Monday, November 30, 2009

Meal Remix: Take Two

With Thanksgiving now behind us, I ponder the leftovers from our bountiful meal which were not left behind only to fill the raccoons' bellies on garbage day. After this evening, there will be very little of Thanksgiving dinner remaining. We enjoyed the full meal with all of the trimmings on our Thursday holiday. On Friday, I made a delicious classic turkey pot pie which utilized some of the bird's leftover meat. On Saturday, we enjoyed a Thanksgiving redo for dinner: hot open-face sandwiches comprised of more of the turkey covering slices of leftover bread, then smothered with the leftover gravy, accompanied by leftover stuffing, leftover vegetables and some leftover cranberry sauce. Brian and I agreed that the food was enjoyed more the second time around, as it required a lot less bustling around the kitchen beforehand since everything was already cooked. On Sunday, Brian made a delicious pot of turkey soup, starting with homemade stock which was made from the carcass of the turkey, plus veggies and lots of herbs. He then strained it, returned the pot to the stove with the strained stock and added more vegetables - some of which were extra celery and onions which he didn't need on Thanksgiving when making the stuffing - more herbs, the last of the turkey meat and some noodles. It was a warming and comforting close to the long holiday weekend, especially when served from an old family soup tureen and ladled into equally classic blue and white Currier & Ives soup bowls, all of which I inherited from a beloved family member. There is still soup left to be enjoyed for a couple of lunches this week. Finally, the last of the leftovers will be consumed in tonight's dinner: the cranberry sauce, with a little added rosemary, will cover roasted boneless pork chops and the last of the puree of celery root, apples and potatoes will be a perfect accompaniment. The conclusion to be drawn here: we have an extremely efficient kitchen!

At a time when holiday dishes are made in joyful abundance, when hard economic times are upon us all and we need to curb our spending, and when at this time next month so many will be making their resolutions to melt away pounds off of their girth, it is the perfect time to talk about leftovers. The unfortunate picture which comes to mind at the mention of leftovers is less than appetizing. Most of us envision a plate of cold basic meat which was cooked a day or two before, with very small mounds of the exact same vegetables that originally accompanied it. Even when warmed in a microwave, this presentation does little to beckon us to dinner. Let's face it, to simply place the exact same items from the previous night's meal on the table with no alterations made to them, you will not receive raving enthusiasm from those who hesitantly approach the dinner table. With some exceptions, most meals which are fabulous the first time around in their original state, fresh from the oven or stove, are just not as satisfying the second time around. Exceptions to this rule include stews, soups, chili, lasagna and a very meager handful of other entrees. The result: extra food either goes out with the trash to feed the local wildlife on their midnight garbage can raids, or it is tucked into the far reaches of your refrigerator and forgotten, unless your child happens to be performing a mold-growing experiment for their science class. With minimal time and preparation, you can turn most leftovers into a whole new dish, thus wasting very little food and you will probably find yourself resorting to calorie-laden, artery-clogging and blood pressure-raising take-out lunches a little less frequently.

As I've already illustrated, from our Thanksgiving feast we found ways to present most of the leftover components of the meal into whole new meals without too much extra effort. Granted, due to the overzealous nature of holiday cooking we did have a lot to work with. However, we utilize leftovers all year, not just at holiday time. It takes a little bit of planning, but very little preparation. For those of you who are fortunate enough to partake in lunch at work, leftovers can be a giant first step in eating healthier and keeping those extra pounds off. Brian takes leftover food for lunch every day and has managed to keep his weight under control, which also leads to enormous health benefits in the long run. The alternative would be to eat McDonalds and Taco Bell five days a week and look like many of the other patrons of these establishments. Sometimes these leftovers are just that, leftovers, because I simply made too much for two the night before. Sometimes the leftovers are planned, instead of making two chicken breasts when I cook dinner I'll prepare three with the intention of sending him off to work the next day with the extra one for lunch. When I cook vegetables for dinner, I purposely cook extra portions with the same intent. Other times the leftovers are the result of cleaning out the refrigerator: I'll go through the drawers and if there are some vegetables that I never cooked up because I purchased too many for my needs, and they really need to be consumed within the next couple of days, then I'll cut them up, toss them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and roast them. Then he has veggies for two or three lunches after that.

