Repurposed Leftovers: Nature’s most versatile food

I was talking a few weeks ago with a friend of mine when the idea for this post hit me. Cooking for one (or two) can sometimes seem to be a hurdle to overcome in quantity – either one makes enough bolognese sauce to keep eating pasta dishes for a week, or a recipe scales down to almost impossibly small quantities to work with effectively. The compromise, of course, is leftovers.

Leftovers have been given a bad rap. Often, the same dish is reheated and served, resulting in monotonous gastronomic repetition that feels about as heavy as saying those three words out loud. Plus, reheating is often done on a single portion, plated – which means the sauce is too hot, the meat is too cold, the vegetables turn to mush, and somewhere a Native American is crying.

There is a secret to leftovers, though – repurposing them. While the original dish may have been a roast piece of meat, or a stew, or sauteed vegetables, there’s no reason this can’t be changed and made fresh with a small bit of work.

Roast chicken is one of my favorite versatile leftovers:

  • Slice the breast meat thin, make a quick seasoned mayonnaise (1 egg, 1 clove of garlic, a bit of vinegar or lemon juice, a liberal amount of cajun seasoning, some neutral oil like canola, and a stick blender. 30 seconds or less.) and put it on two slices of bread for a sandwich.
  • Cut chicken meat into small pieces – 1″ cubes or smaller, say – and throw in a bowl with some chopped carrots, celery, onion. Season liberally, and mix with just enough mayonnaise (see above) to bind together. Serve on bibb lettuce leaf cups.
  • Cut the meat into bigger chunks – 1-2″ cubes, ish – and briefly saute, then add a flavored gastrique (French for “sweet and sour sauce”). Serve over rice (bonus for having leftover rice).
  • Chop up the chicken meat fine, add some small or finely chopped vegetables (think green peas, carrots), season well, put it in an oven-safe bowl or casserole, moisten with a bit of cream or wine – or even water, cover with a layer of biscuit or pie dough, and bake until the crust is done. Chicken pot pie.
  • Chunk up the meat, and simmer with chunked vegetables in chicken broth. Add noodles. What’s better than chicken noodle soup?

Realize that this is about using leftovers as pre-cooked ingredients, and think about when you add them to the pan so they don’t overcook in the process. Having that initial cooking of the main ingredient out of the way means that all that remains to be cooked are the secondary components (vegetables, aromatics, sauces) which usually take much less time.

Nearly any leftover vegetable can be turned into a cream soup. Make a thin-to-medium bechamel (1 Tbsp butter, 1 Tbsp flour, 3 C milk. Melt butter, add flour and stir to combine, whisk in milk, bring to a boil. Season. Recipe scales as you need it, keep about that butter/flour to milk ratio.), and simmer leftover vegetables in the sauce. Puree the whole mess in a blender, maybe strain for a smoother texture, and enjoy.

Practice what you preach: Tonight’s dinner plans is all about this principle. I have leftover cooked carrots, leftover beef and stout stew, and leftover roast cauliflower in the fridge. The cauliflower will go into a cream soup, with shredded cheddar cheese melted in at the end. Then, I’ll chop up the carrots and add to the stew. I’ll make a pie crust, line the cups of a muffin tin with the crust, fill the mini-pies with the stew filling, top with crust, and bake at 400F until the crust is brown and done.

Oh, and I have leftover lemon vinaigrette (pro tip – xanthan gum is your friend, dressing hasn’t broken a bit) and romaine lettuce in the fridge. Soup, salad, and a beef pie. Not bad for some leftovers, eh?

PS – You can even use leftover Popeye’s chicken nuggets to make a passable General Tso chicken at home (that’s on my list to try). Or even more elaborate reincarnations (those aren’t).