Cooking with Leftovers

Apr 12, 2011

Waste Not, Want Lots –Or, How I Emptied the Fridge for My Spring Vacation

Bizarre child that I was, I loved clipping coupons. I’d grab the shiny inserts from the Sunday papers, cut them with my mother’s special scissors, and arrange them in neat stacks on the counter where my parents would promptly ignore them and inevitably forget about them. The frugal gene is still in me, and I admit to delighting in half-off, buy one get twelve free, and so on, but even more than buying extra socks or four boxes of cereal because some coupon dictates it, I find a special thrill in leftovers. My best friend from college was over for tea last week as I made Leftover Cereal Muffins (see below). Liz is Scottish and we lived together while we were at Oxford. Liz watched me empty the cereal crumbs into a mixing bowl. “You would have been great during World War II in Britain.” “We had leftovers all the time growing up,” my husband laments to me after I’ve made – again – the exact correct amount of baked pasta with vegetables that we have no extras for the following night’s meal. It comes with the territory of having cooked for a living – estimating how much fish or produce each meal requires so that nothing goes to waste. Poking through the fridge, though, I find lots of extra bits that can be used up. I loathe letting carrots or cucumbers become refrigerator swamp, growing mossy as each day slips by. Or the greens that get shoved to the back and forgotten about. A waste of money, of time spent buying it, of resources. So I gather the greens and start thinking. Plus, we’re leaving for Martha’s Vineyard next week, so cleaning out the fridge is a must. “Do we have to eat tuna and frozen peas for dinner?” asks Jamie, nervous as he sees the dregs of what’s left. “Hey,” I say to any kid that will listen. “Delicious dinners can be fashioned from the wilting salad greens…” “You sound like a commercial!” laughs Daniel, pointing at me accusingly. Currently housed in the crisper (ahem – they are not crisp) we have a bunch of old salad stuff, and there’s stale bread on top of the fridge. My mind starts churning. “This could be bread pudding or croutons!” Of course there are the dreaded six boxes of cereal. Sure you can use leftover cereals, mixed together, and combined with melted marshmallows for a Rice Krispie-style treat, but there are other uses for those boxes of “not enough for a whole bowl”, “I suddenly don’t like this kind anymore”, “yuck – it’s all dust and crumbs”. Breads, rolls, cookies, and bars all benefit from leftover cereals. “You’re making cereal cookies?” Daniel can’t believe his luck. Then he reconsiders. “Has there ever been a gross cookie in the history of cookies?” “Yes,” oldest sibling Jamie says, even though he has no proof. He crack sup as he looks at me. “In 1897 there was a woman named…named Evelyn Cookiehead and she…” I take the boxes from the cabinet and line them up. The cookies don’t work that well with leftover super-sugary cereals (make those into rainbow necklaces). But anything flakey, o-shaped, or shredded works well, as do any leftovers with bran content. If you eat Autumn Wheat, the remnants in those boxes are perfect. Adam hands me a challenge. “Too bad you can’t do something with this.” He hands me a glass container filled with leftover sticky oatmeal. I briefly consider using it to spackle the bathroom. “Actually, we can make flatbread or muffins with it.” Pretty soon the fridge will be empty and we’ll be able to move on to packing the car for our 3-day-getaway. There will be off-season beach walks, bike rides, morning excursions to my favorite bakery for cinnamon-sugar twists and apple fritters. There will be a giant, slobbery, fluffy puppy to take up more room in the car. There will be Jamie and his eighteen (hardcover) books he MUST lug everywhere. There will be Julia and her twelve layers of clothing looking more chic than any fashion maven. There will be Will and his parade of crappy cars (when you are the 4th kid, nothing is new) with their popped-off wheels or no-ladder fire engines. There will be Daniel and his…nothing. Daniel needs nothing but his hands and his lap, or anything in his path on which to drum. Constantly. The bad news is it really is a never-ending percussion situation. The good news is that he’s pretty good, especially for a kid that doesn’t have a drum set [note: If grandparents are reading this – yes, you may buy him a used drum set…if you keep it at YOUR house]. There will be Adam’s DJ-ing from the passenger seat as I drive the car onto the ferry, our cacophonous crew contained in the minivan. But now, there are a few more leftovers from a dinner party last week — half-used bottles of wine that will make a great marinade. My fridge is cleaned out, my wallet isn’t, my kids can get through the morning without arguing over who has to eat “the dead part of the cereal,” and my husband has leftovers to last until tomorrow. Now it’s time to walk the dog – while eating a cookie.

Leftover=lettuces, watercress, spinach, even those about to wilt=

Green Garden Soup

Old greens: lettuce of any kind, kale, chard, beet greens, watercress, spinach, arugula – about 6 cups total (add more if you'd like but don't worry if you only have 5), rinsed and chopped

1 quart chicken (or veg) broth

2 shallots, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/3 cup cream or half and half*

2 tbsp Olive oil

In large pot, heat olive oil. Saute shallots and garlic until cooked but not brown. Add in greens and stir once or twice. Add chicken broth, salt and pepper. Heat on high until beginning to boil. Reduce to medium and let cook for a few more minutes until greens are tender (this will be longer if using kale or chard, shorter if using old lettuce or arugula). Lower heat and add cream, stirring to incorporate. Salt and pepper again to taste.

