10 Ways to Turn Your Leftovers Into an Exciting New Meal
Last week I was at a hip new restaurant in San Francisco that had the most amazing French fries. They were creamy and soft on the inside yet perfectly crisp on the outside. The only problem was that we ended up with a surplus of them. My friend’s new girlfriend gave me a weird look when I asked for the extra fries and grilled broccoli rabe in a doggie bag. “Won’t they get soggy?” she asked. I didn’t know and I didn’t care, because I had other plans for them. “I’m going to make a really delicious tortilla tomorrow for lunch!” I explained enthusiastically. She just smiled and looked at me like I was crazy, but as I was eating the scrumptious Spanish tortilla the next day, I felt like she was the one missing out. I have always loved leftovers because they present so much possibility—why not turn them into an exciting new meal? With a little kitchen know-how, an open mind, and creativity, you can transform leftovers into something just as spectacular as the original dish. Here’s how it’s done.
Don’t think of leftovers simply as food that is left over. Think of them as ingredients. When I saw the mound of extra French fries, I asked myself, What dishes have fried potatoes? I instantly thought of Spain’s most well-known tapa, Tortilla Española, which consists of fried potatoes, onions, and eggs. I diced the fries and broccoli into big chunks, sautéed them for a minute, and added four beaten eggs. With a dollop of mayonnaise, the tortilla tasted authentic and was so good I would have served it to guests. No one would have known that the fries and broccoli were doggie-bag food!
One of the most basic ways to use leftovers as ingredients is to sandwich them between two slices of bread. We’ve all had next-day meatloaf, roast chicken salad, or steak sandwiches for lunch. However, why not up the ante to really make the leftovers shine? Instead of simply slapping them between some everyday whole wheat, make an entirely new meal. Place meatloaf on a thick piece of mayo-slathered ciabatta (jazz up the mayo by adding minced garlic and basil) then bake in the oven until warm. Cover with arugula and shredded provolone then broil until the cheese is melted and the greens are wilted. Delish! Or try another dish:
Toss shredded leftover chicken with diced avocado, green onions, and a quick homemade Russian dressing (equal parts mayonnaise and ketchup). Spread the mixture onto sliced sourdough and top with grated sharp orange cheddar. Cook on a griddle for a gourmet roast chicken salad grilled cheese sandwich!
Thinly slice leftover steak and toss into a sauté pan with wilted beer-braised red pepper and onion slices. Pile the mixture into a toasted hoagie, and top with a creamy homemade cheese sauce (béchamel made with fat-free milk and lots of whatever white cheese you have on hand, be it mozzarella, parmesan, fontina, or Monterey Jack. Voilà: homemade Philly cheesesteaks!
Since most people normally have a carton of eggs in their fridge, incorporating your leftovers into some sort of egg dish and serving them for dinner is another great idea. Make the aforementioned tortilla or frittata, or use leftover sausages and vegetables to make a scramble or omelette. Leftover roasted veggies (like mushrooms, asparagus, and broccoli) and leftover sautéed veggies (like kale, chard, and zucchini) are delicious in quiche. Mix with cheese and eggs, pour into a prepared pie dough, and bake until puffed and fluffy. Even leftover stuffing and savory bread pudding can be scrumptious with eggs. Place the stuffing into an oven-friendly ramekin or baking dish. Using the back of a large spoon, make a well and crack an egg into it. Bake until the egg is cooked for a tasty treat! This can be done with marinara sauce as well: What dish calls for marinara sauce and eggs? Eggs in purgatory!
