Posted: April 1, 2022
Leftovers. Just the name has a bunch of strange connotations for people. I knew a couple of kids in high school who cringed at the idea. They had moms who were workaholics who would make something totally unmemorable on Sunday and make a big batch of it so that is what they would have each night of the week. YIKES. One was the kid of a doctor. Her mom must have had some idea of nutrition, but she would make this monster mound of rice or pasta with lots of pork and chicken and vegetables, and it would start out as fresh, and could have been good but always was executed badly, and by the end of the week would resemble what I imagine boiled brains to be like.
So those are not the leftovers I am talking about. My notion of leftovers is cooking with leftovers in mind. It has become one of my most popular demonstration courses in the little cooking classes I have been doing at the marina. Some people who are living on their boats have families but most are couples or singles so the classes have been popular and anything that can make meal prep time more inviting is welcomed.
My passion for leftovers comes from three sources. Living on a boat means I am not as cavalier as some who have kitchens with an abundance of refrigeration and preparation space so that drives part of my motivation. Part of it comes from my time with my Bebe, my paternal grandmother for those of you new to this website, who lived in a time and place where farm to table was not a new notion but the only way it was done. Whether it was a fish from the ocean or vegetables from the field they were picked, taken to market, and mainly eaten that day – and no parts wasted as the remaining elements were worked into the next days meal. And the third part of my passion for leftovers comes from my experience on the big cruise ships as an application of conventional commercial techniques. Any product that is brought onto the ship as an edible makes its way to a plate. Where waste is generated on a ship it is with the consumer once it hits the plate.
But before I dive into this topic further, I should reveal my passion (borderline lust) for refrigeration. Refrigeration is just about the coolest innovation in history. Yes, I realize what I just said. I think it is a bigger deal than the microchip or the internet or putting some inbred scientist on the moon. Refrigeration, particularly in hot climates has done so much for nutrition and disease reduction and for the rest of the world for time management. It has also been particularly beneficial for the female gender. Living on a boat, I don’t have as much fridge and freezer capacity as most people so I use it judiciously, but there have been times in my past where when I have been working in land-based kitchens, the most important appliance in the room was always the fridge and freezer. While it is true that we all have preferences in ranges and kitchen layouts and steamers and countertops, a good cook or chef can cook with a little butane flame on the hood of car, but still needs a way to keep ingredients fresh until use.
Some of the notes I get from readers remind me that more pictures are a good thing. Well I recently discovered a couple of images from Walters kitchen. It was full of refrigeration. A large fridge with freezer space as well as a couple of under counter freezer drawers and a pantry with another freezer as well. If you are new to this website you can read about my life with Walter in posts from April and August of 2016.
THINKING ABOUT MEAL PLANNING WHEN SHOPPING
Some people think about ingredient shopping as one-off exercises for each meal, other than those staples we keep on hand that have many applications. For these people cooking is a new hobby. The recipe is consulted, the list made and ingredients purchased, the meal prepared and enjoyed, pictures taken and posted on Instagram. When I reference meal planning or grocery shopping this is not the model I am talking about. Grocery shopping is an exercise to get all those components for multiple meals, where the orchestration of the next several days meal planning has been considered.
This whole process of what is being acquired, how its being used and the associated meal planning is something that commercial kitchens do very well.
In a commercial kitchen a whole chicken is cut up and those fresh chicken supremes or breasts are on the menu for tonight. For tomorrow, the thighs, and other good proteins go into the chicken pot pie, and the remainder goes into the pot for chicken stew or chicken stock/ soup the day after. It is a matter of mindset going into the exercise. It is very efficient if planned and very cost effective as often a whole chicken does not cost much more than two breasts.
Planning a week of meals, even if you shop multiple times a week sets you up for using different components over that time, with fresh elements being added as you go.
FOOD PREP FOR MULTIPLE MEALS
While the prep stage is hyped up as a sexy fun thing to do, with wine flowing, lots of conversation and nibbling on some apps while prepping the main course with some nice music on in the background, it is often something less exciting than this – particularly if its food prep just for yourself or a regular meal for the family and not a special dinner. So using that preparation time for multiple meals really helps.
One thing I really like when I am not cooking for a group but only for one or two is to prepare the protein the way you would for a dinner for six, but pull all but the components you would be serving that night aside early before fully cooked. Grilling for example. Prepare six fresh chicken breasts, grill them and then take four of them off the grill after they get their marks for presentation, but before being fully cooked and put two of them away in the fridge and freeze the other two. The next night or the one after, take out the two from the fridge, and just put them in a covered heatproof container with a little white wine in the bottom and cook at 350f for 20 minutes. They will be fresh, tender, and often moister than the original ones.