*Note: should you wish to make this a lighter soup, leave out the cream – it will still taste good – and if you have an egg to spare, beat it well and add to simmering soup for an egg-drop quick meal.

Leftover = Wine dregs and over-ripe apples…don't dump it down the drain or chuck them in the bin. Instead, try

Red Wine-Fruited Flank Steak

1 ½ - 2 lbs flank steak

1 ½ cups leftover wine – mix and match your Pinots, Merlots, Chiantis

1 shallot, chopped

¼ cup soy sauce

1 tsp Dijon mustard

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 tbsp brown sugar

1 ½ tsp lemon juice

½ tsp grated fresh ginger

1 cup peeled, cut apples (feel free to toss in a few cut up grapes from the last in the bag)

Olive oil

Sea salt


Rinse and pat dry flank steak. In very large baggie or container, mix wine, shallot, soy sauce, mustard, garlic, brown sugar, lemon juice, and ginger. Add in cut apples. Place meat into marinade, turning to coat. Place in fridge for at least 4 hours but overnight works well. When you think of it, slosh the meat around and put it back in the fridge. To cook, heat grill (outside or grill pan inside) to med-high heat. Use your hands to coat outside of flank steak with olive oil and put a bit more on the grill pan (or brush outdoor grill with it). Sprinkle each side of meat with salt and pepper. Grill on high for 5-6 minutes per side. LET REST, covered with foil for 10 minutes. Slice on the diagonal, across the grain of the meat.

Leftover = mismatched bread ends and various veggies =

Panzanella Salad

Old bread can feed the ducks but it can also feed the family. Bread can be one day to one week old (no mold, please) and if it's dried out, it's no problem. Keep in mind that this salad can be made to order – that is, whatever's in your fridge can be added or, if there's something you don't like such as red onion, you can leave it out. It's flexible. And very quick to make.

For the salad:

5 cups old bread cut into bite-sized pieces (thick-cut works best but feel free to use a variety all mixed together)

2 bell peppers, cut into pieces (up to you what color, though yellow and red look great)

1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, cut in half

1 cucumber (preferably English, but if not, then peeled), cut into hunks

½ cup red onion, sliced fairly thin

4-5 leaves basil, ripped or cut into bits/ribbons

Added extras: 2 hard boiled eggs (cut into wedges), leftover grilled fish (placed on top at end), one or two carrots (sliced thin), can of tuna (makes a meal out of it!), anchovies, capers (only about 1 tbsp), leftover red cabbage (shredded), peeled pears (sliced) for a sweet kick.

For the dressing:

¼ cup red wine vinegar

2 tbsp lemon juice

¼ cup olive oil

½ tsp Dijon mustard

¼ tsp salt

¼ tsp pepper

Heat your oven to 425. Place the bread cubes into a cookie sheet (or two) in a single layer and sprinkle with a bit of sea salt and drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil. Let the bread toast while you do some chopping. Toss the vegetables together (holding off on the egg and fish if you are adding those) in a big bowl. When bread is toasted (about 10 minutes), add bread to veggies. Whisk dressing ingredients together and pour over vegetables and bread, tossing gently and well to coat. Top with fish or don't. Salt and pepper to salt.

Leftover=sticky slimy oatmeal=

Oatmeal Flatbread

1 ½ cups leftover oatmeal (or cream of wheat, or porridge, or groats)

about ¾ - 1 cup whole wheat flour

about 1 tsp salt

bit of water or milk, if needed

For topping:

Butter, sunflower seeds, Cinnamon, sugar, raisins, shreds of leftover cheeses (parmesan ends, cheddar, Jack), or just about anything

Mix all ingredients together. If dough is too dry, add a bit of water or milk. If too mushy, add a bit more flour. Knead for about two songs on the radio and place in greased bowl, covered with damp dish towel, for a few hours or overnight if that's easier. Press the dough onto an olive-oiled baking sheet (about ½ inch thick). Let rise in warm place for another hour or two, covered with the damp dishcloth.

Heat oven to 375. Melt some butter and brush the top of the bread with it. Sprinkle some sea salt and parmesan cheese, or cinnamon sugar, or seeds on top (if you use raisins, press them in so they stay and don't burn). Bake for about 20-25 minutes until browned.

Slice into strips or cut into squares and eat as it, with leftover cheese for a sandwich, dipped into the Green Soup mentioned above, or as a snack with hummus.

Leftover=cereal odd and ends=

Leftover Cereal Cookies

¼ cup white sugar

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup butter (one stick)

1 egg

1 tbsp milk

1 ¼ cups flour

¼ tsp baking soda

½ tsp baking powder

Pinch salt

2 cups crushed cereal (preferably not super sugary) – for example: shredded wheat (even the little sticks at the bottom of the bag), bran flakes, raisin bran, corn flakes, etc.

Optional add-ins: chocolate chips, dried cranberries, raisins, golden raisins, butterscotch chips, shredded coconut – about ½ cup total.

Oven to 350. Cream the butter and sugar. Add egg, milk, and vanilla and mix. Add flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt and mix until all ingredients are well combined. Stir in cereal and mix again. Add chips or raisins if desired. Place rounded tablespoonfuls onto cookie sheet and bake for 12 minutes. Makes about 25 cookies.