Leftovers don’t have to look or taste like leftovers anymore, listlessly plopped from doggie bag to plate with possibly a quick zap in the microwave. Smartly use those leavings, whether from restaurant meals or takeout chow to create something new and delicious. In so doing, you’ll even be making your country proud.
Worried that people who eat out more often, especially fast food, are more likely to be overweight or obese, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ChooseMyPlate.gov program urges, among other suggestions, that one avoid oversize portions. “Take home half of your meal,” the program’s website urges.
And you’ll be helping chip away at a growing food problem. The idea of transforming food that would otherwise go to waste into something delicious has been in the news of late. The conversation has ranged from chef Dan Barber’s transformation of his Blue Hill restaurant in New York into wastED, a pop-up focused on turning trimmings often discarded into dinner, to the book “American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It)” by Jonathan Bloom (Da Capo Lifelong Books, $16.99, 384 pages).
And, of course, there’s also the question of taste.
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“Sometimes the leftovers come out better,” says Jacques Pepin, the Madison, Conn.-based star chef, cookbook author and television cooking show host who over a long career has turned kitchen frugality into a delicious art. “There’s always something you can do with it.”
Take the recipe for rice pudding from his newest book slated for publication in October, “Jacques Pepin Heart & Soul in the Kitchen” (Rux Martin/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $35). It’s made with leftover Chinese restaurant rice. And a pudding is just one thing you can do; Pepin uses it in stir-fries and in soup. It’s that kind of open-minded use of leftovers that can make for some eye-opening moments in the kitchen.
“Rarely do I make a dish where I don’t look at it and think of it as a leftover,” Pepin says, noting that too many people look once and don’t know what to do. “People waste food all the time.”
Here are some ideas, so you don’t have to waste leftovers anymore.
Turn cold pieces of fast-food fried chicken into a salad. Kevin Pang, my Chicago Tribune colleague, offers this: Cube the chicken, toss with mayonnaise, preferably the Japanese Kewpie brand, Sriracha sauce and fresh lime juice. Wing the proportions to suit your taste. Add cubes of green apple, peeled or unpeeled, and 1-inch pieces of fresh green onion.
Italian sausage, kielbasa, hot dogs
Slice into rounds, then arrange atop a frozen pizza and bake; drop into an escarole soup, a Louisiana jambalaya, a New England-style corn chowder or a mound of sauerkraut.
Gyro or shawarma meat
Turn those slices into a salad, based on one from Australian chef Matt Wilkinson in his new cookbook, “Mr. Wilkinson’s Well-Dressed Salads” (Black Dog & Leventhal, $27.95, 272 pages). He calls for leftover roast leg of lamb, but gyro leftovers work well too. For Wilkinson’s salad, mix together 1 large grated carrot, torn pieces of fresh mint, parsley and cilantro leaves; a little toasted coconut; and raisins. Toss with “a splash of good white wine vinegar and some plain yogurt,” he says. Serve the salad over the meat slices, accompanied by grilled bread.
Slice meat thinly, reheat in a skillet or microwave, stuff into a split baguette or sandwich roll lined with lettuce. Garnish with fresh cilantro sprigs, chopped onion and Sriracha sauce.
Make Pepin’s rice pudding, adapted from his upcoming book: Heat 2 cups cooked white rice and 3 1/2 cups milk to a boil in an ovenproof saucepan. Cover; bake at 350 degrees, 30 minutes; the rice should be very creamy. Stir in 1/2 cup dried cherries or cranberries, 1/3 cup maple syrup, 2 teaspoons grated lime zest, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1/4 cup sugar and 1/2 cup sour cream. Let cool. Serve with a blueberry sauce, if you like: Heat 1 pint small blueberries and 1/3 cup sugar to a boil in a saucepan, stirring occasionally. Boil, 1-2 minutes. Cool before using.
Also consider: Stir rice into a large quantity of water, and make the rice porridge known as congee; garnish with cilantro sprigs, diced chilies, leftover roast chicken or pork.
Or make fried rice: Stir-fry with beaten egg, minced green onion and garlic, salt and some leftover cooked vegetables – peas, chopped red or green pepper, diced carrots.
