How To Make Leftovers Into A Meal
In some ways, my 20-year-old self treated every restaurant meal like a grudge match. I distinctly remember staring down a huge bowl of cold borscht in a now-vanished spot in the East Village and saying, “Look here, borscht—only one of us is leaving this table.”
This approach has its advantages (less food waste) and its disadvantages (among other things, that post-beet moment of panic we’ve all experienced). But growing out of my clean-plate compulsion didn’t make me any less waste-averse. I still doggy-bag whatever I’ve got coming to me.
The same impulse guides me when I’ve made just too much dinner for my family to polish off. Sometimes it’s enough for a meal on its own, but just as often I end up with just three-quarters or half of a meal: too much to eat over the sink, too little to work as a satisfying meal in its own right. Three options immediately spring to mind:
1 – Throw it out.
2 – Cobble together a meal of disparate leftovers and pretend it’s a tasting menu.
3 – Keep it in the fridge until it is definitely inedible, then throw it out.
But there is a fourth option! Several fourth options, in fact. Each one easy, cheap and delicious. NB: I am vegetarian, so these might not all work with meat. But they might!
If you have 20 minutes: veggie patty
Throw your leftovers, an egg, some beans (if these are non-beany leftovers) and some (non-cooked, non-instant) oats in a food processor just until blended. Shape into patties, fry them up and serve on buns or English muffins with a little ketchup. Or mayo. Or barbecue sauce. Or avocado. Or hummus. Or …
Best for: rice & beans, grain salads, green salads
Worst for: soup
If you have 10 minutes: frittata
Chop up your leftovers, grate some cheese if you have it, and mix it all up with two eggs before frying it up in a pan. You can fancy it up further with those herbs that you bought a bunch of for that one recipe and left in your fridge to silently judge you every time you open the door.
Best for: pizza, pasta, sandwiches, vegetable sides, anything with potatoes
Worst for: soup
If you have 5 minutes: half a sweet potato.
I buy a sweet potato every time I hit the grocery store for just this purpose. Cut a sweet potato in half, wrap it loosely in a paper towel and stick it in the microwave for five minutes. Forget açai berries, kale and chia seeds: sweet potatoes are the true superfood. Cheap, filling and nutrient-dense, they are also the closest that a vegetable can come to dessert, with a creamy texture and a hint of cinnamon taste. This isn’t so much a transformative technique as an additive one, but it will turn that unsatisfying half plate into a full meal.
Best for: basically anything, even soup!
Worst for: people who loathe sweet potatoes
What are your favorite tips and techniques for making insufficient leftovers into a new meal?
This story is part of our food month series.
Elise Nussbaum lives in Jersey City with her husband, their cat and their toddler.