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The Elegant Leftover Scheme

Times are hard. It’s been a rough couple of years. Rising prices and pervasive shortages of food and other products add to the constant hum of anxiety that serves as a background to every aspect of our daily life. War, inflation, pandemic: we’re going through a lot right now. But it’s important to remember that these are all problems we’ve faced before. In times of trouble, it’s a comfort to recall our remarkable capacity for resilience. It’s not a new idea to make-do, tighten up our belts and conserve our resources. Our growing awareness of the climate crisis is new, however, and it adds a sense of urgency to our efforts.

The rising price of food and gasoline is a terrible hardship for many, I understand that. But if shortages make us drive less and waste less, there might yet be a silver lining. Maybe we’ll take fewer unnecessary trips in the car, and enjoy the trips we do take more. Maybe we won’t let our vehicles idle in parking lots and driveways. Maybe we’ll make just as much food as we know we can eat, and we’ll appreciate every bite. We won’t throw away food that isn’t spoiled, we won’t ditch our leftovers, we’ll turn them into a splendid new meal instead.

We know it’s better for the world and ourselves if we consume less meat, though the idea runs against the grain for many Americans. The belief that we need to eat meat three times a day is built deep into our national psyche, not just as a sign of affluence, but as necessary to survive and thrive. A notion that deeply ingrained is often quite resistant to evidence to the opposite, a fact that politicians often use to churn up anxiety, “they’re coming for your meat!”

It might be hard to ask Americans to eat less meat, but maybe it won’t be so hard to ask Americans to waste less meat, and less food in general. Because it’s also deep in our nature and our history to make the most of what we have. It’s part of our pioneer spirit.

Poster from 2014

During the First World War, the Great Depression, the Second World War, it was seen as patriotic to make the most of the scant food that we had. Campaigns were launched denouncing food waste as the worst of sins, and cookbooks were published instructing housewives how to stretch food to feed more people at more meals, and how to repurpose leftovers into delicious new dinners. Throwing away unspoiled food or leftovers was equated to killing our soldiers as well as the (tens? hundreds? of) thousands of people starving throughout the world.

Of course at the time many of these recipes involved foods we probably wouldn’t use very eagerly today. Lots of gelatin and mayonnaise, velveeta and radish rosettes. Lots of quivering moulds. Not a lot of herbs, seasonings, or spices. Today we’ve come a long way in understanding that a small amount of flavor goes a long way.

My proposal is to look back to the attitudes and methods people used during trying times in the past, and combine that with the epicurean skills and knowledge of the present, to plan our daily meals in a way that provides the most delicious food with the least amount of waste. You can create a meal plan with leftovers in mind, so that you can get two or three delicious and diverse meals from the same ingredients.

In an ideal world we could reform the systems that lead to poverty, hunger, income inequality, food waste in restaurants, grocery stores, and farms, and we could get rid of factory farms altogether. In this best of all possible worlds, the best world possible for us right now, we can tend our garden–our victory garden. Grow what you have room for, even if it’s a few pots of herbs on the windowsill. Compost what you can. Buy what you need, buy local, cook what you buy, enjoy every bite as something precious, and whatever you have left transform into a wondrous new meal.


Here are some basic ideas for typical leftovers:

  • Any waste of food makes me sad, but the waste of meat seems tragic. Someone died for that meal. It’s important to note that during the depression and the Second World War, people dealt with deprivation and rationing by stretching their small amount of meat with beans, grains and vegetables, or turned vegetables and grains into a substitute for meat. We can do that again. If your kid doesn’t eat all their chicken nuggets, cut them up and combine them with rice and tamari, or turn them into tacos. Leftover chicken or steak can become fajitas, leftover burgers can return to their ground state in tacos or chili.
  • Any meal with beans, grains, and veg is a good meal. And most often it can be turned into croquettes or burgers the next day. Just smush it up, add some bread or cracker crumbs, an egg if you’re not vegan, form into any size or shape that you desire, and bake or fry. (A coating of bread crumbs and a dip in very hot oil is one of the older methods of repurposing leftovers, and it’s as delicious as ever)
  • croquettes in particular are endlessly versatile. Most cultures have some form. They can take meat’s place in the center of the plate, with potatoes and salad on the side, or you can tuck them into pita or tortillas
  • Leftover beans, meat, and veg can be wrapped in dough or pastry to make little pies or dumplings (bake/steam/fry)
  • The sauces that come with takeout (cilantro, jalapeno, tomatillo, tamarind, raita) can be stirred into mashed avocados or humus
  • Leftover risotto can become arancini. (Form into a small ball, poke some cheese inside, egg/breadcrumb/fry. Delicous!)
  • Leftover mashed potatoes can be stirred into bread or biscuit dough, are delicious on a pizza, can top a shepherd’s pie, and make beautiful croquettes, such as these Deborah Madison adapted from a 1913 meat-replacement recipe.
  • Add a drop of lemon or vinegar to just-out-of-date milk to make buttermilk biscuits.
  • Leftover bits of cheese can make mac and cheese, grilled cheese, be added to stews, or stirred into biscuits.
  • Toss leftover grilled veg (or meat) with pasta, herbs, and a bit of olive oil. Or turn into fajitas or tacos. Or big juicy sandwiches.
  • leftover seasoned beans can be stirred into rice or puréed into dips or spreads. Beans are the best!
  • Leftover bread can be turned into bread crumbs or croutons, used to thicken soups or sauces, and mixed with juicy tomatoes to make a delicious salad.
  • Leftover cooked eggs can be added to fried rice.
  • In our family growing up we would have a weekly meal called “mustgo,” and we’d eat whatever was left in the fridge, as is, nothing fancy, but just as good as ever.

