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I think it's fair to say that most people, even those who are not professional cooks or “foodies,” have at least a modicum of respect for food. Throwing away leftover food that is still edible usually induces feelings of guilt or vexation. Not to mention the monetary loss. While fiscal motivations may vary with one’s financial status, I suspect that even the affluent experience some consternation about blatant dissipation. But wasting food is not just about the money. It goes far deeper than that. Food is necessary for life. Discarding viable food is not the same thing as throwing out an old book. Our very existence is predicated upon the availability of adequate nourishment. Hence the source of our underlying veneration for food.
On the other hand leftovers are the pits. Of course this sentiment depends on one’s degree of passion for food. There are many individuals with provincial palates who hate to cook and relish facile leftovers. As long as their belly’s full and they barely had to lift a finger, they’re content. But if you’re an aficionado and love savoring fresh food at its peak, well, then like I said, leftovers are the pits. With only a few exceptions, the quality of most dishes declines overnight.
So therein lies the conflict for foodies. You hate old food, but you hate disposing of edible resources at the same time. How do you resolve the conflict? Well, I suppose you could attempt to get over your guilt. Just throw the stuff out and be done with it. Yeah OK. Good luck eradicating one of the most ingrained emotions we possess. How about a psychic compromise instead? One that will appeal to your exacting conscience as much as your inner gourmet. Let’s review the ways that we can preserve or utilize leftovers to minimize the pangs of contrition, the financial loss, and most importantly, the ick factor.
There are basically two kinds of leftovers. First are the excess individual ingredients that were used to produce the original dish. The second type is finished dishes that were not completely consumed during the meal. We will discuss both but as you will see, there’s more versatility with leftover raw ingredients than completed recipes. Let's review some general parameters for all leftovers.
If you really want to eschew leftovers, the primary order of business is planning your meals to eliminate them as much as possible.
Be mindful of how many dishes you are preparing for a particular meal and alter the amounts of each accordingly. Obviously the more courses, the less you’ll need of each one. When you make a recipe for the first time, note how much is leftover so you can adjust the ingredient amounts in the future. It’s better to have a little less food than a surplus going to waste. Although it’s certainly not my orientation, the health fanatics and weight-watchers would argue that it’s more salubrious to eat less food. Don’t worry that everyone at the dinner table isn’t stuffed. Nutrition and weight management is about moderate portions, not gorging yourself.
Of course there are plenty of times when leftovers are unavoidable. Many foods are sold in unalterable sizes and/or packages. You can’t buy half a bell pepper, three ounces of milk, or two eggs. This is where it pays to widen your culinary repertoire and learn new recipes so you can employ your remaining comestibles. For example, you buy a batch of mint for your fruit salad but only require a third of it. Now what do you do with all the leftover mint? You could make raita, the yogurt/cucumber sauce, accented by mint that is beloved in Indian cuisine, or tzatziki, its Greek counterpart indispensable for gyros. Both of these sauces are applicable to a wide range of victuals. (See my recipe for Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce with Mint). Or make homemade mint jelly, a mint infused herb oil, or whiz it into a fava bean puree. Or, if you’re of a more hedonistic bent, it’s mint julep time! Now there’s the best of both worlds: a cocktail to prevent wasting food. I’ll drink to that. Joviality aside the point is, the greater your culinary diversity, the more avenues you’ll have for using up excess products.
Next, learn about how to properly store various ingredients to maximize their freshness and decrease their leftover-ness. Some items can be frozen and some cannot, such as a cream-based soup which can break from the extreme cold. One must be cognizant of which foods should be completely wrapped (a piece of meat), trimmed before being refrigerated, (carrot greens), nestled in ice, (whole fish), or stored in a container of water, (celery), etc. I know, I know, all these guidelines require you to do some homework. But you wanted to eliminate or efficiently use up your leftovers right? It’s either this or work on the guilt. Do you want to burrow into your psyche or just peruse a cookbook? Hmmmmm. I thought so. OK, let's get back to work.
Proper storage is not merely what container and at which temperature to store items. It also embodies some forethought about the recipe in question. For example, if there’s a good possibility that you’ll have leftover salad, don’t dress the salad. Make the dressing separately and allow your diners to add it to their own individual servings. Dressed salad will wilt rapidly due to the acid in the dressing. Thus, your greens will be crisper the next day sans dressing. It also wouldn’t hurt to give them a 15-20 minute water bath to refresh them.
A final strategy is to plan meals so that leftovers will be consumed and not squandered. If you know you have a busy day coming up and will not feel like cooking when you get home, then plan your leftover-likely meal the night before. The convenience factor will make the insipid leftovers more palatable the next day.
Next week in “Food for Thought” we’ll delve into ways of reusing specific leftover ingredients and completed dishes.