In Praise of Leftovers

They’re not glamorous, but they’re the most joyous part of my cooking life.

Not everyone is as attached to leftovers as I am.

Joe Belanger/Thinkstock

Just before I left for a business trip recently, I boxed up the remains of a family dinner, braised lamb shanks with Moroccan spices, and told my husband to remember to eat them while I was gone. I figured he might want something other than delivery pizza and boxed mac and cheese while I was absent. I thought about how good the meat would taste mixed with braised greens, tossed with pappardelle, or even cold between two slices of bread with a lick of hot mustard. I was setting my husband (and myself) up for failure: He doesn’t cook, doesn’t even reheat, and I knew from the start that the lamb would likely go uneaten. Even so, five days later, I found myself sadly tsk-tsking him as I pulled the soured lamb out of the refrigerator and tossed it in the compost.

I should have known better than to entrust my husband with such a treasure—after all, not everyone is as attached to leftovers as I am. The word itself evokes a wrinkled nose from many eaters (and food writers). I was once told to trim the word from a piece I was writing because my editor thought Anna (Wintour) would be put off by the idea of recycling a meal.

Still, I have made a point of incorporating leftovers into my menus and recipes, including my current cookbook, which grew out of the nutritious two-week New Year’s eating plan I’ve designed for Bon Appétit for years. From early on, my editors and I decided to incorporate the previous dinner’s leftovers into each lunch, which is almost always a salad. The second-day salmon or tofu gets a new environment: lacy lettuce leaves and chunks of grapefruit one day, or heartier kale with toasted almonds the next. In that new circumstance, leftovers don’t feel retreaded, but reframed.

The more I write about cooking, the more I want to convey my commitment to leftovers, something I share with Susan Herrmann Loomis, who lives in France and talks of leftovers—“les restes”—in the mode of her adopted country. “The leftover in a French cook’s hand is a precious ingredient to be turned into something exquisitely delicious,” Loomis writes in her book In a French Kitchen. Leftovers are maybe the most joyous part of my cooking life, and they deserve to be more openly celebrated, both because they are delicious and also because I think there is a certain nobility in letting one meal trail into the next.

While my mother was thrifty and often served leftovers, I think my first real appreciation for them developed as an apprentice cook in restaurant kitchens. One of my early assignments was to turn whatever scraps we had into the staff dinner—or, euphemistically, “family meal”—for 50-odd restaurant employees. I’d mince leftover roasted meat into pasta sauces; grill old bread with cheese and salami into open-faced pizzas; and toss roasted vegetables, capers, and chopped olives with day-old vinaigrette into delicious salads. The life of a novice line cook is repetitive and humbling, and family meal was my best creative outlet before going to clean out the walk-in refrigerator or plating 50 identical antipasti plates for a big private event. Not everything I cooked from the kitchen odds and ends was a raging success, but I did my best, quickly learning that if the meal was bad, hungry waiters would later make my life at the risotto station miserable.

Beyond family meal, well-run professional kitchens always keep a very frugal eye on waste, to keep food costs down, and I think also to convey a fundamental respect for ingredients. Bones from roast chickens and trimmings from vegetables are simmered into stocks, which then become soups and sauces. Old bread is toasted into croutons and crostini. Once, during my short-lived stint at Chez Panisse, when I was selecting just the bone-white bits of the frisée for a salad, Alice Waters scolded me for composting the tough tips of a plant; they would be beautiful in a braise, she reminded me. (They went into family meal, of course.) Alice was right, and there is a poetry in the day-to-day continuity of a kitchen that I continue to cultivate to this day. If you use a piece of tuna as the centerpiece of one meal, perhaps it resurfaces in a salad or an omelet or a sauce as a kind of culinary alliteration; not quite a rhyme, but an echo, nonetheless, of what has come before.

Today, food waste has become a legitimate cause in the food media, trickling down from investigative reporting like Tristram Stuart’s Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal to restaurant chefs who have taken on a public battle with food waste. Last year, Blue Hill’s Dan Barber hosted wastED, a pop-up restaurant with ingredients sourced entirely of foods that might have otherwise headed to the compost heap. Barber served burgers made of vegetable pulp leftover from juicing, “dyed to a reasonably convincing beef color by beet juice,” according to Pete Wells, food critic for the New York Times. The “repurposed” burgers buns, made from stale rye bread “did not knock Martin’s potato rolls from my heart,” says Wells, but Barber’s point was appealingly made. Millions of Americans families cannot consistently rely on adequate food and nutrition, while more than 100 million pounds of potentially edible food is trashed every year; with a little creativity, some of that loss can be recouped. Nimbleness with imperfect ingredients, Wells suggests, rather than ingredient worship, may be the new culinary bar of measurement, and other chefs have joined Barber’s line of thinking. Roy Choi’s new low-cost restaurant concept Loco’l works food that would otherwise be scrapped, like vegetable peelings, into regular menu items like dipping sauces and tamale fillings. Tara Duggan, Steven Satterfield, and April Bloomfield all advocate a kind of nose-to-tail cookery for vegetables, using greens, stalks, and roots that might have once been pitched.

