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Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Leftover Guzzlers

our tossed garden salad composed of the bits and leftovers that might have been overlooked

There are some food categories that lend themselves to using leftovers and odds and ends, those last little bits that no one wants to finish off.

I was thinking about this as I was mixing batter for muffins Tuesday morning. I had about 1/2 cup of leftover rhubarb sauce that was getting a little long in the tooth. I couldn't get anyone to finish this. It wasn't that it was bad. It's just that there were more interesting foods to eat. Anyway, I also had about 1 cup of souring milk that I had frozen specifically for baking and had thawed Sunday morning for pancakes. I'd only used about half of that container of soured milk in the pancakes, leaving me with another cup to use as soon as I could. Both of those items would need to be used in some sort of concoction or face the garbage disposal by week's end. You know me, I certainly didn't want to waste them. Doctoring them up into something "new" was my only path. A lot of my homemade muffins are like this. I find a remnant from a previous meal in the fridge, and a plan for a batch of muffins is hatched.

Later in the day, while I was gathering garden ingredients for a tossed salad to go with dinner, I thought about how salads are great vehicles for using up those odds and ends that no one thinks to eat. I plucked the small leaves off of the beets, turnips, and Swiss chard that were setting seeds and tossed those into my harvest bucket. I also picked not only nasturtium blossoms for our salad, but also the leaves and pea-sized green seeds. I grabbed the last big leaves from the only Romaine lettuce plant that survived in my garden this year, some smaller leaves of lettuce from the hanging baskets, and a handful of small Tuscan kale leaves. Heading back into the kitchen, I opened the fridge door and found about 1 cup of leftover lentil sprout slaw salad from lunch. Put all together and tossed with a dressing, these odds and ends made a pretty good salad for our family. Other leftover foods also make good salad ingredients, like cooked pasta, cooked meat, or cooked vegetables. Perhaps no one is particularly interested in eating these small remnants. I've mentioned that I make stuffed grape leaves often. There are always one or two that don't get eaten that first night and sit in the fridge for a couple of days. Last week, I discovered these are delicious cold, sliced into 3/4-inch pieces for topping a salad. Leftover stale bread that no one will touch? One word -- croutons. On baking day, everyone wants to move on to the fresh loaves and will bypass whatever is left from the old loaf. I usually have to do something with the last stale slices of that loaf, either a bread pudding, French toast, or during summer -- a batch of croutons to top our salads.

Smoothies. So much past-its-prime stuff can go into a smoothie. Bananas too brown? No problem. Slice them up and freeze. Berries that are going soft? Again, just freeze them loose on a tray then bag up, and you have the beginnings of a smoothie for a later day. Homemade jam fail? In addition to topping pancakes, runny jam is also a great sweetener for fruit smoothies. I also save and freeze syrup drained from canned fruit and the liquid drained from thawing frozen blueberries for muffins. Future smoothies will thank the present me that saved all of those scraps.

Over the weekend I was thinking about making lunch for the family and was having a hard time coming up with an entree. I peered into the fridge and found a bunch of odds and ends, including some cooked beans, cooked rice, and about 4 different containers of leftover cooked vegetables, about 2 tablespoons in each container. At that point I realized I had the makings of a casserole for our weekend lunch. I went with a Mexi-theme and did a rice and bean bake with salsa and the leftover vegetables. If I had had some cheese, this would have been tasty topped with cheese before baking. As it was, it was really pretty good and managed to use up a bunch of lingering leftovers.

Perhaps my most commonly used vehicle for leftovers are soups and stews. Just about any sort of leftover or odd bit can make a happy home in the soup pot.

Old-time gardeners had a way to use and preserve those end of season, odd last bits -- the one lone pepper, the large handful of green beans, the small green tomatoes. These odd bits would not be enough for a family meal, nor enough for a full recipe of single ingredient pickles or preserves. However, there is a type of preserve that brings all of the bits together into one glorious, last of the garden relish. In one of my older community cookbooks (cookbooks that incorporate cherished or favorite recipes from individuals as opposed to test kitchen recipes), there actually is a recipe titled Last of the Garden Relish. All of the odd bits are chopped and cooked in a sweet and spicy brine until soft and then home-canned. What would not be enough on its own is ample when combined with other small bits. 