If you’re trying to be healthier, always have a bag of hearty greens on hand. Virtually any leftover ingredient can be added to a plate of spinach, romaine, or arugula. Scour your fridge and pantry for components that will enhance the leftovers. Leftover pork tenderloin makes a lovely Italian-inspired salad when mixed with spinach, white beans, diced tomatoes, shaved parmesan, pistachios, and a pesto vinaigrette. Toss leftover roasted sweet potatoes with romaine, black beans, corn, crumbled tortilla chips, and salsa for a Tex-Mex dinner salad. Or go Asian: Combine thin slices of leftover rib eye, mixed greens, shredded carrots, julienned bell peppers, and peanuts with a rice vinegar–and–sesame seed dressing. Be creative when it comes to leftover salads, and if you’re at a loss for ideas, turn to Google. A quick search will help you figure out what to make.
Whenever we spend a long weekend at my cabin, the first couple of nights I go crazy and make elaborate dinners. Then on the final night, I take an inventory of the leftovers in the fridge and make an Italian dish, usually pizza or pasta. The key is to think outside the box. One of the most successful leftover transformations was a smoky grilled pizza with leftover barbecued pork ribs. I pulled all the meat from the leftover ribs then layered it with smoked gouda, caramelized onions, chopped spinach, and diced black olives. The result wasn’t necessarily Italian, but it was an amazing hit with my weekend guests! Have leftover hamburger patties? Crumble and cook into a red tomato sauce, then toss with spaghetti. Got leftover barbecued chicken? Shred the meat then put it on a pizza with mozzarella, pineapple chunks, red onion, and more barbecue sauce. Leftover roasted asparagus? Toss with goat cheese, pesto, and bow tie pasta.
Stock your pantry with boxes of chicken, veggie, and beef broth so a comforting soup is never more than a half-hour away. Leftover chicken and rice can become a soup. Leftover veggies can be a soup with a little broken pasta pieces. Even leftover baked potatoes can be puréed to make a creamy and smooth soup. Leftover vegetarian tomato sauce can be turned into a hearty minestrone when added to cooked vegetables and diluted with water. Leftover tomato sauce with lots of sausage makes an amazing Portuguese-inspired soup: Simply dilute with beef broth, add kidney beans and chard, then simmer together for 20 minutes to let the flavors meld.
My favorite thing to make with leftover salmon? Salmon cakes! Any flaky leftover fish can be turned into a delicious cake the following night. Serve with greens, lemon wedges, and a quick homemade tartar sauce. I also love to make cakes with leftover grains like quinoa and rice. Fill warmed pita halves with crispy quinoa cakes, feta cheese, diced tomatoes, greens, and tzatziki for a hearty vegetarian meal. Mix leftover rice from Chinese takeout with canned beans and minced vegetables to make satisfying veggie burger patties.
Look to a foreign country for leftovers inspiration. Mexico and Asia are the two regions that most come to my mind. Pile tortilla chips with leftover chili, and cover with cheese for the ultimate nachos. Or sandwich the chili between two tortillas and make gooey quesadillas. Any leftover rice can be turned into an awesome stir-fry: Mix it with cooked veggies, beaten egg, and soy sauce. Have leftover cooked pasta with no red sauce? Turn it into an Asian noodle dish by tossing it in a peanut soy sauce.
Since I hate throwing away food, I often save salad—even a green salad that has been dressed. To enjoy it the next day as leftovers, I remake the salad by tossing it with a heaping handful of fresh greens. No extra salad dressing is needed, because the leftovers usually have enough built-up moisture from sitting overnight in the fridge. Don’t have greens? Mix the leftover salad with quinoa or rice. Soggy bread on your leftover deli sandwich? Pull out the filling and remake it on fresh bread, or build a wrap in a whole wheat tortilla.
There are some leftovers that are absolutely fine the next day simply as leftovers. Pizza, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, pasta carbonara, and even French fries can be great as is the next day. The key is to properly cook them. Avoid the microwave if you can. Bake leftover pizza and fried chicken in the oven. Warm leftover pasta (even macaroni and cheese) in a sauté pan over the stove. Add a little milk, water, or broth to loosen the pasta. While the microwave heats things quickly, it has a tendency to make leftovers soggy or rubbery, so don’t use it if you don’t have to.