Early in my married life I played on a club soccer team. The team captain—we’ll call him Matt—was a decent guy whose wife was an enthusiastic fan of our rather modest Saturday morning performances. Win, lose or draw, she would produce from her car a cooler full of post-match beers and sandwiches. Over the course of a few weeks she and my wife became friendly and it wasn’t long before we were invited over to Matt’s house for dinner. The only night that seemed to work for all of us was Friday, and though loathe to sacrifice even one precious weekend meal at home to the perils of an unknown kitchen, we obliged.
Matt and his wife were perfectly pleasant hosts, but something curious did occur as the evening wound down. They had served a large roast chicken with mashed potatoes and vegetable sides but had obviously anticipated larger appetites for plenty was left over. My wife and I helped clear the table, and, innocently enough, inquired after the tinfoil to cover the leftovers. We were met with astonishment, and after a few pregnant moments, Matt curtly responded that they do not keep leftovers. He and his wife then rather quickly scraped the chicken carcass—still heavy with meat—and several cups each of potatoes, carrots, spinach and corn into the garbage. Sensing my urge to dive in after the fowl, my wife tugged silently at my rear belt loop.
We took a thrashing the next morning. Matt and I—both midfielders—couldn’t seem to communicate well on the field. Worse: there were no sandwiches or cold beers offered following the match, and after one or two more similar showings, Matt joined another team. Some say to avoid politics, religion and sex in social or professional settings; I say: do not discuss leftover food for what we do with it exposes our very marrow.
I am staunchly, fervently a leftover person. Our kitchen is a buzzing place where large cuts of meat, whole fish and baskets of produce enter twice weekly; weeknight dinners, packed lunches, coursed weekend meals and Sunday lunches flow steadily out. But for the volume, ours might be a hotel kitchen. And like any efficient operation, very little goes to waste. Those Sunday roasts frequently stretch into Wednesday packed lunches and weeknight dinners often feature some recycled aspect.
This is hardly a new concept. If one peruses the ne plus ultra of cookbooks, Le Guide Culinaire, one quickly determines many of the dishes are really just ways of preparing leftovers. Take this charmingly archaic entry (#2475) for Hachis a l’Americaine: “Sauté an equal amount of small diced potatoes as there is meat in butter until golden brown; add half to the meat and mix together with a little tomato puree and reduced veal gravy; reheat without boiling. Place the mixture in a deep dish, sprinkle with the remaining potatoes, which must be nice and crisp, and finish with a little freshly chopped parsley.” (Escoffier, 299). So easy, and a great excuse for regularly having veal bone gravy on hand.
My misguided teammate aside, most do indulge leftovers. Tupperware exists, doesn’t it? But I’ve long suspected that we sacrifice an opportunity when we simply ladle in the mashed potatoes and fork over the slabs of corned beef with nothing more involved than the nuke it later protocol in mind. Actually Escoffier’s fancy beef hash perfectly demonstrates a number of the rules that I follow when using leftovers.
- To begin, simple reheats are not permitted. Not only are they unimaginative, but a steaming plate of microwaved chicken and boiled potatoes will only ever be a pale shadow of its original self. The far better route is to visualize something new. If not a simple chicken hash, then why not whip up some easy pastry for a platter of meat pasties?
- A well-stocked pantry is essential. Spices, oils, vinegars and starches should always be on hand, but I extend my pantry to things like eggs, cheese, milk, bread (fresh and stale), lemons, leftover wine, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, parsley, carrots, celery and onions. Bacon, too, for its ability to improve just about anything.
- Leftover meals are not an opportunity to purge your icebox. Restraint is vital. Escoffier could easily have added green beans and a dodgy looking carrot to his Hachis but that would have altered the familiar harmony of beef and potatoes. If you really must use those slightly limp celery stalks that have been haunting your vegetable drawer for a fortnight, brace them in cold water, thinly slice and toss with a vinaigrette for a side salad.
- As for food safety (for I know the subject bubbles just beneath the surface of any discussion involving leftovers) I will offer these unscientific guidelines that I follow. Clear the table of leftovers, wrap in plastic or foil and refrigerate as soon as possible. Leftovers are to be used within a 72 hour window. Don’t push it. Use common sense; if the leftover in question is unappetizing, don’t eat it. It’s always advisable to thoroughly heat-through leftovers. If in doubt, substitute your usual table wine with high-proof grain alcohol.
Writing this now, I mourn the spectral corn puddings, carrot soups, chicken hashes and spinach timbales that could have resulted from the remains of my old teammate’s dinner table. What stings most cruelly is not the actual waste of food (though that too is shocking), but the sad waste of all those lovely meals that could have been.
Speaking of which, Part II of this series will deal directly with methods, ideas, and recipes for the leftover enthusiast.