A similar trick is when you come home from the market or grocery store with a bunch of pork fillets or chicken that was on at a good price and you are not even planning on having for several days and planning on freezing. Get them all on the grill, or in to roast to give them their presentation and do the heavy lifting on cooking, then freeze them all. When you want them, just pull out the quantity you need, let them defrost in the fridge and they are ready for that same reheat technique.
Similarly, if you have worked up a pretty nice salad dressing, make up enough for a couple of servings and put it in the fridge, making the salad a little less time consuming in a couple of nights.
MAKE THE WHOLE GREATER THAN THE SUM OF THE PARTS
Ciara has been living on the boat long enough that she is really onto what I do. She has come to asking me whether we will be having end of week soup. As the week progresses and the fresh green beans are not as fresh, and the wonderful mushrooms are looking tired, I just grab a basic can of vegetable soup (when working land-based and not on a boat, it would have been a nice vegetable stock I had made some time before and divided and frozen) but instead of adding one can of water (or store bought stock) with it I will add three, then put in a lot of past-their-peak green beans, tomatoes, mushrooms, broccoli, slice up a few potatoes fairly thin and perhaps a carrot the same way, and maybe a stock of celery and a half an onion cut up pretty roughly. The components are just what you have left at the end of the period before your next shopping. If you don’t have much that week for the pot throw in a handful of dry pasta or rice. This is what you do with the rice or pasta that is left after accurately measuring for rice or pasta dishes and you have some small orphan amounts. We all have these.
It just all goes into the pot and after simmering away for half an hour I will try it, usually adding a few fresh herbs and sometimes some garlic and pepper. I never add salt to soup I make this way as the little can of soup I start with always has too much sodium to start with, so this treatment really rounds it out.
I then have this as a little side soup for the next several days.
And sometimes on the second day or third day I will then, with the soup ready to go and only taking a heat up time, I put my effort into making a little focaccia bread or a foucasse to have with it.
SOME THINGS ARE BETTER AS LEFTOVERS
Its easy to think of ways to work all of your food products as left overs and plan your meals accordingly once you get your head into it. I love a slice of fresh baguette with piece of brie cheese on it and a little dab of red pepper jelly. Equally there are few things worse than a day-old baguette with anything. But it can be fabulous for a bread pudding, or cut into cubes, tossed with some olive oil and dried herbs and put in the oven at 375f on a baking sheet for just a few minutes (turn them at least once) and they are the best croutons for a Caesar salad.
The result is that the second day or third day is a meal as good as the first, but with a different application of the original product. The trick of course is to plan your meals ahead based on the sequencing. Most big commercial kitchens have boards letting the prep staff know what the big plan is for a moving multi-day cycle. You just need a little notepad.
I do this same application a lot with my little fresh herb garden I keep in a few pots. When I get a bit too much basil ahead for example I will just roast up some pine nuts and make some pesto to use that excess. Another one I like for the herbs is making herb infused oil. Sometimes I use olive oil but other times vegetable or canola and just wash the herbs that are extras, cut them up (not too fine) and put them in the oil for a few days, then strain off the herbs and the oil will have a nice herb taste.
When I am cooking for just one or two, I will also leapfrog dishes so the leftover stigma doesn’t kick in. The grilled chicken on Monday (that I did a couple extra breasts and pulled out early as described above) will appear again two days later, but with different vegetables and perhaps a sauce I have made with the extra prep time available. Any day I am doing a protein from scratch I will just do steamed vegetables but on the days I am just doing a reheat of the protein that’s the day I will spend more time on a better vegetable recipe that will also last a couple of days. It makes the exercise of preparing a meal for one or two much less overwhelming as part of each days main meal everyday is already done.
So those are my thoughts on leftovers. I know that sometimes in my little posts I dive into heavier topics but in a world that has a lot of problems and many of us have the associated anxiety that comes with each of them, sometimes meal planning, including thinking about leftovers is just a nice way to put one foot in front of the other to move forward.
P.S. When I was working on this post, Martha strolled by and asked what I was working on. She was dropping off the bottles of wine she and Malcolm buy for us every week in exchange for me preparing most of the meals. Now Martha is a bit older than I, in her late seventies I think, but when I told her the topic was leftovers she immediately asked if they were “the ones remaining without a connection after speed dating?” I may never think of leftovers the same way again.