Tortillas and tortilla chips
Use soft tortillas to make quesadillas: Spoon whatever filling you have on hand – sliced cheese, leftover roast beef, pork or chicken, cooked vegetables – onto the tortillas; fold in half. Heat over medium heat until the filling is hot and the tortillas are lightly toasted on both sides (turn carefully).
Other ideas: Thinly slice tortillas into strips, toast in a dry skillet and use as a topping for chicken soup or salad. With tortilla chips, make these chilaquiles, adapted from Russ Parsons’ recipe: Stir 8 beaten eggs into some chopped onion and poblano that you’ve sautéed. Don’t stir. After eggs begin to set, stir in 2 cups roughly broken-up tortilla chips. Season with salt. Once eggs are nearly set, stir in some grated cheese (Cotija, jack, Chihuahua). Finish cooking; serve with more cheese, topped with chopped cilantro, salsa, sour cream.
Chop up cooked vegetables, suggests Wilkinson, and turn them into croquettes or vegetable hash; or mix with cheese, and make a savory pie topping. What’s a croquette? Think of it kinda like a meatball. Bind finely chopped vegetables with beaten egg, a little milk, maybe some flour, and form into balls. Roll the balls in breadcrumbs and fry until golden.
Also: Purée chopped cooked vegetables into a soup base of vegetable or chicken stock, with or without cream or milk; fold into a frittata or omelet; toss into your own homemade fried rice.
Tips to take away when ordering out
Whether you’re phoning the local Chinese takeout, picking up dinner at the supermarket or considering your next meal based on what’s in that swanky restaurant doggie bag just delivered to your table, here are tips for getting the most meal for your money.
▪ One delivery, two meals. I love Chinese food, and I can eat it often. So, when ordering delivery, I tend to order extra food – an additional entree, a container of soup – so I can make a second meal a day or so later without having to pay a second delivery charge. OK, we’re only talking a couple of dollars, but if you order Chinese takeout as often as I order Chinese takeout, it can add up over a year.
I do have a plan in ordering, though. I eat the items that don’t store well right away, things like pot stickers or shrimp curry. Dishes that can hold a day or two in the refrigerator, such as hot-and-sour soup or Sichuan-style green beans, are enjoyed later. Another bonus in ordering two meals at one time? Some restaurants will give you a freebie – an appetizer, logo teacup or T-shirt, a couple of oranges even – if your purchase hits a certain dollar amount.
▪ Order wisely. Recognize the limitations of delivery or takeout from a restaurant or supermarket. Foods that need to stay piping hot or super-crunchy or have to be eaten immediately, items like fried chicken or spring rolls or samosas, tend to wilt when packed in containers, because steam can build up on the way to your home. Some restaurants will punch a hole in the container to let the steam escape, but I don’t think that works too well – and there’s the risk of spillage. Securely packaged wet items, such as stews, curries and saucy barbecue, seem to hold up the best in terms of flavor and texture – and they’re easy to reheat in the microwave if they have cooled on the ride.
▪ Pizza puzzles. Nothing beats a pie straight out of a pizzeria’s oven. The crust is crisp, the cheese melted and bubbling, the aroma irresistible. To me, pizza at home never has that dramatic spark. Still, I make do. If the pizza arrives too cool or if I’m eating it the next day out of the refrigerator, I place the pie on a baking sheet, stick it into a cold oven, and set the temperature for 350 degrees. When the oven bell bings telling me the temperature has been reached, I take the pizza out of the oven. It’s hot enough to eat, and the crust is crisp. Alternatively, you can take a tip from a friend of mine who microwaves the leftover pizza to take off the chill, then crisps up the crust for a few minutes in a hot, dry skillet.
▪ Mind temperatures. For maximum food safety, keep cold things cold, hot things hot, and perishable foods at room temperature no more than 2 hours. Plan your grocery trip so you can pick up prepared foods as you finish shopping. Factor the trip home from the market or the restaurant. If ordering food in, ask how long the delivery will take and, if in doubt, how will the restaurant make sure your food is at the proper temperature. I, for one, wouldn’t order sushi in a heat wave without some sort of guarantee it will be truly chilled on arrival.
(Now, be realistic here; don’t start cross-examining the restaurant worker on the telephone during the dinner rush. Call earlier in the day when business is slow.)