Let’s Talk About Leftovers

I love cooking, so when I imagine myself preparing meals throughout the week I envision floating around the kitchen, wearing a delicate smile and a linen apron that I do not own, leisurely, yet efficiently mincing garlic or sautéing onions or tossing a bouquet garni into a pot that’s just come to a simmer. I glide from the counter to the oven, enveloped in the delight that is preparing food for myself and my loved ones to enjoy at the end of a long day.

But then Tuesday afternoon comes along. Joshua teaches and spends much of the rest of his time corresponding with students or grading their work. I’ve either been nursing our son or staring at a computer for much of the day, writing or emailing or whatever it is I do with my time that keeps me always feeling as though it should be several hours earlier than it is. And, though I like to imagine my approach to cooking will always be one of eagerness and joy, sometimes it’s a relief to know that dinner is already prepared, and will only require a bit of time to reheat or a fresh squeeze of lemon juice to be ready.

We operate off of leftovers. If we had to cook a new meal every night of the week, we would quickly burn out and resort to bowls of cereal or hastily- and thoughtlessly-ordered meals from DoorDash with an unsettling frequency. Eating leftovers a few times each week allow for us to cook at home, and put our energy into meals that excite us without developing angst or resentment toward the kitchen.

If the word leftovers brings to mind gray, chewy pieces of steak and soggy microwaved green beans, bear with me for just a few more minutes. There is a way to prepare leftovers that doesn’t sacrifice on texture or flavor, and that avoids the perceived monotony that comes with eating the same meal two or three nights in a row.

Read on for a few of the steps I take to make a meal out of leftovers that we can look forward to and enjoy.

In general, foods that cook for longer times in the oven or on the stove (where flavors have time to “get to know each other in the pot”), make for great leftovers. Soups and stews, after sitting in the fridge for a day or two, often taste better, their flavors having even more time to meld together. And since they don’t rely on crunchy textures, like, say, a piece of battered and fried chicken, they’re much easier to reheat. Curries, casseroles, risottos, even salads with a grain or hearty green as a base, do very well with a little bit of time.

Reheat the food in a way that will either maintain the textural integrity of the original dish, or enhance it. Aka: Avoid the microwave (for the most part). It might take a few more minutes, but reheating leftover chicken thighs or roasted potatoes on the stove or in the oven preserves texture and prevents food from getting chewy, soggy, or any other -y that makes food unpalatable. Even something like a zucchini fritter can be re-crisped in a pan. You can also add texture to dishes that might not have had much before, like pasta and rice dishes, by crisping them up in some hot oil or butter. The only exception to the microwave rule is when you’re reheating soups or chilis, which don’t necessarily require a variety of textures to be enjoyable (though if you, like me, believe everything benefits from a little bit of texture, read on).

Add fresh ingredients. Saving some of the components of the dish for when you serve it on day 2 or 3 will make the leftovers taste more like you just took them off of the stove for the first time. Drizzle soups with olive oil, add fresh cracked pepper, and toss in a small handful of croutons for some crunch. Squeeze fresh lemon juice or add a splash of oil and vinegar to salads or grain bowls. Or-my go-to-top meals with a poached or fried egg (I promise, this works with more dishes than you think. Pastas and risottos are made more indulgent and nutritious with the addition of a jammy egg, and a side of roasted veggies can be turned into a full meal with a couple of eggs sunny-side-up).

Know which parts of the meal can be reheated and which should be made just before eating. Baked salmon or sheet-pan sausage will do well the next day, but a delicate, flaky fish or lightly-dressed arugula salad is going to be much better if made fresh just before eating. Pairing already-cooked side dishes with a quick-to-prepare main, or vice versa, will cut down on your time and energy in the kitchen.

Use last night’s dinner as an ingredient in something else. If you prepared a roasted chicken with a side of veggies, save the chicken for chicken salad or shred it and toss it in to simmer with the next night’s tortilla soup. Leftover salmon makes great salmon cakes or can help you level up your Saturday morning omelet. You’ll be using up your meals and saving time, without feel like you’re eating the same thing all week.

Originally published at https://breadbutter.blog on January 28, 2022.



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