Ever open up the fridge only to see a bounty of food nearly past its prime? Containers of takeout, little plastic tubs of leftovers, crisper drawers crammed with droopy vegetables—instead of throwing in the towel and popping a frozen pizza in the oven, rise to the occasion and think of them as shortcuts to a fast, healthy, and satisfying dinner.
These versatile preparations not only cut down on consumer guilt; they often taste better than the sort of recipes you create specific shopping lists for.
Corned beef hash is probably the best-known incarnation, but if a sad, salty can of the stuff is the extent of your familiarity with hash, it’s time to discover the pleasing possibilities of a quickly-thrown-together skillet of the homemade stuff. Flaked cooked salmon or trout is excellent in hash, as are diced leftover potatoes or sweet potatoes. Hash does not always have to include meat and potatoes; one of my favorite versions of hash is nothing but minced broccoli (including the stems) and minced cauliflower (including the core) frizzled in a skillet with a diced onion. They key is to let bits of whatever you’re cooking get a little crispy and brown so you have a variety of textures in your final product. Hash is a weekend breakfast go-to, but it’s just as satisfying for dinner.
Fried rice turns out best when it’s made with leftover rice, since it dries out a bit in the refrigerator and therefore doesn’t clump together when you’re cooking. Versatile rice can take on many different flavor directions besides the Chinese takeout route. Paella fried rice is one of my favorites—add diced bits of cooked chicken or sausage, along with some smoked paprika and assorted vegetables. Or sometimes I add a little curry powder and finish it with peanuts, fish sauce, and a squirt of lime juice for a Southeast Asian take. If you have other leftover grains like quinoa or bulgur wheat, you can give those the fried rice treatment, too.
You may recall Elaine’s famous big salad from the Seinfeld episode of the same name. The home version is a little more freewheeling; it involves zero cooking, a bit of knife work, and is great for sticky summer says when you don’t want to make the kitchen any hotter. My default giant salad formula is more about the additions than the lettuce (I like a 1:1 ratio of greens to chunky stuff). Diced cooked meat, pickled beets, hard-boiled eggs, crumbles of feta, a boatload of chopped raw vegetables, and a can of drained chickpeas are frequent MVPs in this arrangement. Toasted nuts sprinkled on top add bulk, crunch, and better nutrition than croutons.
It takes a lot of vegetable-chopping, yes, but minestrone is a great soup to make to use up an assortment of vegetables. In fact, the greater the variety of vegetables, the better it tastes. Add faster-cooking vegetables like summer squash, peas, and greens just a few minutes before serving time so you don’t end up with a big bowl of mush. A big, fat dab of pesto to finish each bowl is a satisfying touch, but it’s certainly not necessary. Omit the tomatoes in the broth and you have potage au pistou, the Provençal version of minestrone.
A classic of Boxing Day in Britain, bubble and squeak re-purposes the components of a traditional English roast dinner. It’s a big pan-fried cake of mashed potatoes and miscellaneous diced, cooked vegetables (often Brussels sprouts and carrots), and it’s not necessary to make it after a fancy holiday dinner. You can start fresh with a quick batch of mashed potatoes and get creative, sautéing winter or summer squash, mushrooms, or most any hearty root vegetable to add to mix. Instead of one big cake, I make smaller individual patties, which are easier to handle in the skillet.
Starting with the same components of bubble and squeak, shepard’s pie reconfigures it all as a stew-like filling with a mashed potato crust. Mix leftover braised or roasted meat (if you’re using something other than lamb, it’s technically called a cottage pie, but we won’t get finicky like that here) with carrots, peas, celery, and the like. Very satisfying vegetarian versions of shepard’s pie, featuring meaty mushrooms, also hit the spot.
I don’t think I’ve ever made the same frittata twice, which is the beauty of the thing. If you have eggs, you’re halfway to a frittata already. Diced cured meats (ham, good-quality dry salami) or flaked cooked salmon help make it extra filling. Cooking greens like spinach or Swiss chard make it pretty and green. Grated cheese adds a flavor hit.
Think outside the diner menu. Peppers, mushrooms, ham, or bacon are all delicious filling options, but you can get pretty crazy with this one. Chili makes an incredibly hearty filling. Leftover rice fills a much-loved Japanese omelet for kids or adults. Plus, unlike a frittata, you can tailor each omelet to the linking of an individual, so a table of dissimilar appetites can eat in harmony.
Lingering jars of pasta sauce, leftover pork or beef roasts, remaining servings of black bean soup—any of those would be a great addition to a pot of chili. If you have a windfall of any kind of hot or bell pepper, chili is your go-to.
When you get down to it, ragout is a classier, less-spicy version of chili. The base for a ragout can be anything—poultry, meat, mushrooms. A few times I made ragout to clean out the fridge in the test kitchen where I worked, and the results were always divine. Once involved pancetta, rabbit meat, Italian sausage, beef from a batch of barbecued short ribs, a tub of tired-looking mushrooms, and a vat of leftover tomato soup. Often I’ll take all of the solid ingredients, grind them in a meat grinder (including the vegetables), and brown it in a big Dutch oven before adding the liquid—it’s lazy, but it works. If you’ve had a party and are left with a few nearly-empty bottles of wine, just add them to the ragout. Freeze portions to pull out and thaw months later for instant cozy dinners on nights when all you can muster is boiling pasta or cooking a box of instant polenta. This recipe is a good example of cooking down leftovers to make a satisfying ragout.
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor. A chef and cooking instructor, she really, really loves leftovers.
Main photo by Katrin Gilger CC BY_SA