For dinners, which are likely to be more about savoring your food and less about healthier lunch time choices, you will need to be more creative to make the meal more enjoyable. You will want to present round two of the chicken from last night in a whole new light. If you made a roast chicken last night, shred any leftover meat off of the bones and it can be used in a soup, on a pizza, in tacos or enchiladas, in pasta dishes and in salads. If you are making spaghetti with red sauce and meatballs tonight, make extra sauce and meatballs to serve up heros the next day, and make extra pasta as well to serve with a pesto sauce on another day as an accompaniment for baked chicken or fish. Planning such as this will lead to dinner prep shortcuts and make the weekday dinner rush a lot easier. Always remember, soups and stews and salads were traditionally fabricated from whatever was on hand. If you keep a well stocked pantry and plenty of fresh seasonal vegetables in your fridge, the sky is the limit for what you can create. Even keeping a well stocked pantry will still be less costly in the long run than being forced to buy take-out for dinner several nights a week because your overworked schedule didn't leave you enough time to cook up a whole new meal. Make those leftovers work for you once or twice a week; you will see a difference in what you spend and you will also feel better about not wasting food. Have you scrutinized your grocery receipts lately? Good food is not cheap! Stretch the food, and you'll stretch your dollars, and with a little creativity you won't have to compromise on taste and visual interest in your dinner plate.

As I have mentioned in a previous blog, use your freezer. Make extra red pasta sauce, ladle the extra sauce into quart containers and freeze for a future quick weekday meal. It can be used not only on pasta, but also over baked chicken topped with some fresh mozzarella. Extra pesto sauce can be frozen as well, for future use in pastas, spread on pizza crust or in panini rolls, over fish or chicken, or tossed with vegetables. If you are making a soup from scratch, as Brian did, make extra stock and freeze it. The next time you want to throw a quick soup together, you've cut out the first step. Got leftover French or Italian bread from dinner? Freeze it. No, it will not make for a good bread as an accompaniment for next month's dinner. However, you will never have to buy breadcrumbs again. Next time you make a meatloaf, just thaw the bread, then pulvarize it in the food processor, and voila! You've got breadcrumbs. When making certain desserts such as quick breads, make an extra loaf and freeze it. You'll have a quick baked good to serve for that unexpected afternoon visitor, and any leftover will serve as a quick breakfast treat.

Next time you cook dinner, plan. Ask yourself: if I make a little extra of this meat and/or that vegetable, how can I utilize it later in the week? I've given you a few ideas, and I can even give you a few more suggestions on how to use up the Thanksgiving leftovers. Cranberry sauce makes an excellent topping for salmon steaks or filets as well as pork chops or a roast pork tenderloin. Prepare the meat with some savory seasonings, then top with the cranberry sauce for the last five minutes of roasting. A thin layer of mustard on the pork and a sprinkling of either fresh rosemary or thyme will marry well with the sweetness of the cranberry sauce. If you have leftover vegetables from the big feast, refresh them with the addition of one or two different newly cooked vegetables mixed in. Leftover mashed potatoes can be used as a topping for a shepherd pie; or, with a couple of additions such as cheese and scallions mixed in, a filling for twice-baked potatoes. Leftover stuffing can be used to fill large mushroom caps; once heated through, serve the stuffed mushrooms on a bed of salad greens and you have a perfect lunch. As for the desserts, well, I suspect that if you actually do have leftover pies, you will have no trouble offering them up for breakfasts or afternoon snacks, and no doctoring will be required!

This blog's recipe will allow you to utilize some of the leftover ham from the holidays, in a hearty five-bean soup. If you would like the recipe, send me your request in a comment. Don't forget to include an e-mail address, and I'll be happy to pass it along and help you get started in planning for leftovers. If you visited this blog through Facebook, you can simply send me a message.

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