Turning leftovers into magic

22:10, Jul 05 2014
SALAD OF LEFTOVERS: Iceburg lettuce and bibb lettuce, radishes, bell pepper, grape tomatoes, celery, and chopped leftover boneless buffalo.

Watching an American television chef helping a woman cook leftover food the other day saddened me.

The guest referred to leftovers as "used food", saying she usually put them in the fridge and then threw them out. Her smile showed the viewer she thought she was clever for this kind of behaviour. I was repulsed. Her other problems were not enough time for cooking, and a small repertoire.

Cooking with leftovers is not just thrifty and sensible, it also saves time and encourages creativity. Looking into my fridge I can see five sealed glass bowls with various leftovers, carefully stored. The baked beetroot, grilled chicken, and quinoa will make an excellent lunch. The roast pork will fill a sandwich for a busy husband and the carefully saved buckwheat pancake will become afternoon tea for a happy toddler. Not being wasteful has saved me money and time; two meals and a snack all taken care of with a little creativity and no extra cooking.

Not only do I love leftovers, I purposefully create them. This is a habit left over from my days of cooking in restaurants. Much of the food cooked for restaurant dining is prepared in advance. This is not called a leftover, it is called mise en place (putting in place) or preparing in advance. The preparation I find most useful in advance is for side dishes.

I cook carbohydrates such as polenta, mashed potatoes, quinoa, brown rice and pasta in double portions. These can be reheated as themselves or stuffed into something else to make a meal. Dishes that can be served in a number of ways, that are easily stretched or reconfigured, are the most useful to know. A quinoa salad that will keep for days in the fridge without wilting suddenly becomes the base of a lunch with a little shredded chicken, a thickener for a vegetarian pattie with mashed orange kumara, a side dish with fish for dinner or breakfast with a soft poached egg.

By far the most important part of mastering leftover food is storage. Over the past few years I have been slowly investing in glass storage containers with silicon lids. These should last forever, look extremely neat, are stackable and the food is visible. Also vital in storage containers is usability. My leftovers can be chilled, frozen, cooked in the oven or zapped in the microwave (if I was that way inclined). Finally, I have removed myself from the cycle of sorting through endless plastic containers with varying sized lids that cannot be used for heating and become cloudy and brittle with time.

Once everything is neatly stored, a good label makes things less worrying. No more avoiding that container of shredded chicken of indeterminate age. Again, from my restaurant days, I still use masking tape and a Sharpie to label and date cooked food in my fridge (as these are easily removed). If you are fortunate enough to have anything left of this delicious carrot salad, chop it up and fold it through savoury muffins, turn it into a frittata with extra spinach and cheese or simply whiz it into a puree for a delicious spiced carrot and humus dip.


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