Turning so-so leftovers into something different and better is almost more satisfying to me than making something great from fresh ingredients. It pleases my frugal chinese grandma genes, to be sure, but I also find it delightfully magical to conjure up something new from nothing special. I love playing fairy godmother to the orphaned containers in the fridge: a wave of my wand, and my sad leftovers have a new life beyond their humble imaginations.
Cooking with leftovers isn’t the most exciting subject, but it is awfully useful (I suppose the name “chinese grandma” doesn’t scream sexy either). Life isn’t food TV. Home cooks have bits of this and that in the fridge, and chinese grandmas don’t throw away perfectly good food. We relish dining on our excellent leftovers, and we draw on our resourcefulness to transform our not-so-excellent leftovers into something better.
It would be silly to create a recipe for leftovers, since it’s unlikely you and I would have the exact same leftover refrigerator items. But I thought I’d share a couple of soups from this winter that made me especially happy. I hope they give you some fresh ideas for the lonely souls in your fridge that hope for a fate better than the trash can.
Cheesy potato soup
For Christmas Eve at my sister-in-law’s, I made a triple recipe of Ruth Reichl’s Gratin Dauphinois – potatoes simmered in milk, topped with Gouda cheese and baked until golden. They looked and smelled heavenly, but I found the taste too sweet from the milk. Next time I’d salt more generously (no knock on Ruth; usually I undersalt and find it fine, but this time I should have used the full amount). Everyone enjoyed it, but I still had loads left over.
I promise it looked better when it was fresh.
I knew it would be hard for us to finish all that gratin, and seeing it the fridge was an unwelcome reminder of my under-salted effort. So I threw the mess into a pot.
Added chicken stock and remembered I had a few spears of leftover roasted asparagus. The gratin dauphinois recipe was loaded with milk, so I didn’t need more dairy.
Simmered to get everything nice and soft.
This was definitely the kind of soup that would be better pureed. I winced a bit using my plastic immersion blender in a hot soup pot (though I did move it to a cold burner first). The chinese grandma in me just can’t buy a new stainless steel one when this still works perfectly well.
Finally, some cheese. Sharp cheddar is the standard in my fridge – packs in more flavor with less volume than mild cheddar. I’d use extra-sharp, even, but the kids don’t like that much personality in their grilled cheese sandwiches.
And that’s it.
Except for more cheese on top. So much better than the original.
Smoky pork and white bean soup
Takeout for casual family gatherings – 23 of us – usually means pizza. But occasionally we plan ahead enough to get trays of beef brisket, pulled pork, baked beans and sweet vinegar cole slaw from City BBQ, a local chain. The last time not everyone showed up, and I ended up taking home a large container of smoky pulled pork. I thought about using leftovers for quesadillas, or enchiladas, but what I really felt like was soup.
Threw in the basics: chopped onion, celery and carrot (call it mirepoix if you want to get fancy).
I thought cannellini beans would be nice with the pork – big creamy beans with the white color to brighten up the brown shredded meat.
Glugged in a quart of chicken broth.
And popped open a can of green chiles, which seemed a natural fit with the smoked meat.
A bit of simmering, and a whole new meal.
It wasn’t anything to look at, but it made a smoky, hearty stew that we enjoyed for days when we wouldn’t have been able to stomach another barbecue sandwich. Flavorful enough alone, it also great would have been great with some shredded monterey jack cheese, a dollop of sour cream or some slices of avocado.