Recently, as I often do, I made breakfast using the leftovers of the evening before in an egg scramble.
The only thing was that the leftovers were a bit unusual to include in an egg dish. “I don’t think walnuts belong in eggs,” my beleaguered husband murmured as he took his first bite. But somehow, the repurposed broccoli salad with walnuts, raisins and pickled onions – along with the homemade almond-crusted boneless chicken nuggets – made for an interesting and tasty omelet. “This is actually delicious,” he admitted after a few bites.
My parents experienced serious wartime deprivations during their lives as children and teens in Greece — during back-to-back occupations of the armies of Bulgaria, Italy, Germany and finally the disheartening Greek Civil War. Thus, food did not go to waste in our home. When my sister and I grew up in our ethnic Chicago neighborhood, leftovers were carefully scraped onto tiny plates and stored in the refrigerator, where they awaited their second incarnation as my mother’s lunch or, if they were sufficient, a companionable tidbit with our dinner.
I was amenable to leftovers, noticing that oftentimes food tasted even better on the second day. (My sister was not. To this day, she disdains the notion of leftovers. Rather, she carefully plans meals to offer exact portions and no more.)
I have been known to purposely cook too much so I have a supply of leftovers. Strangely, even when I don’t intend to, I usually have something left from the night before. Long ago, I understood that feeding two strapping sons and a husband meant I might need to provide seconds for every meal, and I just can’t seem to stop doing it, even though my boys are grown and gone and my husband likes to pretend he’ll be happy with one serving.
But the good news is that in my family at least, leftovers are relished as a part of our spontaneous meal planning, and everyone looks forward to incorporating last night’s flavors into tomorrow’s dishes.
My egg dish notwithstanding, there are ways to create a new leftover meal that is completely different from yesterday’s dinner. The easiest is to plan in advance. For example, I like to roast a chicken (or two) and some vegetables for dinner No. 1, chop up the veggies and leftover meat for an easy pot pie on day two and cook the carcass for a hearty soup on day three. Not only do you create three distinctive menus, but you’ve saved a lot of money, too.
But what to do if you just have a bit of this and a bit of that? Some wilted salad with vinaigrette, a cup of pinto beans, some leftover roasted pork and a small chunk of goat cheese? Or any number of mismatched ingredients? The flavors are unorthodox. Will they work together? Most of the time, my answer would be: yes!
Your ingenuity may run to chopping and throwing the stuff in a pot, adding some water and making soup for lunch. Or you can sauté everything in some butter and olive oil and serve it over rice or pasta for dinner. There’s really no wrong way to cook it, even if you, as I did, cook it in a pan and add beaten eggs for a delicious, if not necessarily pretty, breakfast.
I think everyone has their own version of “leftovers surprise.” And I hope you’ll have fun cooking up a mess of something, even if you have to say, “You’ll eat it, and you’ll like it!” – as many mothers did when I was growing up. Chances are they will like it, and thus you accomplish two things at once: a nourishing and delicious meal and no more wasted food. It’s a winner any way you look at it.
Chicken three ways
Begin with one or two roasted chickens, depending on your family size. If you have two in your family, one chicken may suffice, but if you have a family of four, you may want to cook two.
After dinner, remove the remaining meat from the bones of both of the chickens and reserve in a container along with the remaining roasted vegetables. Make a pot pie out of half the meat and reserve the rest.
Place all the bones in a pot, add 8 cups of water, sprigs of parsley and thyme, a couple of bay leaves, a few peppercorns, a couple of cloves of garlic and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover and cook for two hours. Strain the broth. You should have about a quart or so of rich broth. Pick off any remaining meat from the bones and add to the reserved chicken. Set aside.
Make posole with the remaining reserved chicken meat.
Roasted chicken with vegetables
• 1 or 2 whole chickens (depending on family size), washed and dried inside and out with paper towels
• 6 small carrots, scraped and quartered lengthwise
• 2 stalks celery, sliced on an angle
• 2 onions, sliced through the root into 8 wedges each
• 1 small butternut squash, peeled and diced
• 1 small bunch of asparagus (optional)
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 cloves garlic, crushed or finely chopped
• 2 tablespoons each finely chopped fresh rosemary and fresh sage
• Salt and pepper to taste
• 2-4 sprigs of thyme
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place chickens in large heavy roasting pan and season inside and out with salt and pepper. Toss the vegetables in a bowl with the olive oil and crushed garlic and arrange around the chicken so they fit in one layer in the pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and lay the thyme on top.
Roast uncovered for 1 to 1 1/2 hours until the chicken is crisp and the vegetables are softened and caramelized around the edges. (If using the asparagus, add to the pan about halfway through the cooking.) To test chicken for doneness, pierce the thickest part of the thigh; the juices should run clear.
Makes 4 servings, plus plenty of leftovers.
Chicken pot pie
• 2 prepared pie crusts
• 2 cups chopped leftover chicken
• 2 cups leftover roasted vegetables
• 1/2 cup chicken broth plus 1/2 cup white wine or 1 cup chicken broth
• 2 tablespoons flour
• 2 tablespoons butter
• Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a pie pan with a pie crust. In a bowl, mix the chicken and vegetables together. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the flour, whisking to incorporate. Gradually add the broth and wine, whisking constantly. Once slightly thickened, add some salt and pepper. Pour over the chicken and vegetables and toss to mix lightly. Scrape into the pie crust. Cover with the second crust and crimp the edges to seal. Cut a “C” into the crust to vent. Bake for 45 minutes to an hour until golden brown.
Makes 4-6 servings.
• 2-3 cups leftover chicken meat, shredded
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1 chopped onion
• 1 diced zucchini
• 2 cloves chopped garlic
• 1/4 cup mild red chile powder
• 2 pounds frozen precooked posole, thawed (or 1 32-ounce can hominy, drained)
• 8 cups water
• 1 quart homemade chicken broth
• 1 bay leaf
• 2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper – or to taste
• 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
• 1 diced avocado
• 1 lime, cut into 8 wedges
• Sour cream
Heat vegetable oil in a large stockpot. Add the chopped onion and garlic and sauté over medium-high heat until softened and translucent – about 5 minutes. Add the red chile and stir to release its flavor. Add the chicken and the posole. Stir until glistening – about 1 minute. Add the water, the chicken broth and bay leaf. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to very low and simmer, covered, for about 4 hours. Add more water as needed; the posole should be just submerged. Taste and adjust seasonings.
Serve in bowls garnished with fresh chopped cilantro, diced avocado, sour cream and limes. Makes at least 8 servings.
Herrman is a writer and a painter who has cooked family meals since she was 11. She has taught cooking, written a food column and contributed to several cookbooks. She lives in Taos.