Next weekend heralds the end of holiday entertaining season and the height of leftovers season. For refrigerator raiders like me, it's the best time of year.
I often prefer the second time around. Scarcity is a skillful seasoner. A bite or two left from last night's great dinner has the enhancement of remembrance and the threat of disappearance to make me savor it all the more. A leftover dish stands alone to be enjoyed, without sharing the limelight of its accompaniments.
Best of all, though, is free-form cooking with leftovers. To open the refrigerator and find a half dozen bits of things beckons me to create. My son Joe says, "It's amazing: You put everything in a pan and crack two eggs over it, and it's new food."
What's more amazing is that each of us creates different new foods from the same available leftovers. One night nearly everybody in the family felt hungry and creative in turn. Libby had to take a dish to a potluck supper and she always thinks salad. So she tossed romaine with tomatoes, carrots and broccoli. Some apples went in for color and crunch and the ends of the brie were finished off by chopping them into the salad.
Joe's creative appetite had taken hold at lunch. He is usually an omelet-maker or an impresario of Japanese-style instant ramen noodles. This time he took tuna as his base. He, too, was drawn to the carrots. He chopped one finely for his tuna salad. He hated to see an avocado go to waste, so it added a bit of smoothness to the tuna. He bound it with the creole mayonnaise I'd brought from New Orleans. And a stellar tuna salad was born.
Bob's meatloaf was inspired by disappointment. He'd brought home some ground beef for tartar steak, but didn't think it smelled fresh enough to eat raw. He decided to turn it into meatloaf. A meatloaf needed eggs, of course, and instead of the usual yellow onions he added scallions. For seasoning, he found an interesting-looking bottle of orange-flavored curry powder; for moistener, there was leftover spaghetti sauce. But for breading, he couldn't find anything commonplace. We were out of crackers, and the last of the bread had gone to Joe's tuna sandwiches. So, Pepperidge Farm parmesan goldfish became an inspired substitute. (Not that anyone believed the meatloaf had goldfish in it.) With the remains of a jar of sun-dried tomatoes, a luxurious intense flavor was added.
My turn came a few nights later. The first thing I look for when I'm creating from the week's discards is a bowl of cooked rice; I am a fried-rice specialist. I like to chop and saute' bits of everything, bind it with an egg, season it with gratings of ginger and splashes of soy sauce, and dish it into bowls for a one-dish meal. There is hardly anything, short of dessert, that I haven't slivered or minced into my fried rice creations. But even more appreciated is a leftover bowl of fried rice to turn into an omelet.
Tabletalk New Year's Eve is the height of the foie gras season in France. But most of that French foie gras being consumed isn't French at all. Hungary exports 1,000 tons of goose liver a year to France, where the French increase the price about 10 times before they resell it. France itself produces only about 500 tons, and Israel sends France another 500 tons. Now France is beginning to buy frog legs, snails and truffles from Hungary. What will Gallic gastronomes have left to call their own except fried potatoes? LEFTOVERS-INSPIRED FRIED RICE (2 to 4 servings)
This is less a recipe than a guide. It is meant only to spark your imagination. There is no specific measurement for any one ingredient or even any specific ingredient (except rice) that must or can't be used. Ingredients and quantities should be directed by what is in your refrigerator, adjusted to your taste.
4 cups of cold cooked rice, approximately
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons oil (more if necessary)
1/2 to 1 cup leftover meats or seafoods, diced or julienned (besides fresh meats, consider ham, bacon, sausage, shrimp, scallops, smoked fish, chicken livers, smoked turkey)
1/2 to 1 cup julienned onions, scallions, leeks or combination
1/2 to 1 cup raw vegetables, julienned (peppers, carrots, celery, seeded cucumbers, mushrooms, snow peas, etc.)
1/2 to 1 cup cooked vegetables (peas, beans, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.)
1/2 to 1 cup bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, or other Chinese vegetables, if available
FOR THE SEASONINGS:
Minced garlic, grated fresh or dried ginger, soy sauce, ground pepper, curry powder, hot peppers or hot pepper sauce
The first rule is: There are no rules. Use whatever vegetables, meats or seasonings you like, but aim for a variety of colors and textures.
Break up the rice, beat the eggs and set aside. Heat a very large, deep skillet or wok with the oil. Have all the ingredients sliced and ready at the side of the stove. If the meats or seafoods are raw, add them first to the hot pan; if they are cooked, add them later, with the raw vegetables.
Add the onions or leeks to the hot pan and stir-fry constantly for 2 minutes. Add raw vegetables, continuing to stir and toss, keeping the ingredients moving in the pan. Add the meats if they weren't added at the beginning. When the ingredients are beginning to brown and smell fragrant, add garlic, stir once, and add the rice.
Stir the rice, scraping and turning it, for a couple more minutes. Add cooked vegetables and Chinese vegetables, continue to toss the rice and scrape the bottom. Form a well in the center of the rice and pour in the egg. As it cooks, stir it into the rest of the rice. Now begin to add seasonings to taste, gradually stirring in soy sauce to add color and flavor but don't let it become too salty.
Keep stirring and cooking until the rice is as dark and crusty as it will get -- which depends on the size of your pan and the heat of your stove. In all, the cooking process should be less than 10 minutes. Serve immediately.
1987, Washington Post Writers Group