leftovers: sin or salvation?

…a heartfelt defense of the well-thawed.

Leftovers get a bad rap. They are unfairly maligned for being by-products of thrift, laziness and indifference. The very mention of the word can evoke universal disappointment and even disgust. We have all experienced leftover fails, especially with food that wasn’t really that great the first time around. Neither advanced cryogenics nor all the ketchup in the world can fix it. But at their very best, leftovers can remind us of a fleeting pleasure – they are familiar delights that come back to us refreshed and recast.

Far from a punchline, I think leftovers convey invention, memory and conscience.

Yes. Yes, I absolutely am going to romanticize leftovers – I produced a lovely dinner every damn night of that pandemic and it was the sole measure of my achievement and productivity. Between waiting for a delivery of fresh food and then sanitizing the groceries in the garage, well-planned leftovers became essential to my sanity, and thus the happiness and safety of my household. To the haters I would simply say, “y’all aren’t doing it right.”

But now I’m back to cooking for only two; not 4-6, not 10-12, but two. Almost every recipe presents a dilemma – do I halve or quarter the ingredients or go all-in and plan for leftovers? Do I reduce the cooking time? Adjust the temperature? It’s not always so simple. Trying to teensy-fy a recipe risks overcooked and poorly constructed food as well as absurd waste, like half an egg. Seriously, the math behind measuring two-thirds of a half pint of buttermilk makes my head explode. So I usually just embrace the volume, knowing there will be a command performance in a few weeks.

“So what do you do with all that food?” What a dumb question. Well obviously we eat it. And we eat it with gratitude and the understanding that not everyone on this planet is so fortunate. One of the benefits of strategic cooking is maximizing and preserving your resources. Many think it’s the opposite, overcooking as a symptom of our indulgent or lavish cultural norms. Or worse, the idea that bulk consumption is a replacement for flavor, style and beauty. When I say that leftovers can spark memories I’m don’t mean “remember the time we ate so much cold hamburger helper we couldn’t even reach the tv remote?”

As I’m cooking along each night, I make elaborate plans for the leftovers, usually before the original meal has even been served. I tend to think a few steps ahead and typically have a plan B for everything. And usually a plan C. It’s mostly in my head, but to keep the kitchen in order, I have created categories for my leftovers:

category 1: the full monty 2.0

After a lovely fall dinner, I froze Cuban black beans and rice for 4 months as a complete meal, ready to thaw and reheat. The first repeat was in January and the smoky flavors had mellowed nicely. This meal clearly fits into category 1 and only needed fresh cilantro to make a complete comeback. It’s like going to see your favorite ‘80s band and hearing all the greatest hits. Just like you remember – an amazing performance because they are experienced and know what they are doing.

category 2: miscellaneous body parts

Black beans round three was over the weekend. This time I supplemented with a little chicken, fresh marinated onions, chives and some queso fresco. Sous Chef’s leftover poppers made an appearance as well. Because of all the body parts I used from Wednesday’s improvised chicken shawarma, this meal drifted into category 2. It was more like seeing that same ‘80 band, but maybe with a new drummer, some young backup singers and a couple of new songs. It’s still enjoyable, but you really don’t need to see them again.

category 3: the brilliant disguise

This pasta creation has only one fresh ingredient, basil. The chicken and tomatoes were resuscitated from an earlier meal (remember that shawarma?) but everything else was plucked from my coffers of condiments, pickles, cheeses and spices. It was a formal leftover night and celebrated as such – I didn’t sow the wheat, pluck the chicken or brine the olives and capers. It was easily and purposefully thrown together from parts and pieces, but a far cry from their original parent meals. Since at this point that ‘80s band has officially broken up, it’s kind of like a really great cover band, unrecognizable except for the melodies and lyrics.

I’m not quite done yet…I also take issue with the belief that somehow leftovers are less-than, has-been, forgotten and then hastily recycled afterthoughts.

(nokorimono ni wa fuku ga aru)

Japanese proverb: Luck exists in the leftovers.

The literal translation of this proverb outright supports my case, but the actual usage of this phrase offers us even more: sometimes first is last or maybe the best is yet to come. It can be a consolation for those at the end of the line, a warning for the greedy and an inspiration to be a thoughtful and cooperative citizen. Mostly I think it celebrates change, renewal, redemption and the promise of a well-seasoned life. I’m only sort-of still talking about food now.

After considerable thought, I think might be a leftover. Of course I’m applying my own definition: something that was pretty awesome the first time around, but maybe a just little too much to handle in a single sitting. So let’s put her on ice for a few weeks (or years) and then thaw her out, update her with a little spice & some modern zip, and resume the party like no time has passed. Yep. I’m definitely a leftover.

leftover cheat sheet

  • Cream-based sauces are iffy unless incorporated into the starch, like in a casserole or pasta dish,
  • No for most seafood. Once Mother saved a single shrimp in her fridge because she simply couldn’t bear to throw it out. I think it’s still in there waiting for another shot.
  • On the other hand, Daddy appreciates bulk buying, bulk cooking and bulk freezing. It’s a showdown between the single shrimp and the 10 pounds of BBQ.
  • I found stackable, lidded food storage containers that hold a meal for two perfectly. Prior to any adventure you’ll find my freezer stacked floor to ceiling with those.
  • Label everything. Once I gambled on a mystery “roast” that was either meat or a congealed collection of bones, fat and skin for stock. Happily it was lamb, but it easily could have gone the other way.
it can be hard to freeze a friend, but it doesn’t have to be forever

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