Book Excerpt: Leftovers
By Kathy Gunst
I did not grow up in a home where leftovers were ingeniously put to use. Whatever we didn’t eat was often thrown out; or else it reappeared a few days later hiding beneath a sauce made from canned gravy. The most famous leftover dish in my family was the Tuesday night special: Mom’s spaghetti casserole. This was Monday night’s spaghetti and meatball dinner reheated in the oven until the meatballs achieved the consistency of leather.
Leftovers were boring, unappetizing food.
Then, on my first visit to France, I learned that it didn’t have to be this way. I was in my early twenties, spending a week with a Parisian family. My hosts, like my own family, clearly could afford to eat whatever they wanted, They didn’t need to save food in order to stretch their resources. But I watched in amazement as every scrap of food was not only saved, but also reused in imaginative ways. Peelings from carrots and leeks went into the stockpot. The hard, stale ends of crusty baguettes were saved for making bread crumbs and thickening soups. Bits and pieces of cooked fish were transformed into a luscious stew, laden with garlic and fresh vegetables.
There was a feeling in that home that food was precious. And for me, the most miraculous part of all that, over the course of my stay, leftover foods were used to make meals that were every bit as delicious as the celebration dinner we had the evening
Of course many professional chefs acknowledge that truly good cooks are distinguished by their ability to create meals out of whatever ingredients happen to be available—including leftovers.
My French-born friend Jean Ames, a wonderful cook who has lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, for many years, tells a story illustrating this point. “When my cousin Renee hires a cook, she never asks, ‘How would you prepare a Civet de Lapin?’ but ‘What would you do with a cooked chicken wing, a pickle, and two potatoes?’ My answer,” says Ames, “would be to take the skin off the wing and give it to the cat. I would mince the meat and moisten it with heavy cream, a few drops of Cognac, and season it discreetly with a pinch of nutmeg. I’d make a puree of potatoes, make a pretty shell with the puree, and fill the hollow with my chicken cream. I’d sprinkle on melted butter, put it in the oven, and while it’s delicately browning, I’d eat the pickle.”
Another friend, Ken Hom, chef, cooking teacher, and host of a Chinese cooking show on PBS, says, “Cooking with leftovers is the true test for a cook. It jars your thinking, because it’s not a prescribed method of cooking. It forces you to use your instincts and that’s what cooking is all about.”
While I was writing this book I spoke with dozens of friends and chefs, and every one of them had a story to tell about leftovers. Many people recalled creating excellent dishes after scouring the contents of the refrigerator on a cold, snowy night, or while at a vacation house miles from the nearest supermarket.
“We rented a house in the woods one summer,” a friend told me. “The rain started and the dirt road turned to mush. All we had left in our cooler was a few cooked green beans, a piece of cooked chicken, the end of a hunk of cheese, and four eggs. We made the most incredible omelet you’ve ever eaten. The truth is that I would have never made a chicken, green bean and cheese omelet at home, but now it’s one of my favorites.”
Some of the world’s greatest cuisines rely on previously cooked foods. In China and throughout much of Asia, where ovens are still a rarity in most homes, roast chicken and duck and barbeque pork bought at the local market have long been a part of everyday cooking. In a wok set over a gas or charcoal burner, a Chinese cook stir-fries these cooked meats and poultry along with fresh vegetables and seasonings and has a complete meal in a matter of minutes.
Think of such Mexican dishes as tacos and enchiladas, where cooked beef, chicken, or pork are combined with fresh vegetables, cheese, and herbs in a cornmeal or wheat shell. French dishes like cassoulet and crepes use previously cooked foods, as do American classics as corned beef hash, fish cakes, chicken pot pie, and vegetable fritters.
The aim of this book is to open your mind to the many creative possibilities offered by leftovers. And let’s face it, we all have refrigerators fell of leftovers—the remnants of Saturday night’s roast beef dinner wrapped in foil, Tuesday’s pasta, Friday’s fish, Sunday’s Chinese takeout.
With just a little imagination you can turn those leftovers into terrific meals. But the first step is to stop thinking of leftovers as “old food.” The half a cooked chicken hiding in the back of your refrigerator doesn’t look quite as appealing as it did when it came out of the oven two days ago, glistening and golden brown, or when you picked it up from your neighborhood deli. But it’s still perfectly fine for putting together several meals in very little time because the main ingredient has already been cooked.
Tonight you can make Chicken Salad with Curried Walnuts, Oranges and Scallions. Tomorrow the bones and carcass can be used to prepare a simple stock, and the next day you can put together a Greek-Style Chicken Lemon-Rice Soup.
This book emphasized quick and simple recipes that make the most of leftover foods, supplementing them with fresh vegetables, herbs, and easy-to-prepare sauces. There are also some more elaborate recipes for those who have the time and energy. Those of you who rely on a microwave oven to reheat your leftovers will soon notice that there is no further mention of the machine in this book. I know they save time, but, archaic as it may sound, I don’t own one.
I have borrowed and adapted recipes from all over the world—exotic and familiar. I have also been greatly inspired by Michael Field’s book Culinary Classics & Improvisations (Alfred A. Knopf, 1965)—the only other worthwhile book I know devoted solely to the subject of leftovers. Field’s elegant and intelligent book elevated to great status the idea of using leftovers to create exciting new dishes. His is a tradition I aimed to continue with this book.
The chapters in this book are divided according to food type—poultry, beef, pasta, vegetables, bread, and so forth. Each chapter begins with at least one Master Recipe that explains the basic technique for cooking that type of food for scratch (such as Roast Turkey with Oyster-Herb Stuffing, Veal Braised in Its Own Juices, or Grilled Steak with Provencal Herbs). The Master Recipes are then followed by dozens of leftover innovations.
My hope is that you will discover, as I have, that properly prepared dishes made with leftovers can be better than the original meal. You may find yourself roasting an entire leg of lamb, not just because it makes an elegant meal, but also because the next day you can make a Middle Eastern Lamb Sandwiches using pita bread or a Chinese Lamb Hot Pot. Your view of leftovers is about to change.
Excerpted from "Leftovers" by Kathy Gunst, 1990.
This program aired on July 22, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.
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