What methods do you use to save food/ stretch food/ reuse your leftovers?

Inevitable burgers

Black Rice Chili and Inevitable Burgers

And finally, here’s one double recipe. In my family we have a joke, “forget incredible burgers or impossible burgers, after we have chili we eat inevitable burgers.” Every once in a while I’ll make a big pot of chili with black rice, some lentils, some root veg or winter squash. Whatever is left gets turned into delicious veggie burgers the next day, on faux-brioche buns with avocado, lettuce, a big slice of tomato. The chili is endlessly adaptable, as are the burgers. I like to add roasted red peppers and corn, for smokiness/brightness, but you can add any extra veg you like, or none at all. Black rice really makes this, but if you can’t find it you can use really any rice, or farro or barley. Lately to make the burgers I’ve been including a shake of chickpea flour and high gluten flour (the kind they use to make seitan) but if you don’t have those, you’ll get along very well with some bread or cracker crumbs.

The Chili

1/2 cup black (or red) rice
1 T tamari
1 bay leaf
1 small onion or large shallot
1 clove garlic
1 jalapeno
2 smallish beets (red or gold, a small sweet potato will also work. Or about a cup of diced butternut squash)
2 T olive oil (more or less)
rosemary, sage, thyme (a pinch of each or a couple leaves if fresh)
splash of wine to deglaze the pan
chili powder or red pepper flakes, to taste
1 t smoked paprika
1/2 t cumin powder
You can use any spices you like. The smoked paprika is a constant for me, but sometimes I’ll use a Berbere mix, a harissa mix, or curry powder. Chili makes it chili, of course, but you can add chili powder or cayenne or red pepper flakes according to taste
1/2 cup red lentils (or any other lentils, but watch the cooking time)
1 can pinto beans or black beans
1 cup roasted red peppers, peeled, seeded, chopped
1/2 cup fresh or frozen corn
Big dollop of your favorite bar-b-que sauce
1 t balsamic vinegar
1 T butter (optional, it’s vegan if you leave it out)
Salt and pepper

Cook the rice according to the package instructions, time-wise, but add the bay leaf and Tamari. The kind I’ve been getting lately goes like this: combine the rice with 1 cup water, bay leaf, and a pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 40 minutes or until soft but still a little chewy. You want it to have a bit of bite. When it’s done stir in the tamari. Set aside.

In a food processor combine the onion/garlic/jalapeno and herbs. Process until quite finely chopped, but not puréed. Warm the olive oil in a large soup pot. Add the onions, jalapeno and garlic and herbs and stir and fry until everything starts to brown. Meanwhile, peel and roughly chop the beets and then process them in the same fashion (you don’t need to clean the processor in between). Continue to cook and stir the vegetables until the beets are reduced and darkened. Deglaze the pan with a little wine or water. Stir in the spices. Add the lentils and stir and fry for a minute or two, to coat, but don’t let the spices burn. You can add another splash of wine to unstick the bottom of the pan.

Add beans and red peppers, stir and cook for a minute. Add the corn, cooked rice, Bar-b-que sauce, and enough water to cover by an inch or so, bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook for about half an hour, until the lentils are soft. Stir in some butter (if you’re using) and balsamic, and season well with salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper.

To turn into burgers:

Leftover Chili – (I usually have about a quart left, but use what you have. You can always stretch it by adding more rice or beans. By the next day the mixture has thickened, so it shouldn’t be too watery, but if it is you can strain it through a sieve or colander, and save the liquid to add later if it starts to seem too dry.)
about 1 cup bread crumbs/cracker crumbs or a combination of both
1 T chickpea flour (optional)
1 T high gluten flour (Optional)
salt and pepper
1 egg (optional)

Vegetable oil to bake

Transfer the leftover chili to a bowl and smush with a fork or potato masher. You can leave it with some texture, just smush everything as much as you like. Add the bread crumbs. I usually use a combination of a slice or two of stale sandwich bread and saltine crackers, whatever I have on hand. Add the flours, if using, and stir very well. If you’re using either of the flours let sit for at least 15 – 30 minutes so they get absorbed. They’ll help to thicken the mixture. You can stir from time to time. Add the egg (you can leave it out, the burgers will just be a little softer), season with salt and pepper and combine everything.

You can adjust the amount of crumbs and flours according to the moisture in your chili. You’re aiming for a mixture that’s thick and dry enough to form patties, but not so dry that it’s unpleasant to eat.

Preheat the oven to 425 and generously oil a baking sheet. I use olive oil or just generic vegetable oil and quite a bit of it, so that the burgers have an oven-fried quality when they’re done.

Form the mixture into patties of whatever size you like and put the on the oiled sheet, flipping them to coat both sides with oil. I like to give them a little squish with the potato masher so they look like they have grill marks. Cook until browned and crispy, maybe 20 minutes, turning a couple of times. You can top them with slices of cheese if you like, towards the end.

I usually make faux-brioche buns for these, and we have them with tomato, lettuce, avocado, and whatever else we like.

2 replies »

  1. Fry up fresh broad bean pods (coat them in flour, milk and seasoning). The young pods are delicious. Broad bean hummus is good too, with tahini and basil. Older vegetables get used up for making soup; stale bread for bread pudding; chick peas with onion, tomato, spinach and garlic make a good curry, add whatever spices you like. Rhubarb flapjack. Sprout scones. Squishy mushroom omelette. Mackerel pate made with soft cheese and Piri Piri mackerel fillets. Beetroot burgers. If all else fails, compost vegetable waste, or leave meat scraps for the local fox 🦊

    Like

    • Love these ideas! Soup is a great idea. Forgot that one. And curry. And I love the scraps for the foxes plan. I used to work in a restaurant and give meat scraps to Clio!

      Liked by 1 person

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