Have any idea what makes up the single largest component of solid waste in landfills? It’s not paper or plastic–it’s food. 40% of the food produced in the United States goes uneaten–we throw out the equivalent of 165 billion dollars every year. In addition to just being wasted, this food, which ends up rotting in landfills, is a major source of methane gas.
My parents, who lived through the second world war in Europe, had frugality ingrained in them. I was raised to regard wasting anything, but especially food, as sinful, and I still believe there are ethical dimensions to wasting food on many levels. The world already produces enough food to feed every man, woman, and child on earth almost 2,000 calories a day and yet millions of people still go hungry. Food production places a huge toll on the environment, in land and water use. And all that money being wasted could go could definitely be better spent. Even as I am aware of all this, when I clean the refrigerator out at the end of the week, I still find myself discarding more food than I would like–and I’m pretty sure many of you can identify with that. So I’m going to devote the next few editions of Stirring the Pot to reducing waste in the kitchen.
Today I’m going to talk about what can be a major contributor to wasted food: leftovers. The word itself is only about a hundred years old. Before refrigeration was widely available the idea of using up leftover food was so integral to cooking there wasn’t even a word to define it. Rather than having to pickle or smoke or dry foods to preserve them, they could simply be kept cold and reappear in the same form for days. Nowadays, some people think of leftovers as a dirty word–I actually overheard someone in the office kitchen declaring that they never ate leftovers and considered it “used food”! It may not be that fun to eat the same meal you had last night again the next day, but fortunately, all over the world cultures have come up with clever ways to reinvent leftovers into new dishes, many of which are delicious in their own right. These dishes transform simple ingredients like leftover rice, potatoes, pasta or bread into soothing soups, casseroles, breakfast dishes, or even desserts.
I grew up eating many Italian foods that featured creative use of cooked ingredients. A frittata is an easy way to use up leftover vegetables or meats–think spinach, broccoli, or chard and chopped bits of ham or bacon. I often make salad with leftover pasta but because of the shape, when I have leftover spaghetti I make a frittata instead. Just heat up the pasta in an oven proof pan with a little olive oil–you can toss in leftover marinara if you have some. For a half pound of leftover pasta, beat five eggs, season with salt and pepper and chopped parsley, and pour on top–don’t stir it. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the eggs begin to set–about eight minutes. Lift it up with a spatula and check to make sure the bottom is not browning too much. Sprinkle cheese on top and run under the broiler for a few minutes to set the top. To serve, slip fritatta out of the pan and cut in wedges.
Virtually every culture has a way of using leftover rice–from rice pudding to that Chinese takeout staple, fried rice. Nasi Goreng is an Indonesian version of fried rice with garlic or shallots, tomato, chilies, and scraps of chicken or beef. One of my favorite things to eat–leftovers or no–is the Korean rice dish bibimbap. Bibimbap was traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve as a way to use up all the side dishes and pickled vegetables and start the year fresh. Steamed white rice is topped with small amounts of various pickled or cooked vegetables and meats, spicy gochujang paste, and a fried egg. For a more Mediterranean flavor, my mother used to toss leftover rice with a little red onion, peas, parsley, and minced cooked pork. Dressed with a vinaigrette it makes a delicious salad.
If you tend to have leftover cooked potatoes, there are many dishes designed to incorporate them. Hash browns are of course, very familiar, but have you ever made the charmingly named Bubble & Squeak? This dish of fried leftover cabbage, bacon, ham, onion and cooked potatoes makes a traditional English breakfast. The Scotts have a similar dish of potatoes simmered in beef drippings and stock called Stovies. A dish called Potatoes Parmentier is named after a pharmacist who was taken prisoner by the Prussians at the time of the Seven Years War. During his captivity he was fed a diet consisting mainly of potatoes–but far from being sick of them, when he was released he went on to popularize them as a nutritious food in his native France. His gravestone in the famous Pére Lachaise cemetery is still adorned with spuds left by visitors. The eponymous dish is made by tossing cooked potatoes with clarified butter or olive oil and roasting them in the oven, then tossing them with salt, pepper, fresh herbs and a squeeze of lemon.
The many uses for stale bread include French toast, bread pudding and breakfast stratas. Italians make a wonderful soup called ribollita using leftover scraps of vegetables simmered in broth and thickened with chunks of stale bread. To make Panzanella, another Italian dish, bread is first soaked in water and wrung out, and tossed with fresh tomatoes and basil, then dressed with olive oil and vinegar. A French sandwich called Pan Bagnat makes use of day old bread as well as cooked green beans or other legumes. You can use up any fresh vegetables you have on hand like cucumbers, peppers, or fennel. My mom’s best friend taught me how to make this when I was in college. Cut open a baguette or loaf of ciabatta, drizzle both sides with olive oil–flavored with minced garlic or anchovies, if you like. On one side, add cooked beans, sliced vegetables, chopped cured black olives, and hard-cooked eggs. For a more substantial sandwich add some canned tuna preferably the kind packed in olive oil. Top with the other piece of bread and wrap tightly. This can be made a day ahead–its even better when the flavors have a chance to mingle. It’s also great for picnics.
A Mexican dish I have never personally made but sounds delicious, makes use of leftover tortillas. It’s called Chilaquiles. Stale corn tortillas are cut in quarters and lightly fried, and then simmered in red or green salsa or mole until softened. The chilaquiles are then garnished with crema, shredded queso blanco, raw onion and avocado slices. You can add pulled chicken for a lunch or serve with refried beans and eggs for breakfast.
The best thing about many of these recipes is you can really improvise and use whatever you have on hand–you can even incorporate the leftovers of several different meals. There are loads more recipes for stews, casseroles and soups. Try googling whatever ingredient you have + leftover and recipe–you’ll be surprised how many ideas you’ll find. If you are looking for a good read and some inspiration, read Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got by Tod Davies. Although it does include some recipes, its much more about being creative, and through practice, gaining the confidence to adjust measurements, make substitutions based on what’s on hand, and experiment with flavor profiles to your own liking.