I talk about “leftover magic” here a lot, meaning I take a random assortment of odds and ends and magically transform them into something completely different. People have a lot of questions about how I do this (my own family seems mystified by it, even), but there are no specific recipes to follow in leftover cookery. It really is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants maneuver, wherein you combine a bunch of stuff that seems logical together and hope for the best.
I’m a very experienced cook, so leftover magic comes easily to me. I’ve been cooking complete family meals since I was 12….and I’m 41….so….I have nearly 30 years of experience in the kitchen (I am good at cooking. I am not good at math). I know which spices not to combine, how thick or thin cake/muffin/crepe/waffle batters should be (important when incorporating leftovers such as lemon curd, jellies, fruit compotes, etc.) and how much liquid is typical in a soup recipe. I can tell if bread dough has been kneaded enough just by the way it feels, and I know when baked goods are done just by the smell emanating from the oven. This sort of thing comes with experience, but everyone starts somewhere.
When I was a novice cook, my leftover experiments didn’t always turn out, but this is how I learned what to do, and what not to do. Now they *almost* always turn out, and I’m proud to say that in our household, we waste little to no food. I clean out the fridge every week because successful leftover management means keeping a close eye on what needs to be used up, and planning your meals accordingly. This is why I’ve never been a long-range menu planner – it doesn’t work for me. I prefer to make the dinner decision each morning, based on what I have on hand. I’ve always found that this is the best way for me to stretch our grocery budget and prevent waste (see How I Shop and Plan Our Meals for more information).
There are several methods of leftover management:
1. You make, for example, roast chicken one night, and plan for chicken soup the next night.
2. You cook several different meals, and designate one or two days a week as “leftover nights,” where everyone chooses something to finish up.
3. You immediately freeze all leftovers and pull them out later in the month when you’re lacking dinner inspiration/don’t feel like cooking/have failed to plan ahead.
I employ a combination of all three, but most often #1. Depending on the type of food, I have some go-to moves for incorporating leftovers into meals, and I’d like to share them with you here as a jumping-off point. You’ll find that once you get used to using up leftovers, you’ll develop your own “spells” (so to speak).
Often left after cooking chicken, turkey breast or beef roast. Small amounts of stock can be used in lieu of fat when sauteeing vegetables, or they can be substituted for milk or water in casserole bases, for extra flavor. Large amounts make the healthiest, most flavorful soups. See One Chicken, Two Meals.
I almost always use this in soup. For example, if I cook a turkey breast, I make gravy from the stock, and we have roast turkey with cranberry sauce, brown rice and gravy, and green beans. The next night, I use the leftover turkey and gravy to make Cakie’s favorite soup – homemade turkey noodle. I do the same with pot roast and gravy, only I make vegetable beef soup. Just add enough water or stock to the gravy to achieve the right soup consistency. Soups and stews are one of the best ways to use a myriad of leftovers, such as vegetables, rice or noodles, even tiny amounts of condiments. For example, if there’s just a tiny bit of ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, or salad dressing left in the bottom of the bottle, I add a little water, swish it around, and pour it in the soup pot. Ketchup and Worcestershire add terrific flavor to beef soups, and Italian or ranch dressings are great in poultry-based soups….and nothing is wasted!
Jello. Canned fruits work best with gelatin. We like mandarin oranges or peaches in apricot jello, and pineapple tidbits in cherry jello. You can also freeze fruits for smoothies, or add them to cake, muffin, or pancake batter. I made a terrific peach cake once by mixing some pureed, canned peaches into my basic yellow cake recipe. I also added a small amount of extra flour to offset the extra moisture. Overripe bananas, of course, have dozens of uses (see this post).
Any cooked meat
One of the best leftovers to have, because proteins are the most time-consuming component of a meal. I love cold sliced steak with bleu cheese on a salad for lunch, or sliced chicken with feta and sun-dried tomatoes. And who doesn’t love a great chicken salad with celery, grapes and pecans? Chop leftover beef for stroganoff or chili, or shred leftover chicken for chicken tortilla soup. There are endless possibilities.
I mix leftover pintos with sliced turkey dogs, ketchup, brown sugar and a little mustard for lunch-time beanie weanies. I also mash them with garlic, cumin, and a little olive oil to make homemade healthy “refried” beans for Mexican pizzas. They’re also excellent, very filling salad toppers.
