There it sits: a single meatball no one felt like eating, a chicken drumstick, the top of a bun someone pulled off a burger (saving on carbs?), a scoop of mashed potatoes, strands of spaghetti or rigatoni with a little tomato sauce. All this at one time or another sits at the bottom of the takeout container when dinner is done. It’s a shame to discard but no one wants them.
The bits and bobs left in restaurant containers may look too small to save but they’re valuable fodder for your next dinner. You need no more than five fairly simple techniques to make use of all these oddments. Tuck them into your tool kit, step up to the stove, and start cooking. Don’t worry about a recipe. Just work with what you have. Think of it as a TV culinary competition. You’re up against another cook and the win goes to the most skillful and clever improviser.
Yes, you can layer almost anything in a taco, panino, or pita pocket. But that seems more lunch than planned dinner. Here are the five dishes you need to know from memory so you can build on them almost without thinking: a frittata, savory bread pudding, basic vegetable soup, stir-fried rice, and fritters.
Let’s begin with the single meatball, the drumstick, strands of pasta and its sauce. Make a pot of soup, beginning by sautéing carrots, onions, and celery in some vegetable oil. Add the spaghetti sauce (not the pasta yet) with a spoonful or two of tomato paste from your own pantry or some salsa. Swirl it around a little in the vegetables. Pour in six cups of chicken stock and add half a peeled-and-seeded butternut squash cut into cubes and a couple cups of cauliflower florets. Crumble the meatball, slice the meat off the chicken drumstick (don’t discard the bone), and snip through the spaghetti or rigatoni to make 1-inch lengths. Add everything to the pot with the chicken bone, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes.
Other additions to the soup: pureed cauliflower, mashed sweet potatoes, hominy or another grain, leftover salad if the dressing doesn’t contain cream or mayo, cooked rice, white beans (even if they’re tossed with oil and vinegar), a few slices of jalapeno, sliced zucchini, mushrooms, any other pasta tossed with any sauce that isn’t creamy, roasted vegetables, sauces such as chimichurri or harissa, a handful of fresh herbs.
Now to frittatas, or omelets if you prefer your eggs soft and folded. Use up a forlorn slice of tomato or onion, roasted root vegetables, hash browns or potatoes, bok choy, bell pepper, sausage, lamb kebab or shawarma meat, tamale filling, cooked hearty greens, pasta and sauce (creamy sauces are OK here), sesame noodles, kimchee, strips of spare ribs, corn tortillas, Korean bulgogi. Coarsely chop all of these.
To make a frittata, you need an 8-inch nonstick skillet with a heatproof handle and six eggs whisked with salt and pepper. Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet, add a heaping cup of chopped vegetables, meat, or pasta, and stir for a minute to heat them. Pour in the eggs, cook for a few minutes to set the bottom and sides, and transfer to a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes to set the egg cake. Don’t forget that the skillet handle is very hot, so keep it wrapped in a pot holder. Slide the egg cake onto a plate to cut into wedges.
Savory bread puddings are the best kept secrets of the kitchen. They’re made like the sweet versions, only without sugar. Almost any bread or bun goes into them (very dense, hearty loaves don’t work as well as airier breads). This is where the leftover burger bun is going, along with any slices of French bread, brioche or challah ends, sliced sandwich bread, naan.
You need a 2-quart baking dish. Puddings take a custard formula that’s easy to memorize: 1 egg per ½ cup of milk. For this size dish, whisk 4 eggs with 2 cups of whole milk. Butter the dish, and layer sliced buns or bread (keep all the crusts on) with cooked vegetables — sliced mushrooms, sauteed eggplant, asparagus, roasted vegetables, stir-fried greens, carrots, caramelized onions — and cheddar, Parmesan, or fontina. Pour the egg custard on top.
Cover the pudding and refrigerate the dish for several hours — get a head start by putting things together the night before or early in the morning — then bake uncovered in a 350-degree oven for 40 minutes or until puffed and golden.
Stir-fried rice was invented to use up what’s on hand, which means that vegetables and meats in your containers and almost everything on the Chinese take-out menu is eligible, especially greens, tofu, pork, and anything pickled. Coarsely chop everything and stir-fry in hot peanut oil in a very large skillet. Add three cups of cooked rice, and keep stirring while you season the mixture with a few spoons each of Chinese black vinegar or Worcestershire and soy sauce. Stir in ¼ cup of water mixed with two teaspoons cornstarch and serve dinner.
Fritters are easiest of all. You need a base to hold everything together, such as mashed potatoes (white or sweet), a couple spoons of flour, and an egg. Stir this well, then add anything under the sun, cooked or uncooked, a list that might include pickled red cabbage, flaked salmon or another fish, grated carrots or zucchini, kimchi, corn, jalapenos, crisp bacon, bits of ham or pork, roasted eggplant, ricotta, barbecued chicken, cooked quinoa or barley, dolmas.
Spoon the batter into a skillet lined with a thin layer of hot oil, cook until the undersides are golden, then turn and cook a few minutes more. Serve them with that little container of sour cream you didn’t know what to do with or salsa or chopped red onion discarded from a burger.
If this really were a TV show, you’d already be in a good position to take top prize. You’ve used up delicious little scraps you might otherwise have wasted. You’ve saved money and done something for the planet. But you’re also learning how to turn your cooking into a creative adventure, and yourself into a bit of an artist. In my book, you’ve just won.