For 100 years, we were a restaurant family. From 1888 to 1988, we threw out food. Pristine bread trays, untouched butter ramekins, plat du jours at the end of the jour. Anything tired or wilted was whooshed into the garbage, OUT! Every morning, as the sun rose over the East River, the kitchens started from scratch.
Home was another story. At home, we deplored waste. Waste was excoriated. You could get the death penalty for throwing out stale challah. That did not mean we lacked for taste or abundance. In our dining room, and especially in my grandmother’s dining room, leftovers were prized. They proved how clever you were.
And now our culinary moment has come. It’s a perfect leftovers storm: the recession meets repurposing meets The New Austerity.
I love leftovers. I love them more than what they started out as. Roast beef, the Sahara of meat, is boredom on a plate. But not the following day, when it morphs into roast beef hash cubed with potatoes and onions, browned till crusty in a cast iron skillet. Or julienned for a beef salad with sauce gribiche. Or sliced thin for tartines with chutney. Or diced in a vegetable soup. Or, or, or.
Chicken is the miracle meat of repurposed food. Poach the bird with carrots, celery and onion. The first night, it’s chicken in the pot. Freeze the stock. Then take what’s left of the chicken and make curried chicken salad, or Chinese chicken salad with snow peas, orange segments, water chestnuts and a sesame oil dressing. Save the breast for thinly sliced chicken sandwiches on egg bread with chive mayonnaise. Or pollo tonnato. There’s no end. And to think two generations ago, the default leftover chicken dish was chicken à la king.
Recently, The New York Times ran a front-page story on how the Japanese are cutting back on food costs. One night a week, people in Japan stretch the yen by serving cabbage and potato stew. This is deprivation? Cabbage and potato stew means leftover cabbage and potatoes. That means “bubble and squeak,” a British form of latke. Take leftover potato and cabbage, and mush them around in a pan till they bubble and squeak. Pat into patties and saute in brown butter. It doesn’t get better.
Leftovers foment inspiration. Leftovers perk up quiches, frittatas, pizzas and soups. My maternal grandmother used leftover vegetables in salads the next day. It was said of Polly Morgen, you could tell what she’d served for dinner the night before if you examined her tossed salad. My grandmother always used a tea bag twice. That’s how she saved up for a mink.
It kills me what people throw out. If I won the lottery, I’d still prize leftovers. Not wasting feels good. It feels smart. Why toss a parmesan rind when you can use it to flavor minestrone? Why trash the shoulders of a red pepper when you can mince them into an omelet? Think of everything that red pepper went through to get to you. How can it only cost 89 cents at Fairway? The seed, the planting, the weeding, the watering, the harvesting, the packing, the shipping, the unpacking and finally the gorgeous shiny supermarket red pepper pyramid. How can you take any part of a red pepper for granted? Or an egg? Think of what an egg goes through.
Some nights, I’ll open the fridge and think, “What would Alice Waters do?” Sometimes the answer is, “Alice would call Domino’s.” But mostly I’ll grab the figs, the manchego, some leftovers and fire up the panini-maker. If I’ve got mesclun or a head of romaine, I’ll make a “salade de leftovers.” I love chopped salad. I’d eat Styrofoam with my lemon mustard vinaigrette on it. Staples in my fridge have assertive tastes and textures. The current favorite is pickled ginger, instant piquancy, sweet and tart. Pink pickled ginger hits every nerve on your tongue. Also always in my fridge: good olives, parmesan, capers, anchovies, horseradish, apples, eggs, dried currants, cranberries and apricots, pumpkin seeds, roasted and plain. Walnuts. Chickpeas. (If you have leftover chickpeas, make hummus. If you have leftover hummus, thin it for tahini dressing.) I stopped buying broccoli so I could stop throwing it out. The only way I like broccoli plain is in florets, swirled in oil, sprinkled with sea salt and roasted at 450. Then broccoli tastes like potato chips. Steamed broccoli is only good recycled, Cuisinart-ed with leftover potatoes and a little milk and butter with a dash of nutmeg. Nutmeg is wonderful provided you can’t taste it.
Almost any leftover vegetable works pureed with butter and milk. Carrots come out a brilliant mango orange. Peas and potatoes are DayGlo chartreuse. If any of this gets left over, you can thin it with stock and have it as creamless creamy soup. If any of the soup made with leftover leftovers is left over, use it to bind the next vegetable puree. Vegetable puree is the Shirley MacLaine of food. It gets reincarnated.
There are endless ways to repurpose bread too. Pudding, bread soup, French toast, Tuscan bread salad, the base for hot canapés, toasted breadcrumbs. The Houdini of stale bread is Eli Zabar. He turns old bread into new cheese toasts that sell for $26.95 per eight-ounce pack. Zabar gets more for his old bread than his new bread. At Joanna’s Marketplace in south Florida, the garlic croutons are so good, I bring an empty suitcase to take them home in.
Larousse’s French Dictionary shows no French word for leftovers. Perhaps they don’t exist in the country that invented the pot au feu. Kept warm on the back of the stove, leftover everything went into it: beef, chicken, sausage, vegetables, cabbage, duck and potatoes. Like a New England boil, each thing made the other taste better. You could keep a pot a feu slowly simmering on the stove all winter and not worry about spoilage. Or waste.
I’ve never deep fried anything. Not once. The idea of a hot pot spitting boiling oil terrifies me. Tossing quarts of oil out afterwards feels wanton. Is it time to reconsider? Leftover vegetable cooking oil can be turned into biodiesel. A tank of used vegetable oil produces no carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas mainly responsible for global warming. If I get over fear of pommes frites, I could use the cooking oil to run an unmodified diesel Mercedes, which I could save up for by selling used vegetable oil.
During the Great Depression, when Roosevelt was president, there were 130,000,000 people in America. Now there are 330,000,000. Think of the leftovers. It’s criminal to let food go to waste. Especially when unemployment is at 14 percent. Especially when every single carbon footprint affects the well-being of our planet.
Having grown up in the restaurant business, I have no illusions about it. The work is profoundly hard. You never see your family. The failure rate is devastating. And there’s all that waste. But if I ever did get the urge, I’d call my restaurant “Leftovers.” The entire menu would be repurposed: hash, omelets, salads, chilis, stews, stuffings, soups, fishcakes. Desserts would be fruit-based. Sorbets, pies, macédoines, mousses, upside-down cakes. Today’s bruised peach is tomorrow’s cobbler. Naturally, borscht made with leftover roast beef would be on the menu. If my friends love it when they come for dinner, why wouldn’t my customers?
Patricia Volk is the author of “Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family” (Knopf) and, most recently, the novel “To My Dearest Friends” (Knopf).
PQ: In our dining room, and especially in my grandmother’s dining room, leftovers were prized. They proved how clever you were.
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