Smart Cooking Trounces Food Waste: How to Make Mincemeat - or Just Lunch - of Leftovers

photo by Rich Sanders

“Finish your dinner! Children in [insert name of socio-economically disadvantaged country here] are starving!” That anguished cry from distraught mothers of baby boomers echoed for decades across post-war United States. And for good reason. World War II had brought the concept of rationing and waste-not-want-not meals to America’s dinner table.

Mom was right. The word then was “conservation” – the notion hadn’t yet broadened into the prevalent view of sustainability – but the idea that wasting food was shameful at best and sinful at worst was relevant then and still applies today. Fortunately, now that we’re responsible adults, we can heed that admonition and take action by changing our eating habits – and changing the world in the process.

Barring any unorthodox practices, chances are you acquire your chow either by making it at home, eating out or ordering in.

If you’re a home cook, you probably already know about collecting fresh vegetable scraps, stems and trimmings (and even corn cobs) in your freezer with an eye toward making stock; you can even toss in veggies that are past their prime (but not spoiled). Bring to a boil, simmer and strain. I suggest that you don’t salt or season your stock at this point, as you might want to reduce it to intensify the flavor and if you’ve already added salt, you’ll end up with an overly-saline concoction. You probably also know that the carcass from that roasted chicken or turkey, meat bones or even shrimp shells work pretty much the same way. Add enough water to cover, bring to a boil, simmer for an hour or so and strain. For added depth of flavor, roast it all (except shrimp shells, though you may want to sauté them for few minutes) before you pop it in the pot.

But even if you’re conscientious in that regard, you’ve probably clung tenaciously to tids and bits of leftovers until they were green and fuzzy only to ultimately dispatch them to the trash. And if you’ve engaged the services of a commercial culinary artist, there have probably been times when you didn’t clean your plate but opted to send back/discard the leftovers that then suffered the same rubbish-bound fate.

So we’re going to embark on a culinary road less travelled with a map that’s less about following recipes and more about stumbling upon ideas to get you started on the path to food conservation. You don’t have to be a great cook to set out on this journey. You probably already have some basic condiments and seasonings on hand. Ketchup, mustard, mayo (yes, mayo!), salt, pepper, ground chili pepper and maybe a couple of dried herbs – whatever you like – thyme or oregano, perhaps. Onions and garlic, celery and flat leaf parsley will all come in handy, too. Remember, a few herbs and spices and an internet brimming with recipe ideas are your best friends.

What to do with leftover meat or poultry:

  • This one is easy. Chop or shred the meat, sauté some onions (maybe a little garlic) and add the protein, plus barbecue or tomato sauce, cook for a while to let the flavors meld and serve on a bun. Presto – sloppy joes.
  • Chef’s salads often boast a boatload of ingredients, but think elegant: along with those shreds of leftover meat, toss two contrasting greens (arugula and frisée for example), one kind of cheese (chevre is good), heirloom tomatoes and sprinkle with a bit of the unexpected (chopped nuts or olives or capers or currants); top with vinaigrette. Classy. Got leftover salad now? Make a sandwich out of it – stuff it into pita bread and top with a yogurt-based dressing.

What to do with leftover fish or poultry:

  • Dice it up, add minced celery and onion, a little chopped parsley, optionally chopped capers or pickles if you’ve got them, and mayo, salt and pepper, and mix well. Use it to make a chicken or fish salad sandwich or just serve on lettuce or stuffed into a hollowed out tomato.

What to do with leftover bread:

  • Make French toast. Soak the bread well in beaten egg with a bit of milk or cream. Add a touch of maple syrup, sauté in butter and call it breakfast. If you add orange liqueur instead of maple syrup, you can call it brunch.
  • Bread pudding is another use for leftover bread; check out this collection of Food and Wine’s best bread pudding recipes for ideas.

Too prosaic? Already thought of all those? Read on….

What to do with leftover take-out/order in:

  • This one’s inspired by watching a counter person work with French fries in an Italian bodega (talk about mixing international metaphors). Start by cutting up your leftover fries and beating a couple of eggs. Melt some butter in a sauté pan and when it’s bubbly, scramble the potatoes and eggs together with some herbs (optional but ideal), a little salt and a lot of pepper. Toss in some cheese if you like. Buon appetito!
  • One of the most common leftovers is that vestige of Chinese restaurant order-in, the little container of plain white rice that’s never as good reheated as when it was fresh. So here’s a little secret: Chinese style fried rice is best made with day old cold rice. And you can make a simple version of it with almost any ingredients you might have on hand. Get your pan or wok hot, heat up a little oil, then stir fry a handful of leftover shredded meat, poultry, shellfish or scrambled egg, some chopped onion, a little chopped scallion. (If you want to get traditional, a little chopped fresh ginger and garlic and a few bean sprouts will go a long way, but this rendition is more about expediency than authenticity.) Got some peas in the freezer? Throw ’em in. Stir fry together and remove from the wok. Add the cold rice to the hot wok (with a little salt and white pepper if you have it) and stir fry over high heat (for longer than you think) until the rice is soft. It’ll actually start to get a little brown. When the rice starts to taste like fried rice, add a tiny bit of soy sauce and mix well. Return the other ingredients to the wok and stir to mix. Then add the other secret ingredient if you want to: a touch of chicken broth (got any leftover wonton soup?). Cover and let it steam for a few minutes; this technique makes the rice soft and moist.
  • Leftover cold white rice can be the basis for an easy rice pudding too.

What to do with leftover bacon:

  • There is no such thing as leftover bacon.

There’s really no limit to what you can do with leftovers. Even leftover cake can become a parfait with a drizzle of your favorite liqueur and some fruit and whipped cream layered in. All you need are a few common ingredients and a willingness to experiment. Do it for the sake of sustainability. Do it for the sake of deliciousness.

Do it for Mom.