How to use leftovers in cooking

It always happens after a festive season of Christmas and Easter. Also at the end of a family party or celebration – well, unless you have packed the uneaten food for your guests to take home, as we often do in Slovakia.

If you have to deal with leftovers, the easiest way is to put them in the fridge and reheat in the following days. Certain foods can be frozen and will keep in the freezer for quite a few months. There’s a complex science behind freezing and defrosting food, including leftovers, but I want to focus here on more imaginative ways of using them.

I have learned some of the knack from my parents who were growing up in the post-war Slovakia when the food and money was scarce, but not so resourcefulness of the common man. As the old proverb says, ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, and this is certainly true about our ancestors.

So here goes some inherited knowledge and a few ideas of my own:

Bread is probably the most frequent food to be thrown away. Most Slovak breads, rolls or buns keep well for at least three days, but if you like your loaf fresh every morning, you might easily get stuck with leftovers. Don’t throw them away! Make this Egg Coated Bread or Potato Kugel instead, or use it to make croutons for Bear Garlic Soup. You can also prepare your own breadcrumbs for this Breaded Pork Steak with Potato Salad. When making breadcrumbs, you will need to slice the old bread, rolls, baguettes or buns, and let the slices dry on a wooden board or a baking sheet for 24 hours. When they are hard enough, break the larger chunks in halves and put them through a grinder or in a food processor to process. 

Breadcrumbs can also be used in meatballs, or to thicken soups and sauces.

Milk is another perishable item in our kitchens. If you think your milk is no longer suitable for drinking, you can still use it in cooking or baking without spoiling the taste of the end product. And why not try making your own cottage cheese?

Overripe, blemished or bruised fruit is an ideal ingredient for cakes. Just take these Banana No-Bake Minicakes, Light Apple Cake or Plum Pie, which also uses leftover fruit juice. Almost any fruit can be incorporated into a cake, only make sure to cut the bruised parts or blemishes out and wash the fruit thoroughly.  

Wilted or slightly brown greens or other vegetables can be sautéed and incorporated into soups, casseroles or a risotto, the last being also an excellent way to use leftover rice or cheese. Unfinished boiled potatoes can be made into delicious mashed potato.

It often happens in our household that my son doesn’t finish his beer can. There’s no need to pour the remains down the sink, as beer is a wonderful ingredient in cooking – and baking as well. Look at this Chicken Braised in Beer or Sour Cherry Cakes for inspiration.

Most of you already know that wine adds zest to sauces (take Bechamel sauce for example), and it’s also great for braising, like in this Roast Pork with Steamed Dumpling & Red Cabbage. But did you know leftover wine is a key ingredient for Wine Cookies?

So, if you think your food is no longer fit for eating, think again. Those sorry-looking vegetables or leftover sausages might not be at their freshest, but they can still make a nice meal. This Potato Gratin recipe was created as an attempt to put in good use the forgotten resources of my fridge and pantry. 

potato gratin after baking
Potato Gratin the Slovak Style

I’ve learnt from my own experience that most of the food that we normally throw away is still good when it undergoes high temperatures in the oven, a pan or a pot. Leftovers are a wonderful starting point for experiments. Most often than not, they bring new and surprisingly tasty dishes on our tables.

How creative are you with leftover food in your kitchen? Let us have your ideas in the comment section below.

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