What’s for dinner? Leftovers. Please don’t groan. Think of it as an encore.
Historian Helen Veit’s recent article in The Atlantic, “An Economic History of Leftovers”, considers how new the very concept of leftovers is. In Colonial times and before, the cycles of food in the kitchen were more integrated—trimmings and waste went into the soup pot, or, perhaps, the pig trough. They were also, crucially, unrefrigerated, requiring food preservation methods like fermentation, pickling, and smoking for large quantities of food to be viable for long-term storage.
Enter the icebox, and instead of being re-formed into another dish, prepared foods that weren’t consumed the first time could simply re-emerge a few days later, thus embarking on a resounding chorus of “meh.” I’m sure you’ve lived through such a scenario one end or the other. “The truth was that by the 1960s leftovers were becoming a joke to a lot of people, with a grumbling husband and a mystery casserole playing stock roles. That humor was a direct result of abundance,” writes Veit.
This dismissive attitude toward leftovers indicates an abundance of something besides cheap food: time. To dine every evening on a brand-new recipe requires a kicked-up level of planning, shopping, and cooking, as any primary feeder of a household knows all too well. The ascent of convenience foods made it possible to bring forth a parade of ever-changing casseroles and skillet suppers, many of them depending on the ease of opening a can of condensed Cream of X soup (mushroom, chicken, celery, what-have-you). The leftover became a pariah, and it was a sign of wealth and privilege to be dismissive of them.
This attitude continues today; if you want to see evidence, come hang out at my house for a few days. But leftovers are the original convenience foods, a way to double-down on both labor and food cost, and in some absolutely wonderful cases, leftovers are actually better the next day. We felt they needed some love, so here’s an ode to the foods we look forward to eating again once they rise Christ-like from the chilly tomb of the refrigerator.
Show me a batch of chili—vegan or thick with meat—that doesn’t taste more sorted-out after a day or two has passed, and I’ll show you something that isn’t really chili. In fact, nearly all long-cooked soups and stews benefit from a day of rest so their flavors can meld and deepen. But getting back to chili, it makes a great filling for quesadillas, and it’s particularly divine when stirred into (junk food alert!) a box of prepared macaroni and cheese. Also, there’s always the freezer, that modern convenience I think of as my own food bank—one that allows appropriate gaps in time so that leftovers are forgotten, then remembered, then embraced as new.
Leftover steak, thinly sliced, can top any number of salads. Shred the meat up with your hands and cook it up with garlic and spices for taco filling. Throw diced leftover beef or pork into a big pot of chili (see above).
One word: sandwich.
Leftover steamed rice itself isn’t stellar, but it’s begging to be made into fried rice—and handily, cold cooked rice makes much better fried rice, anyway. You can make nearly any type of cooked rice (save sweet sticky rice or risotto) into a mean fried rice; I like to strive for a ratio of 1 part fried rice to 1 part vegetables. A scrambled egg or chopped up bits of cooked meat never hurts, either.
Back in my lowly prep cook days, I handled seemingly thousands of day-old baked potatoes, and what shriveled and sad things they were. Thus, middlebrow family restaurants invented fattening and cheese-oozing loaded potato skins to solve this problem. A much more healthful way to use them up at home is to dice them and make hash, or an inauthentic but still very pleasing tortilla española.
Ah, the pleasures of gnawing on a cold drumstick. Beyond the primal instinct, there’s also the many possibilities of cooking with the meat picked from the chicken carcass—and thanks to those rotisserie birds so ubiquitous at today’s supermarkets, there’s an entire genre of recipes requiring the picked meat of a fresh rotisserie bird, thereby forgoing the entire step of it being left over.
Truly excellent pizza is unmatched when it’s glistening and fresh, but mediocre pizza comes into its own glory the following day, preferably cold or at room temperature. Top it with a fried egg and you have a hangover cure bar none. As for bad pizza, well, you still have to be drunk to enjoy that.
Specifically, stir-fries with gloppy, sweet sauces.
Use them as a pizza topping, toss them with cooked pasta, serve them over cooked grains with a big glob of romesco sauce. You can even use them as an enchilada filling. All winter long, I make double batches to have on hand during the week for assorted uses—their versatility has trumped their origin as a stand-alone side dish.
If you have gone through the trouble of making a pie in the first place, you deserve to eat it for breakfast the following day, and it will taste marvelous, because you are eating pie for breakfast (itself is a very Colonial-era behavior).
Dealing with the picked-over bits lingering on a cheese platter after a party winds down isn’t at the top of everyone’s list, but there’s gold there. Outside of making the most incredible batch of macaroni and cheese ever, you can whip up a batch of fromage fort, the French cheese spread that’s fortified with wine—red or white, take your pick—which you may presumably also have left over the day after a party. Every batch of fromage fort comes out differently, which is the fun of it. Don’t have wine? Make beer cheese.
Leftover risotto kind of blows—by then, it’s gummy and indistinct. However, it’s easily converted into risotto cakes or croquettes.
Fry up slices of leftover grits to use as a base for all kinds of things, though I’m partial to drowning them in syrup for breakfast. Same goes for polenta. You can grill it, griddle it, deep-fry it, broil it, or (my favorite) just eat it cold with your fingers, though that’s admittedly weird.
We’re going to call sangria a food because it has fruit in it. Leftover sangria isn’t pretty; it looks like the loser in a barroom brawl. But wow, does it ever taste good after hours and hours macerating—and the day after a party, it’s all yours, you lucky devil.
Have you ever participated in the marathon of hell known as making a Thanksgiving dinner? Or have you ever watched television all day long and nibbled crackers and olives and nut mix while everyone in the kitchen frantically keeps assuring you that yes, we’ll be eating in just about an hour or so? Either way, by the time the food hits the table, you’re usually a bit delirious. Under such circumstances, it’s difficult to truly take it all in on the first round. That’s why the day after Thanksgiving exists. Most iconic Thanksgiving dishes hold up well to reheating, or to being consumed on the sly straight from the Tupperware, cold.
Sara Bir is Paste’s food editor. Sorry, there’s no pizza left because she already ate it for all breakfast.
Photo by Guian Bolisay CC BY-SA