YOU Magazine - July 2008 - Killer Leftovers Turning Yesterday’s Dinner into the Special of the Day By Kirk Leins
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Killer Leftovers
Turning Yesterday’s Dinner into the Special of the Day
By Kirk Leins

Killer Leftovers - Turning Yesterday’s Dinner into the Special of the Day - By Kirk Leins

The subject of leftovers is an interesting one. While some people actually enjoy them more than a freshly prepared meal, others can't stand the idea of eating food that's two or more days old. There are also the folks who like to eat leftovers, but only if they're reinvented into a completely different dish. No matter where your tastes lie, the following recipes are sure to turn last night's dinner into the special of the day.

Philosophy 101... for leftovers
My parents and grandparents always treated food like it was gold. As people who lived through a lot of rough times they weren't about to let one drop of it go to waste. I appreciate their dedication to this concept, but I do have a few rules for using up leftovers.

Kenny Rogers sang the line, "Ya gotta know when to hold'em, know when to fold'em." He was referring to a poker hand, but the same can also be said about leftovers. Actually, it's the first rule of leftovers. Simply put, no matter what you've made, or whatever leftover ingredients you have on hand, you must get rid of them once they've outlived their shelf life. Using them can potentially turn you off from ever eating leftovers again.

The next rule has to do with realizing which items are worthy of being reheated and which items need to be reinvented into another dish. Here's what I mean. Got leftover lasagna? Chances are, all you have to do is cut off a piece and reheat it in either the oven or the microwave.

A leftover steak, on the other hand, is going to take a little more creativity. Sure you can reheat it, but how great do you think that's going to taste? By altering it, however, there's a good chance you can turn it into something outstanding. One idea would be to cut it into thin slices and use it as part of a stir-fry. Another would be to turn it into beef hash, a recipe I'll be sharing with you later on in the article.

The last rule is that whenever serving a leftover, you must pair it alongside something fresh. This single step will make your leftovers taste fresh and new, as opposed to boring and old.

You could pair said lasagna with a green salad tossed with homemade vinaigrette. If using the leftover steak in a stir-fry, accompanying fresh vegetables such as onions, bell pepper, and broccoli or asparagus would do the trick. Serve your stir-fry alongside a heaping mound of freshly steamed white rice and you will have breathed new life into something that's a few days old.

We've got the rules in place, so now it is time to use up some leftovers. The following are some fairly popular leftover ingredients, as well as my favorite techniques for utilizing them.

Fresh Bread
Most of us have purchased a huge loaf of fresh bread or a large baguette, only to use about half of it for its intended purpose. As long as the bread remains fresh you can use what's left over for sandwiches, but those moments are fleeting. No worries. There are plenty of things we can do with stale bread.

The first and easiest option is to make fresh breadcrumbs. If you've ever used fresh breadcrumbs you know the difference they make in dishes like meatloaf or anything breaded and fried. All you need to do is cut your stale bread into cubes and pulse them in a food processor until you get the crumb size you want. If your bread isn't completely stale you may want to dry out the bread cubes by toasting them in a 350-degree oven for 5 minutes or so before processing.

The next option for stale bread is to make croutons. They are not only great for salads but they're an incredible addition to any bowl of soup. Start by preheating your oven to 375 degrees. Cut your stale bread into appropriate sized cubes and either toss with a little olive oil or lightly spray them with an olive oil spray. Season with Kosher salt and toast them in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes, or until golden. Let the croutons completely cool before serving.

Probably my favorite recipe for stale bread (either Italian or French) is a dish known as a Panzanella salad. Utilizing the crouton-making technique, the recipe was developed solely for the purpose of using up stale bread. While it can be changed, adapted and added to, for me the best Panzanellas are the simplest ones.

Panzanella Salad (serves 4)

  • 4 C day-old bread (preferably Italian or French), cut into one-inch cubes
  • 1 C cucumber; peeled, seeded and sliced
  • 3-4 ripe tomatoes, cored and sliced into wedges
  • 1/4 C red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 C Kalamata olives
  • 1/4 C sherry vinegar or red wine vinegar
  • 1/2 C extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Fresh basil leaves
  • Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano or grated Ricotta Salata as garnish

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Toss bread cubes in a touch of olive oil and Kosher salt. Spread onto a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 5 to 10 minutes, or until they are golden brown. Remove from oven and allow them to cool completely.

In a large bowl, combine vinegar and olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, olives and toasted bread cubes. Toss well and allow the salad to sit for 15 to 30 minutes before serving.

Equally divide the salad on to four plates and garnish with hand-torn basil leaves and shaved cheese.

Without mincing words, rice is an awesome leftover. As a kid, I loved having rice for dinner because I knew that any leftovers meant I would be eating it for breakfast the next morning. That's right - breakfast.

