Thursday, March 11, 2010

Leftovers: Waste or Surplus?

Some people toss them. Others don't mind them; they just don't know what to do with them. Me? I plan on them. Leftovers – our favourite "fast food" – also help keep grocery spending on budget.

By planning for and making the most of leftovers, food needn't be sent to the landfill. Meal-planning is easier and preparation faster, simply by using those excess cooked foods. A few extra minutes of preparation on the first day and there's enough for (at least) one more meal. Most leftovers are used as ingredients in dishes which cook rapidly, so cooking processes are reduced for the second meal and that saves on energy costs. Any way you look at it, leftovers provide some thrifty dinners.

And there are so many good things to make with leftovers! Par-boiled and chilled potatoes make the crispiest hash browns. The best stir-fried rice – one that doesn't become sticky – is made with cooked, cold rice. A surplus of pared veggies makes handy snack food. Soups and stews not only stretch for a few meals, their texture and flavours often improve during the chilling process, as natural gelatins are activated and seasonings fuse. Leftover chicken breast or pork chops, julienned, make "topping" enough for two medium pizzas, or a hearty salad, or an excellent addition to stir-fries or ramen-noodle soup. Leftover turkey or roast beef are great in casseroles such as tetrazzini or one-pot pilafs. If you're fortunate to have spare gravy, it can seed a sauce that will convert those leftover roast meats into scrumptious pot pies. Nobody will guess they're eating leftovers!

To make fabulous fare from last night's excess, you'll need to build your own repertoire of recipes, ideally ones which allow ingredient substitutions. Pizza – my favourite use of leftover chicken – always delights. It's both a satisfying and economic meal. Home-made pizza dough requires fore-thought – to allow for rising time – but the smell of fresh-baked dough, and the pleasing texture and taste of the crust, makes it worth the minimal effort. If you like a tomato sauce base, you can make a simple sauce on the stove-top. During winter months, we don't have access to good cooking tomatoes so we use a few tablespoons, per pizza, of a jarred spaghetti sauce. (Each jar, once open, we use within its shelf-life as a condiment or ingredient in other dishes, marinades, and/or sauces – these, too, I plan ahead.) Here's my simple dough recipe for one, medium-sized pizza crust:

  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2-1/4 teaspoon yeast (or one, 2.5 oz. Packet)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1-1/2 cup flour

Dissolve sugar in warm water. Add yeast and allow it to develop (approximately 5 minutes.) Add oil, stir to combine, and pour into a mixing bowl. Add 1/2 cup flour and beat until smooth. Add the salt, stir well to blend, and then add the remaining flour, as much as required. Knead on a lightly floured surface for 5-10 minutes, or until dough is smooth and elastic. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and set aside to rise for 45-50 minutes. Punch down dough, knead until smooth, and allow it to rest for 5 minutes before shaping. Once topped, this 12-inch pizza crust cooks in about 10 minutes in a hot (425-450 degree) oven.

Even the smallest amount of leftover food need not be wasted. You'd be surprised by the delicious meals that can come from a hodgepodge of leftover ingredients. Once you build your collection of recipes, your own family favourites, you'll begin to see these "fast foods" as desirable surplus. Be warned, though. This process is addictive! Soon, you'll be intending leftovers, too. Meal-planning quickly becomes a tag-team activity, featuring first meal and its progeny.

How about you? What's your favourite recipe for leftovers?