Besides hanging around–and stinking up–my fridge, leftovers take up precious space for other things like produce and all of the craft beer that we never seem to have enough room for. Despite my best attempts at being friendly, I typically end up showing them the door–of the trashcan. Every once in a while, I will come across a leftover that is extra special and feel the need to keep it around for one extra meal. I need to be more accommodating to my fridge-dwelling acquaintances; I want us to be friends. The only way that’s going to happen is if I disguise them as something else. Something new. Something different.
I’ve done it so many times I’ve lost count: staring into my refrigerator waiting for the night’s dinner idea to jump out at me. It rarely happens. I cook something less desirable or opt for eating out and what is in the fridge goes in the garbage. Years ago, in an effort to waste less, I came up with a system that would help me use up leftovers: I call it my Leftover Lineup. I devised some key words and wrote them on my pantry chalkboard and used them to spark some creativity in the kitchen. I had a thought that if I could repurpose those remnants in the fridge, then it was as if an entirely new meal was being created–not just relived from a previous night. It was like being a chef on an episode of Chopped in my very own kitchen. Since then, the chalk had faded and so had my gumption.
About a month ago, I had an epiphany: one that made me remember my old system and change the way I operate in the kitchen. I was cleaning out my fridge and I’ll tell you what I found: a half a can of beans, leftover pasta, a stalk of celery, some bruised fruit, a handful of shredded cheese, and old shriveled turnips from the market. My first impulse kicked in and I threw it all away. After I tossed it, I got really angry with myself; in the Chopped kitchen, that could have been a meal. It got me thinking back to my Leftover Lineup and wanting to do better. To cook more. To waste less.
I got out my chalk and retraced those faded words to bring new life to an old concept. This is what I wrote:
• Same as before
Same as before–Easiest of all: if you loved it once, love it again the same way. Pizza, I’m talking to you.
Soup–One of great things about soup is you can empty your fridge into a pot along with some water or stock and cook up something pretty incredible and comforting. Even yesterday’s pasta can be thrown into a soup pot.
Smoothie–If you’ve got some bruised fruit, a half can of coconut milk, a few baby carrots and a handful of nuts, you are on your way to a tasty smoothie.
Salad–Whether you choose leftover greens or grains for your salad base, there are bound to be some great toppings hiding in the fridge.
Sauce–I think just about any dish could benefit from a bit of sauce: I turn yogurt into Tzaziki or a creamy dressing; I blend up leftover canned tomatoes into tomato sauce; I throw some curry paste or powder in to leftover coconut milk for a tasty curry. If it’s liquidy, think sauce.
Sandwich–What doesn’t taste good between two sliced of bread? Or, make it a crostini: thick, sliced, toasted bread drizzled with olive oil and topped with smashed veggies and cheese.
Scramble–Take surplus veggies and protein and add to some beaten eggs for an omelet or scramble. If you have the time, make a quiche with my foolproof quiche recipe.
Side–If you only have enough left over for one entree sized portion, divide it up and serve alongside a main dish to feed the entire family.
Sauté–A fancy French word that means cooked in a pan with a small amount of fat. My favorite thing to do in this category is throw some leftover veggies into a pan with some diced potatoes and carrots. Topped with a runny egg, you’ve got yourself a hash.
Using the Leftover Lineup was great, but it wasn’t enough; I needed one more step. This aforementioned wasted food was all getting lost in the abyss of my refrigerator by hiding in drawers and in unmarked containers. I started to inventory our food on a dry erase board; I have sections for produce, leftovers and frozen foods. This has helped me to plan meals without even opening the refrigerator door. I have a new appreciation for the challenge that leftovers brings.
Here is my first experiment from my leftover challenge: carrot pudding. Ok, first off, I agree that sounds odd; and second, pudding is not a category on the Leftover Lineup. What do you do with a large bottle of carrot juice that was circling the expiration drain? I didn’t want to waste it. A smoothie bowl was the first thing that popped in my head because they are all the rage now–and smoothie is one of the items on my list–but then I thought, what about a tapioca bowl? Tapioca is my favorite comfort food, except for one thing, it’s made with milk. The light bulb came on to swap out the milk with carrot juice. After all, tapioca is a thickener, so is the dairy really necessary? Nope. I followed the box recipe and subbed out an equal amount carrot juice for the milk; it gelled beautifully. I topped it with some toasted unsweetened coconut, chopped walnuts and chia seeds for a sweet treat without the guilt.
So,here we go; I’m embarking on a quest to plan more and waste less. Step one: revamp my fridge. Step two: get organized. Step three: get creative! I can totally do this. I should like to think that someone with such an extensive collection of cookbooks and cooking magazines has learned a thing or ten along the way. If all goes well, a follow-up post in the future may be titled Loving Leftovers.