My mom would heat up the rice and put it in our cereal bowls. She'd pour a little warm milk on top and sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar. A small pad of butter would finish it off and the result was the best warm cereal ever. It was European peasant-eating at its finest and we loved it.

Two dishes that I love for using up leftover rice are stuffed peppers and cabbage rolls. Both are satisfying meals that do far better when made with leftover rice than rice that is freshly prepared. Another comfort dish that invokes this theory, but to an even higher degree, is Chinese fried rice.

Fried rice simply cannot be made with fresh rice, as the result would be a soggy, sticky mess.  Thus, it's the perfect excuse for making lots of rice for your dinner the evening prior. The other really nice thing is that fried rice can be whatever you want it to be, and incorporate whatever ingredients you have on hand. Feel free to play around with this recipe by adding other vegetables and meat.

Basic Chinese Fried Rice (serves 4 as a side dish)

  • 3-4 C cooked rice
  • 2 eggs beaten
  • 1 bunch scallions, sliced (keep whites and green portions separate)
  • 1 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 1 tbsp ginger, minced
  • 1.5 tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp peanut oil or canola oil

In a wok, heat 1 tbsp of oil until hot. Add beaten egg and scramble. Remove egg and reserve on a plate.

Return wok to heat and add remaining tbsp of oil. When hot, add scallion whites, garlic and ginger and stir fry for 20 seconds. Add rice and toss with a spatula.

Add soy sauce, scallion greens and egg. Mix until all ingredients are fully incorporated and warmed through.

Steak and Roast Beef
I hated steak and roast beef as a kid. I think it was a texture thing for me. The next day, however, my feelings would do a 180 when mom would make hash from the leftovers. It was great when served alongside a green salad, but it was even better topped with a fried egg. Here's my version of mom's leftover beef hash.

Beef Hash (serves 2 to 4)

  • 1 lb. (or so) of cooked steak or roast beef, cut into large chunks
  • 1 medium sized onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 1 russet potato, diced small (you can always use more if trying to stretch the recipe)
  • 4 tbsp vegetable oil
  • .5 cup dry sherry
  • Herbs d' Provence or dried thyme
  • Kosher salt and pepper
  • Finely chopped Italian parsley for garnishing

In a large skillet, heat oil until shimmering and hot. Add potatoes and allow them to start frying. Using a thin spatula, occasionally flip the potatoes to keep them from sticking and to ensure even cooking.

Meanwhile, place beef, onion and garlic in a food processor and using the pulse feature process the mixture until it has the consistency of ground meat.

When the potatoes are just starting to get crispy, add meat mixture to the pan. Spread everything out so that the entire surface area of your skillet is covered with meat and potatoes. Season the mixture with salt, pepper and Herbs d' Provence and allow it to fry. Periodically stir the meat so that it gets crispy all over.

Once most of the meat gets crispy, move the entire mixture over to one side of the pan. Pour half of the sherry on the empty side of the pan and use a wooden spoon to scrape up any bits of meat and potato stuck to the bottom of the skillet. Move mixture to the opposite side of the pan and repeat the process.

Taste and re-season if necessary. Serve in shallow bowls and garnish with parsley.

Roasted Chicken
If you've got roasted chicken then you also have leftovers, no matter how much meat remains on the bones. If you haven't guessed, I'm talking about making chicken stock, which in turn can be used for making chicken soup, or chicken stew, or risotto, or various sauces and gravies. Get the picture?

Chicken Stock

  • 1 3-4 lb. roasted chicken
  • 1 onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 celery ribs, roughly chopped
  • 2 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 2 parsnips, roughly chopped
  • 1 turnip, roughly chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, halved
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 5 sprigs of fresh parsley
  • 20 black peppercorns
  • Kosher salt

Pick the remaining meat off of the bones as reserve for another use. This recipe utilizes only the leftover bones and skin from the chicken.

In a stockpot, place the leftover chicken bones and skin, as well as all of the remaining ingredients. Fill with water until all ingredients are covered by two inches. Bring the mixture up to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer gently (partially covered) for 3 to 4 hours.

Strain the mixture and discard the solids. For an even clearer stock, strain again in a large sieve lined with cheesecloth. At this point your stock can be used, refrigerated, or frozen.

Look back over this article and you'll realize how much leftover food we used up with just four simple recipes. I challenge you to embrace this concept by making these dishes. If you like what you taste, set out to find other creative uses for your leftover food. Doing so will have some profound results. It will fatten your wallet, benefit the environment, and make your parents and grandparents very proud.

Kirk Leins has been cooking his entire life. No stranger to professional kitchens, he currently devotes most of his time to cooking instruction, food writing, and producing television. Kirk also provides his services as a personal chef in and around the Los Angeles area. He has made several TV appearances on both the national and local level, and is the Executive Chef for YOU Magazine. His free newsletter, The Everyday Gourmet, is available by contacting Kirk at

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