There are two types of people in the world: those who think leftovers are the key to a more secure financial future and general overall bliss—and those who would rather go to jail than eat them.
This message goes out to those among you who know that there’s nothing more glorious than cold leftover fried chicken after a night of bad decisions. That cold curry can be fantastic. That a leftover half torta is the key to a life well-lived. To these wise readers, I say: Stand your ground. Don’t toss those four bites of leftover food.
In my home, my partner mocks me when I save four bites of cooked veggies, one soft-cooked egg, five pieces of tofu, or a 2-oz knob of leftover salmon. But I’d argue—and I’m not alone—that if you can save a one-third or half portion of something, you're well on your way to a whole new meal, or several of them.
Case in point: Two days ago I made this super-satisfying, spicy Madhur Jaffrey recipe for eggs masala for dinner. I opened a can of tomatoes and had about a cup leftover, which I saved. I pressed tofu, folded it into the curry, packed a hefty portion into a lunch box, and saved what was left. It was half a portion, but I didn’t want to throw it away. (Hello, environment: I am thinking of you!)
The next morning, I made myself yogurt and granola for breakfast, and pressed a whole new block of tofu and stashed in the fridge. When dinner rolled around, I plopped my leftover half portion of masala—an unctuous mix of tomatoes, ginger and onions—into a wide sauté pan. It looked sad and not-so-promising, I’ll admit. But I put rice on the stove to boil, knowing that would take about half an hour. I poked around the fridge, spying the open container of tomatoes, and another of coconut.
I began to amplify the dish I had, knowing it was so thoroughly spiced that it wouldn’t take much to make it something new and wonderful. I added a little more cumin, some garam masala, some turmeric, some cayenne. I added equal portions of tomatoes and coconut. I laced it with lime zest, and when its flavors were just about right, I tossed in handfuls of frozen spinach and corn. In went the new 14-oz package of tofu. I covered the sauté pan, letting the flavors meld, and letting the tofu absorb the flavors for a couple of minutes.
To finish, I splashed it with fish sauce and a little more cayenne, and served it with a flurry of cilantro leaves. It was no longer eggs masala, but a coconutty curry boasting both fried spices and fresh ones, deep notes and bright ones. The rice timer went off, and I had dinner on the table in half an hour, all in.
This is the “stone soup” theory of cooking, and it can be applied to nearly everything. Use it for grain bowls (as in this great piece), or Cobb salads. Leftover hard-boiled and soft-cooked eggs are an easy base for a something-from-nothing supper with a palmful of kale, a few spoonfuls of cooked grains, a whole avocado, and whatever soft herbs or citrus zest you have.
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Depending on the level of your appetite, this can also be just the thing to tide you over till you head out to a big supper or brunch. If you have a whole leftover cooked chicken thigh—or something similar—just reheat it, plop it on a mixed pile of the greens and herbs you have in your fridge dressed with olive oil and salt, and watch an instant chicken salad manifest before your eyes. A quarter cup of yogurt, a wilted scallion, and a bunch of parsley stems can be made into a dressing, sauce or marinade. Really, the sky’s the limit on this one.
Just keep an eye on the little bits and bobs in your fridge, and try to “upcycle” them before they go off. (Your nose and eyes will often be a wise guide on that front, and err on the side of caution.)
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.