Some meal categories just seem like the perfect place for using up leftovers or odd bits from the garden. The interesting thing is you don't often find recipes for using leftovers in traditional cookbooks. It can't be that cookbook writers think there will never be leftovers. Judging from how much food waste is reported in the media, there are a lot of leftovers, and much of this food goes into landfills. Perhaps with the current rising food prices, many households will find themselves motivated to reimagined those lingering leftovers into yummy new concoctions. 

What are your thoughts on this? Do you have favorite ways to use leftovers, past-their-prime foods, or small tidbits?


  1. I've discovered a new way to use old bananas- making "nice cream" aka healthy ice cream. I just add frozen banana chunks, cocoa powder, honey and milk plus a bit of peanut butter to the blender and blend till it's the consistency of soft serve ice cream, then freeze till firm. This has been a big hit at our house especially with the hot weather. I'm experimenting with other flavors as well, including berry which is the same as above minus the peanut butter and cocoa powder. I want to try coffee flavor next! As long as you have the frozen banana base you can do all kinds of things with it. I also have been topping it with a chocolate sauce made by gently cooking milk, honey, vanilla and cocoa powder till thickened. It's nice to enjoy a healthy treat with no guilt!

    1. Hi Trina,
      Your nice cream sounds so delicious! Thank you for sharing. This is definitely a must-try. I've done plain banana "ice cream", but never added peanut butter and honey or other flavorings. Thank you!

  2. Another use for that runny jam that never set is to just put a scoop or two over yogurt for a tasty dessert or even a scoop over cottage cheese. I may have said this in another comment but I have been loving chopped/pureed fruit in silicone ice cube trays then freezing them. I pop them out when frozen and put in a ziploc bag. When I want morning oatmeal, I pop one frozen cube in with 1/2 cup oatmeal and water. Zap in the microwave for a minute or two then add sweetener and milk. It is just like the rip packages you get in the store. So far I have peaches and strawberries. Blueberries get frozen by themselves so nor pureeing of those. I just grab a small handful and add like the frozen cubes. I also freeze basil mixed with water and zapped in a blender then freeze in ice cube trays. Again, I pop them out of the tray and freeze in ziploc bags and add one or two cubes to whatever needs basil. Same with cilantro. It keeps such a freshness to the fruit and herbs all winter long.

    1. Do you freeze cilantro in water? Just curious what does the water do to preserve it as opposed to just freezing in a bag? I love the ideas of freezing in ice cube trays.

    2. yes, I add enough water to chop it in my food chopper just a bit then put in as fast as I can into ice cube and freeze. Stays nice and green. I use water only to keep the color vibrant and then I have a perfect size cube to drop into whatever I need it for in cooking. I like to frozen cubes because my bags of dried seems to turn a different color and I want that vibrant green.


    3. Hi Alice,
      so many great ideas! I do freeze excess cilantro and basil, but not in water/ice as you do. Dried basil loses so much flavor, whereas frozen is so much better. I love the idea for freezing chopped or pureed fruit in cubes to add to oatmeal. It sounds delicious. Thank you for sharing what you do.

  3. Lili, love all these ideas plus others. Taking notes. I am trying to think of ways I use up my leftovers. It is kind of an automatic knee jerk thing as I've been cooking for eons...ha! I add odds and ends to hash or fried potatoes. Taco Stacks will take on lots of leftover veggies...not a salad just stack on your plate your fixings. It can be peppers, corn, zucchini, tomatoes, etc. I layer odd end fruits with pudding. I add remnant fruit to bread pudding which also uses up remnant bread. I make an Anything Casserole that my neighbor shared the made up recipe for. You use up compatible cooked veggies, cooked pasta, leftover meat and bind with a cream sauce and cheese if you have it. You can top with buttered bread crumbs if those are sitting around. My favor combo is ham or chicken, cooked cabbage,potatoes and a cheesey sauce topped with bread crumbs. You can make the casserole as little or as big as you want. I like to make a warm fruit compote of random fruit and top with dumplings.

    1. Hi Linda,
      Oh yum, hash sounds like such a great way to use odds and ends, so do taco stacks. Your "Anything Casserole" sounds like a lot of my meals. I like the idea for using some cooked cabbage in the casserole with potatoes, meat, and a cheese sauce. I think that would be a real family-pleaser.
      Thanks for sharing your tips!

  4. Lots of good ideas here. Stir fries and quiches are other places to use up leftovers.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      Stir fries and quiches both sound like great ways to use a lot of leftovers. I'll add one more like stir fry -- fried rice. I don't often think to add leftovers or odds and ends to quiche. But I will do that in the future. Thank you for your ideas, Live and Learn!


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