9 Smart Ways to Use Up Your Leftovers (and Save Lots of Time in the Kitchen)

Leftovers: super-hot right now.

It’s a silly sentiment, but an accurate one. Re-using scraps, bits, and bobs of food just keeps cropping up in news. Three years ago, Chef Dan Barber helped launch the wastED movement, encouraging cooks to recycle every stem, leaf, and knob of produce, and every part of animals and fish. Today, a number of new books exhort reusing scraps. Julia Turshen includes recipes for leftover ingredients in her cookbook Now & Again. Author Tamar Adler (An Everlasting MealSomething Old, Something New) is working on a forthcoming book that will be an A-to-Z encyclopedia about re-using leftovers. Even the cocktail community has gotten in on the game, with Maggie Hoffman’s The One Bottle Cocktail featuring a Bloody-Mary-esque vodka cocktail. The lovely produce you strain out while making the drink becomes a salsa to serve alongside. Genius.

Here are a few tips I’ve gleaned from watching my own mother—a leftovers savant—and interviewing chefs over the last decade.

Pause before you trash it

Generally speaking, take a breath before you hurl those cilantro stems or can’t-fit-‘em-in-the-skillet extra minced veggies into the garbage. If you need a good reason, consider the environment: Foods that are not properly composted contribute methane, a greenhouse gas, to the atmosphere. Keeping this in mind might give you the boost you need to reserve the cilantro stems for a green goddess dressing or use those veggies in tomorrow’s breakfast scramble.

RELATED: Why You Should Never Throw Away Parsley and Cilantro Stems

Really use that freezer

Save the parsley stems, the chicken and beef bones, the Parmesan rinds, and the kale stems. Put each in its own plastic bag, squeeze out the air, and be sure to date it in big letters before it enters the snow-encrusted tundra of the freezer. Last week, I needed vegetable stock for a corn-coconut chowder. I grabbed my frozen kale stems and added a knob of Parmesan rind, peppercorns, star anise, and a piece of onion to a big cauldron of water. I brought it to a boil, turned down the heat, and left it alone to simmer for an hour or so. When it tasted herbaceous, I strained it. Voilà: Two-plus quarts of savory veggie stock, much of which went back into the freezer.

Save every leftover for at least a day, even if you don’t know what you’ll do with it

Almost every food can sit for a day in the fridge. Leftover sliced roasted red peppers you had in today’s sausage sandwich can easily double as the star of tomorrow’s omelet. Got roast eggplant, a bit of chicken, and a few herbs? You’re well on your way to a great sandwich; maybe fold those herbs into a spoonful of mayonnaise spiked with salt, pepper and minced garlic.

RELATED: The Case for Saving Small Portions of Leftovers—Even If It’s Just a Few Bites

Do err on the side of caution

That said, a good rule of thumb is that if it smells or looks off, give it a pass. It’s not worth it to compromise your health. (The official USDA guide to leftovers safety is here.)

Be flexible about recipe ingredients

As you become a more skilled home cook, you’ll come to use instinctively smart swaps that may not have occurred to you in your younger years. That coconut-corn chowder recipe called for 6 to 8 ounces of red potatoes, added raw to my soup, then pureed after they’d cooked for 10 minutes. But I already had 6 to 8 ounces of mashed Yukon golds in my fridge. It was an easy switcheroo: I folded the mashed spuds into my simmering soup, reduced the cook time to a minute, and pureed as the recipe directed. The resulting soup was fantastic.

Can it be a salsa, a dip, a stock, or a marinade?

Like the famous stone soup, that darn chowder just kept coming through for me. I ended up using the last dregs of leftovers for a salsa I added to corn tortillas with melted cheese for an ad-hoc quesadilla. Sometimes you just need to look at a leftover with a fresh perspective, and consider what else it can do. Green goddess dressing can be a sauce, a marinade, or a dip. Can what you have be strained? Thickened? Added to a marinade with garlic, onion, or ginger? Remember, too, that lots of ingredients can live a new life after some quality time in the blender.

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Is it stale? Consider liquid

Plenty of superstar dishes are based on leftover, slightly stale ingredients. Consider Mexico’s chilaquiles, which employ slightly stale tortillas, cut into rounds, then cooked in oil or salsa to reinvigorate them. Topped with eggs or meat and served alongside beans, they’re the ultimate hangover-slayer. Then there’s bread pudding, which is excellent when made using slightly stale bread. Generally speaking, dried-out ingredients need the re-introduction of liquid. Be sure there’s not a way to plump them back up before discarding them.

If its texture is off, transform the texture

Bruised peaches, wilted berries, and not-so-fresh kale can all benefit from a spin in the blender. (With dark greens, I’d recommend blanching them in salted water first, as for thiskiller pasta sauce.) After all, few among us can discern the difference between a smoothie made using three-day-old berries and one using plucked-that-morning berries.

Can the addition of starch make it a meal?

It might sound obvious, but it doesn’t occur to plenty of us: One serving of leftover fish can become two servings of fish cakes if you have potatoes and egg. Meat can be stretched into meatballs when stale bread, herbs, and a bit of milk are added. Four squares of fried tofu, plus an egg and rice, is an easy, light supper.

So take a moment to stash your leftovers, rather than tossing them, and save time on tomorrow’s lunch or dinner. Your future self will love you for it.

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.

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