I LOVE when we have leftover rice! It’s so versatile. If we have only a small amount, I make breakfast porridge for myself. This is just rice mixed with milk, sugar, and cinnamon, and warmed in the microwave. If we have a larger amount, I make red beans and rice, or black beans and rice with corn and tomatoes. We also like cheesy chili rice bowls at lunch. Rice can also be used in soups, casseroles, and burritos (add some cilantro and lime zest!)
Don’t ever throw away parmesan rinds or small amounts of grated cheese leftover from pizza night. I use parmesan rinds to flavor soup, and I melt grated cheese over eggs, or in casseroles. I also add it to biscuit dough.
Stale bread should never be tossed! Dice it for bread pudding. Cut it into cubes, toss it with olive oil and Italian seasoning, and bake until crisp – homemade croutons! Grind it up and put it in a freezer bag until you have a recipe that requires bread crumbs, such as meatloaf or salmon/tuna cakes. The same goes for stale crackers (don’t let them sit in the cabinet and get even more stale. Grind and freeze them!) Breakfast casseroles are also a great way to use up stale bread. This is one of my favorites:
Christmas Morning Breakfast Casserole
1 pound ground turkey breakfast sausage, or 1 1/2 cups finely diced
1 teaspoon dry, ground mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
4 eggs, beaten
2 cups milk
6 slices bread, toasted and cut into cubes
8 ounces Cheddar cheese, shredded
1. Crumble sausage into a medium skillet. Cook over medium heat until evenly brown; drain.
2. In a medium bowl, mix together ground mustard, salt, pepper, eggs and milk. Add the sausage (or ham), bread cubes, and cheese, and stir to coat evenly. Pour into a greased 9×13 inch baking dish. Cover, and chill in the refrigerator for 8 hours, or overnight.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
4. Cover, and bake 45 to 60 minutes. Uncover, and reduce temperature to 325 degrees F (165 degrees C). Bake for an additional 30 minutes, or until set.
Cereal – dry
Sweetened or unsweetened, I never throw away stale cereal. I grind it fine in the food processor, and use it as a substitute for graham cracker/cookie crumbs in desserts. This has worked successfully for me for more than a decade. The only cereals that don’t work for this are fruit-flavored ones, such as Fruity Pebbles or Crunch Berries, but we rarely buy those anyway because the kids don’t like them (actually, we buy very little cereal in general because nobody eats it!)
Cereal – cooked
Example: oatmeal or Cream of Wheat. These are incorporated into muffin, cake, or pancake batters. My two favorite recipes for using up leftover cooked cereal are oatmeal crumb cake and harvest grain and nut pancakes.
Hamburger/hot dog buns
We always seem to have a few left over after grilling out, and they make the BEST garlic bread! Just spread with butter, sprinkle with garlic powder and onion powder (or garlic salt, if you prefer it) and grated cheese, and put them under the broiler on low until lightly browned and the cheese is bubbly. Watch them closely because they toast quickly!
I always add this to chili, or to any tomato-based soup, such as vegetable, tortilla, or minestrone.
Mashed potatoes/sweet potatoes
The best use for leftover mashed potatoes, provided that they’re not heavily seasoned, is refrigerator dough. They can also be used to thicken soups, or you can form them into patties and fry them (potato pancakes and applesauce…mmmmm). Mashed sweet potatoes, when not seasoned with savory spices, can be used as a substitute for pumpkin or squash puree. I made some of the best “pumpkin” bars ever with sweet potatoes.
Yogurt, half and half, whipping cream, evaporated milk, any unsweetened dairy
I use unsweetened Greek yogurt in any recipe calling for sour cream, or in curries and tikka masala (all 3 of my kids LOVE curry, which I did not expect. Go figure). I also use it in my food processor naan dough (recipe to come). Half & half/cream/evaporated milk are fantastic in soups with a creamy base, such as cheesy potato, or chicken and wild rice (Bee’s all-time favorite).
I sometimes have a small amount of leftover pizza dough. I roll it thin, spray a skillet with cooking spray, and fry it. This makes a delicious flatbread, which I top with scrambled eggs and cheese for breakfast. I also make small dessert pizzas.