The Art of Leftovers

In 1993, I came to the US for the first time, in beautiful San Francisco. I was then a group leader for teenagers on a linguistic trip; all of us were hosted in families. My host family lady was very welcoming, so welcoming that for some odd reason ( I had only mentioned I liked to cook), she decided that my role in the family was soon to be extended: I was to become the leftover maker. I was a bit puzzled by her reasons, to say the least, when I asked her “what do you mean?”, to which she simply replied that she believed that the French were the masters of meal-making from leftovers. So there I went! And off she went.

Fridge situation:

She started saving every single piece of food possible, and kept asking me, “so what will you make with this?”, “oh, and what about that piece of corn?” I then had little clue that this was to be called an art making.

But some time has passed since then, and I have come to believe that there is an element of truth in what she described, after I met more people with the same “deficiency”, what I call the food blindness. No harm in that. We are all skilled at different things. I just have to feel lucky to have had a mum that let me do things in the kitchen, and who literally saved everything.

Solution: the idea is to create a chain so to speak, where what comes from yesterday is used by tomorrow. Easy to understand? Imagine the week as a succession of days, one leading to the next, meaning what you did not use the first day, you will use the second, making sure it stays fresh until then, ensuring the chain cycle is not broken.

While I lived in New Zealand, I also had that amazing food-lover friend of mine who was talking about her boyfriend in those terms “you know Béa, he just has the boys’ eye syndrom“. What she meant by this became very clear, and very quickly! You must have heard this expression after a friend tells you with great sincerity (my experience has been, if you want to excuse me, male friends or husband) “there is nothing in the fridge! What can we eat?” You have your explanation here.

The main question is then in front of us: what can you make when you think you have nothing in the fridge.

  • Rule #1: If you do not have one yet, it might be a good idea to invest into a tool that allows you to mix the leftover of roasted meats and such, or mix leftover vegetables to make nice soups. Any food processor or hand blender will do. I personally own those from Cuisineart.
  • Rule #2: If a fruit is going bad, no worries. There is a solution for you to save this little baby. You can cut the bad piece and throw it, then slice the rest of the fruit: this is the start of a fresh fruit salad (anecdote: when I worked as a cook assistant in Italy, I cannot tell you how many fruit salads we made. The only thing is that at the time, I was 17, and I would have much preferred to go and play on the beach than sort out fruit that had turned bad, for the sake of saving!). Or, cook the fruit into a fruit crumble or a nice compote. A little bit of cream added and the trick is done for a quick homemade dessert.
  • Rule#3: always keep a few basics that keep for a long time, such as main spices, eggs, fresh garlic, a shallot, butter, potatoes.
  • Rule#4: Think simple and try not to follow a recipe that you have, that calls for specific ingredients. If you still cannot make a dish without following a recipe, try substitutions. For example, if your recipe is a spinach and cheese omelet, you can use tons of different flavors to substitute cheese and spinach. Examples are mushrooms if you have a few mushrooms (even a pack of dry ones you will rehydrate), some sun dried tomatoes, peppers, zucchinis.
  • Rule#5: Use what is left from yesterday. If you made rice and beef stir fry one night, keep the rice and turn it into a rice salad the next day, in which you add tomato pieces, cucumber, avocado, parsley, boiled eggs and tuna. The same rule applies for any kind of pasta. Or, if you make mashed potatoes one night, save the leftovers to make croquettes the next day by simply adding eggs and flour, then frying them in hot oil. If you have some cheese and one zucchini, you can grate those and add them to your preparation.
  • My mum also always used leftovers of a roasted beef to make hachis parmentier, which is somewhat equivalent to what people know here as sheperd’s pie, expect you have beef here.

  • Rule#6: If you have items that will turn bad, and you know about it (such as a lot of milk in the fridge), think about how to use it. With milk, you make crêpes, with yogurts, you make raita, or a yogurt cake. When you use egg yolks, do not throw the whites. You can make use of them for any meringue, or tuiles.

I once made way too much spaghetti for a meal. I had a whole batch of cooked plain spaghetti. Not even thinking about it –years of practice turned this into a reflex–, I placed them in a tupperware (I have a whole collection!) and hop, in the fridge. The next day, I decided that I would give them a friend and made a carbonara sauce, with whatever I had, that is, eggs, a little bit of cheese, fresh herbs, a smoked salmon slice I also had as a leftover, and cream. Et voilà! Done! Happy! Easy!

By now, the message should be clear: please, no more throwing away this last piece of roasted beef, or that tiny bowl of rice that would not even feed one person. It can always grow into something new and creative. Bon appétit!

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  1. I am sure your comments will be very helpful to people out there. In my experience, I know just as many women who are helpless when it comes to kitchen resourcefulness.

    I am lucky to have a mate who even though he can’t come up with an idea for dinner (for me to make) – at least when left to his own devices, he always manages to make a lovely little bite to eat. He has his own level of resourcefulness!

    Another easy idea for leftover pasta-
    Pasta Frittatas. The link below will direct readers to just one variation of this recipe but anyone can use whatever is at hand. A real kid pleaser too!


  2. Thanks Kim! Any tips are surely welcomed as we all like to use more resources for quick simple meals.