At home, nonprofessional cooks can more easily incorporate real, already cooked leftovers into the heart of dinner. First of all, our small-scale cooking can accommodate a handful of cheddar crumbs or a single chicken breast to make a meaningful contribution to a meal, which isn’t true in a restaurant. We also don’t have the same patron expectations in terms of quality and day-in, day-out consistency. My kids might not be thrilled to get yesterday’s broccoli stirred into their pasta, but they won’t put out a Yelp screed about it.

I should say that when I talk about leftovers I don’t usually mean a fully prepared meal being reheated. With the exception of some soups and stews, like chili, I rarely want to see the same food being served just as I had it the first time around. I crave a little transformation and reconceptualization, an inclination that stretches back well over a century of American food writing.

In the earlier days, before freshness and newness were prime directives in food writing, much thought was given to leftovers, which were often, as Laura Shapiro points out in her wonderful home economics history, Perfection Salad, blanketed in white sauce to “purify” the left-behind bits of a former meal. She quotes one California cook, who wrote in 1904, “The secret of a successful rechauffé is its complete disguise … it should be combined with other ingredients, seasoned, and served so that its identity is completely lost.” Because I am a magpie for cooking ephemera, I have come to own a 1940 booklet, 500 Delicious Dishes From Leftovers. It is full of clever ideas (bread pudding, rice waffles, and soufflés for bits of ham or spinach) and terrible ones, too (frozen chicken salad and prune whip pie). I’m especially fond of its frantic appreciation for the thrifty imagination of the “alert homemaker”:

What colorful canapes can be made from those last two olives in the bottle, those bits of ham or liver we didn’t know what to do about and the lone hard-cooked egg in the refrigerator. The sauerkraut juice can be seasoned and served with them as a vegetable cocktail before dinner.

(There must be a few Brooklyn bartenders out there who think they invented that move.)

Even though my style is different and my focus less overtly on thrift, I have to say I am very much in line with that old booklet. My attachment to leftovers is as much emotional as it is practical. After all the missed communications and unfinished business of an ordinary day, cooking offers me a chance to pull together a purposeful project, creatively. Working leftovers into that dinner, I feel like those fragments of everyday life are woven back together in a most satisfyingly way. When I work a flavorsome meal together using, say, a handful of spaghetti, 14 peas, and that bit of fish my 8-year old didn’t touch into a dish, I feel the same flush as when I’ve landed a killer Scrabble move from ungainly letters.

Like a word game, having a sensible matrix for your leftovers helps, so here are my favorite basic modes—besides the aforementioned salads—of reinventing kitchen scraps.

Frittata: Eggs are by all means the most useful cushions for leftovers, and frittata, an omelet for a crowd, is my all time most-used format. It takes on cheese scraps, herbs, smoked fish, slightly wilted greens, chard stems, old bread, vegetable purees, and sausage crumbs with ease (if not all at once).  Most satisfactorily, leftover frittata, in turn, makes a great sandwich filling.

Fish cakes: More than once, I have made a meal of mashed potatoes and fish just so I can skip ahead to the next day’s fish cakes, which are patties of those two components, bound with eggs. Fish cakes are stodgy English nursery food at its best, made even better with big handfuls of herbs. Also, it might help encourage your kids to eat fish, as it did mine.

Grain bowls: In the olden days we would have stirred leftover veggies and pickled condiments into a bowl of rice and called it rice salad. Now you just pile all the leftovers on top, snap an Instagram, and call it a grain bowl. (Bowls, if you haven’t heard, are super hot right now.)

Fried rice: I actually slightly prefer fried rice to grain bowls for its fragrant warmth and varied texture. It’s brilliant for using up not just old rice, but odds and ends of veggies and meats too. Do not neglect lots of ginger and scallions, and—once again—the egg binder is everything.

Curries: It can be hard to craft a vegan context for leftovers, but a curry, whether Thai or Indian in inspiration, can add sultry spice, plus tomato or coconut milk lubrication to leftover tofu, tempeh, and/or veggies.

Savory tarts: If you keep some puff pastry in the freezer, you can always be ready to make a really nice impromptu tart in 15 to 20 minutes. Layer it with sautéed onions or leftover red sauce and then pile on bits of cheese, veggies, and/or salami bits for delicious crisp dining pleasure.

Soup: This is too large a category to give any generalized instructions, but I am a big advocate of soup for dinner, whether that is a tomato-based chunky vegetable soup with all the odds and sods from your crisper drawer thrown in or something more refined. Food 52 ran a trick that’s one of my favorites, which is to roast more than enough vegetables for one meal; add some stock; throw it into a blender; and whirl it into a thick, creamy soup.