Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What’s Left Over

It’s just barely March. The temperature is rising, the snow is melting, and all along the sidewalks, the Christmas trees are appearing once again. Frozen under snowbanks all season long, the detritus of winter is emerging. After one of the hardest winters on record, the trash is what’s left over.

In my fridge, leftovers abound as well. Since I tend to cook heavier meals in winter, they last longer than the salads and snacks of warmer months. Though I like to keep an uncluttered fridge, by March I seem to have a little bit of everything in there, from cheese rinds to stale baguettes.

What I don’t do is throw anything away that can be reused, reimagined or repurposed into a new meal. Everyone knows that some of the best recipes are based on leftovers (see my leftover chicken pot pie), and given my New Year’s resolution to save money so I can move into a new home, I’m looking for even more ways to extend what’s left over at the end of a meal. Those cheese rinds, from a wheel of parmigiano reggiano–you weren’t going to throw those away, were you? Toss them instead into a pot of soup to make it creamier, saltier, and subtly more exciting. That stale baguette? Breadcrumbs for meatballs, or broken coarsely and baked into a bread pudding. Vegetable peels and chicken bones? Perfect for chicken stock, of course. Even the fat skimmed from the top of your stock can be reused in a homemade matzo ball soup.

Once begun, frugal eating can become such a game that it’s difficult to find space in the freezer for all the bits and pieces I’ve saved for later eating. Though I believe in good food and good ingredients, and I don’t skimp on quality where it matters, it’s just as important (and just as fun) to find new lives for old odds and ends. A half-finished beer can be the perfect binder in a pot of chili or a shrimp tempura batter; give me a half cup of wine and I’m halfway to tomato sauce; a spoonful of jam from the bottom of the jar can be just enough to glaze my Meyer lemon-raspberry crêpes; leftover rice from Chinese takeout, simmered with milk, is the perfect base for a comforting rice pudding for one. Have you ever heard of a hash not made with leftovers, or doubted the deliciousness of a morning omelet filled with last night’s sautéed vegetables?

Perhaps one of my favorite dishes of all is what I call “leftover enchiladas,” corn tortillas stuffed with leftover rice, vegetables, or meat, drowned in a cheesy béchamel and dotted with hot sauce. These are often Sunday meals, cobbled together at the end of the weekend when my creativity is at its peak, but my motivation to shop may be at its lowest.

There are certain things I keep stocked in my pantry for these times, like fine salts, oils, peppercorns, dried pasta and beans, imported anchovies and capers (for whipping up a puttanesca with leftover olives after a party), Arborio rice for risotto, and of course, the staples–white flour, baking powder, sugar, chocolate and corn meal–for making a frugal feast out of remnants.

When I was home in the Buff recently, taking care of my Mamma after her cancer surgery, I raided her fridge and cupboards for ingredients. Though she wasn’t feeling up to a full dinners just yet, some leftover Arborio rice, a few strawberries, some frozen raspberries and a blood orange made for a perfect recovery meal: berry and blood orange spiked rice pudding. Strawberries are one of my Mamma’s favorite foods, and while she ate the pudding for dinner, I had it for dessert. Of course, the sweetest treat of all is the knowledge that she’s now cancer-free!

By being mindful of what we eat and reducing waste where we can, leftovers continue a long tradition of creativity in cooking that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers shared before us. We’re also saving money and time. And at the end of the winter, I’m grateful for every minute, morsel and penny left over.

Berry & Blood Orange Spiked Rice Pudding

For the Sauce: Follow my recipe for strawberry sauce, using whatever berries and other juicy fruits you have on hand. This time, I used half a pint of fresh strawberries, a bag of frozen raspberries, one blood orange and a half cup of sugar.

For the Pudding:

  • 8 cups Whole Milk
  • 1 ½ cups Arborio Rice (uncooked)
  • ½ teaspoon Salt
  • ½ cup Sugar
  • 1 Vanilla Bean (seeded)

Use whatever rice you have on hand–I used Arborio left over from a risotto. Bring the milk, rice and salt to a boil in a large saucepan. Then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until rice is tender but still al dente (about 20 minutes). Next add the sugar and vanilla bean seeds that look like black specks of microscopic breadcrumbs; to collect these seeds, slice the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds out of the pod with the tip of your knife. Stirring frequently until thick, cook for another 5-10 minutes until you reach your desired consistency. Top with fruit sauce and serve warm or chilled. I like it both ways, but there’s nothing better than a warm bowl of pudding on the last of these cold winter nights.

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