I know that some people consider leftovers a challenge. I’ve seen magazine articles about how to “get rid” of it; radio hosts sometimes advise thrifty homemakers to use it as a means of economizing. I suppose this makes sense. After all, who doesn’t want to eat free meals? But I will go farther. I love leftovers and actively look forward to cooking and eating them. No, I will go further still. I like leftovers better than the dishes they once were.
The reasons, for a happy house pig like myself, are obvious. Unbothered by the need to present a steaming still life to guests, and caring little for balanced meals, leftovers allow me to take the parts of a meal I like best, and concentrate them in ways their first cooking never allowed. A great leftover recipe isn’t a repurposing; it’s a concentration, a distillation, a crystalling of tastes that tests the skill of a home cook in the way a regular from-scratch recipe never can.
I mean, think about it. Food you cook for dinner is hot. And as I’ve written on numerous occasions, food is better when it’s warm. Few dishes really taste like themselves when they are still super hot; the flavors can’t come together, and your palate is too flash-blinded by the heat to really taste what’s going on. That’s why, if you’re anything like me, your fondest memories of home cooking aren’t the big meals themselves, but the aftermath – finding a warm stew on the back burner, say, and plucking succulent beef chunks from it, or still-warm carrots and potatoes suffused with winey, beefy broth. Or a potato gratin with a few precious inches of crust still miraculously intact.
So how do you cook leftovers? There are a lot of different ways, but the key is taking your time. For leftover braises and stews, the obvious thing is to just warm it in a pan, or, I suppose, nuke it if need be. Buy why do that? Then you’re just having sloppy seconds, if you’ll forgive the term.
I generally take the meat and cook it very, very slowly in a nonstick pan on the lowest possible setting. You want the outside to crust up but you don’t want to dry it out in the slightest. On the other hand, if a roast, steak, or chop was very rare, I’ll sear it up in very hot oil, the kind that doesn’t start smoking until your house is on fire. (Grapeseed comes to mind.) I’ll slices the pieces fairly thin – about the thickness of a slice of cheese. I’ll infuse the oil with garlic and whatever else I have around, and then stir-fry the pieces, just until they are warm, and then pile them high in a little bowl and eat them happily in front of the television.
Big roasts can be sliced thick, and then seared off. I’ll put a big piece in the freezer for fifteen minutes or so, to get it as cold as I can without actually starting to freeze it. Then a medium-high heat, to crust the surface, neither pulling it or moving it until the center has just warmed. (It goes without saying that all of these proteins need a sprinking of kosher salt before they go in the pan.)
It’s not just meats though. Pastas go in the pan too, but you need to add some water in there, moving them around constantly and creating a new sauce as the congealed fat begins to melt and merge with the oil in the pan. Casseroles take a cup of wine or cream or, better still, the previous night’s pan juices, and maybe some breadcrumbs. Then they go in a slow oven with butter drizzled over the top. Why not? It’s just for you! There is so much you can do with leftovers. The only question is, what do you do if there are leftovers from the leftovers? But happily, this isn’t a problem I’ve ever had to face.