Leftovers may not be a sexy proposition for many. Gone are the days of eating a roast dinner on Sunday and then eating stew made from the leftover cuts all of the next week. But the fact is that dishes made from leftovers can be the tastiest and most exciting aspects of all cuisines…
Using leftovers creatively is all the rage at the moment with famous foodies such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearley-Whittingstall advocating for people to embrace leftovers and re-heat, re-hash and reveal all that yesterday’s dinner has to offer.
Food waste has been touted by many to be an international problem, with estimates that about a third of food that is produced worldwide ends up in our rubbish bins! And this is not even counting the fact that about a third of food grown by farmers ends up not being harvested at all, due to the fact it doesn’t meet societies exacting standards of looking perfect or that the market price doesn’t meet the cost of production and harvesting. Who hasn’t heard the old adage that the world could be fed three times over with all of the food that is produced?
It may be a far stretch to say that world hunger is because the western world lets an alarming amount of food reach their rubbish bins before their mouths. World hunger is far more likely affected by things like corrupt governments, corporations controlling food supply and pure logistics. Not to mention droughts, plagues and poverty being at the root of the cause. But the fact remains that throwing out leftovers is a waste of money, time, ingredients and effort. Also international food prices are affected by supply and demand – so perhaps in some small way, by being a more efficient cook you may be helping those in need.
But for the sake of argument let’s ignore the butterfly effect you may have on the third world by throwing away your unwanted and unused food and stick to the very real benefits that a leftover diet can have on you and your pocket. Because benefits there are!
Some of the best dishes are served cold
Many famous and popular recipes are designed to use leftover ingredients. Panzanella, bread pudding, meatloaf, bruschetta, Caesar salad and french toast are all recipes designed to make use of old bread. Not to mention breadcrumbs which are best made out of yesterday’s loaf. And that is just leftover bread. There is also stock, stews, soups, pies, pizzas, pastries, pastas, salads, sandwiches and omelettes which all can be made using delicious leftovers from last nights meal. Pizza and curries somehow taste better the next day too.
If you can learn to embrace your leftovers you can be more efficient with your food, time and energy. Why throw away food that you spent much effort cooking. Save yourself the time it takes to cook a pot of lentil stew and turn the leftovers into a pie the next day with a filo pastry carrot and lentil pie or make a delicious risotto and turn it into a risotto pie for your next meal. Don’t be stuck eating the same old thing every day for a week just because you want to make use of your leftovers.
With a little thought and creativity you can learn to make the most out of leftovers and cook in larger, cheaper and more time efficient batches. You can learn to make the most out of otherwise unwanted ingredients – turn the bones from any roast meat into a beautiful stock (even add any old vegies that are sitting around that would otherwise be thrown into the compost bin) and make stews, curries, risottos and soups out of it. All very cost effective dishes -especially when you don’t have to shell out a fiver or more for a litre of stock! They are all easy to make and require very little effort.
Not convinced yet? How about turning yesterdays rice into tomorrow’s stir fried rice? You do after-all, need to use day old rice if you want a properly delicious and non-stodgy stir fry. Yesterday’s roast veg can be chopped up and added to any salad. Or they can be a great addition to any soup. Pasta sauce can be turned into pizza sauce and vice versa. In fact most unused and old unwanted ingredients can go into sauces. Old dried out cheese can go into a white sauce that can be poured over vegies or used in moussaka, lasagna or chicken pies. Old yoghurt can be used to marinate meat and in fact will actually make it more tender. It can also be turned into a raita or tzatziki. Even surplus milk that looks like it isn’t going to be used before it’s use-by date can be turned into paneer just by bringing it to the boil, adding some vinegar and straining it. There is always a way to turn the unwanted into the wanted when it comes to food.
The dreaded food poisoning
One of the biggest barriers to eating leftover food is the fear of food poisoning. Food poisoning is a very real problem with about 1 in 100,000 people in the USA dieing from foodbourne illnesses and about 40 in 100,000 being hospitalized. If you have ever had food poisoning I am sure you would agree that even mild cases are most unpleasant.
But leftover food is nothing to fear if you follow a few simple rules regarding the handling of your food. There are many different causes of foodbourne illness including bacteria, fungi, viruses and protozoa which can all produce toxins that cause sickness. There are many different dangers when it comes to the perils of eating food. Put simply, however, most of these devils are killed by heat or put to sleep by the cold – hence the reason for keeping many kinds of food in the refrigerator and then making sure they are cooked properly when heated.
Broadly speaking, if you have cooked something properly it can be considered safe (within reason) and if it is subsequently stored properly (i.e. in the freezer or fridge) then it will likely remain safe. Now there are exceptions to these rules. There are organisms that are either heat or cold resistant or have spores that are heat or cold resistant. But they still follow the rules of most life on earth – while they may be able to withstand extreme temperatures or have spores that can withstand extreme temperatures most of these things actively produce toxins and proliferate at temperatures between 5 and 60°C, otherwise termed the ‘danger zone’ (think about it – the movie Top Gun is actually a food poisoning metaphor with Goose going to the ‘danger zone’ and subsequently dieing, Kenny Loggins certainly took food poisoning seriously!).
So heating things up properly i.e. cooking them well and storing them at cold temperatures is always a good idea. What isn’t a good idea is heating things up and cooling them down again and again as this will give the little villians plenty of chance to multiply and then go dormant as you cool them down and then proliferate once again when you heat them up, which is why we are told not to ever freeze things once defrosted. But to be honest you have reasonable leeway here in most cases. But the best thing to do is just reheat whatever leftovers you have in amounts that you need and keep the rest cold. And when you do reheat make sure you do it well.
This brings us to exotoxins. Exotoxins are toxins that are released by organisms which may subsequently be killed by heating or microwaving your food but where the toxin remains (staphylococcus is the main culprit here). Now the first point is that if you cooked your food and there are exotoxins in high concentrations, then you will get sick upon the first consumption of that food, so leftovers are not the worry here. If your food is cold and unheated – potato salad with mayonnaise is the usual example, but this can also include cold pastas, cold meats, salads and even desserts – then the risk is not eliminated by heat in the same way. So it is important to make sure that you trust where your ingredients have come from – make sure you cook discounted meat close to its use-by and only use fresh ingredients for raw meals – and store and prepare ingredients separately to avoid contamination. Wash things like chopping boards and knives well and don’t leave unused ingredients out of the refrigerator for long periods of time.
While this all may all sound complicated and scary the fact is that if you follow a few simple rules you really won’t be at high risk. Store and prepare your ingredients separately taking extra care with raw ingredients and meat, cook the things that you are cooking well and keep your leftovers in the fridge or freezer when not using them then you are going to be okay. Or at least at less risk and even less risk than most of the population.
Solution to the wastage of food
The only real barriers that stop you enjoying leftovers are being obsessed with following recipes and not being creative with ingredients. So the next time you are looking at making a meal from a recipe book or a food website, remember that the recipe is just a guide to inspire you and perhaps teach you techniques. Learn to substitute ingredients, leftover ingredients if need be, so you can make the best use of the ingredients that you have.
When you open the fridge at night, ready to cook dinner, have a look at the what you have got left from last nights feast and think of the many many ways that you could make creative use of those ingredients. You will start to find that no only will your food bill decrease, but you will also introduce a wide range of dishes that you would never have thought of eating before. Be wary of food poisoning, but be even more wary of wasting good food and missing out on the exciting world of creating great meals from leftovers.