8 Fancy Ways to Use Leftover Food
When it comes to wasting food, a little goes a long way. Throw out a few slices of bread here, some uneaten leftovers there, and before you know it, we’ve collectively thrown away millions of tons of food. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, food waste accounted for 14% of all municipal waste in 2010. But in earlier points in history, food waste was a lot less common. In the Great Depression, for example, recipes got creative because food was just too scarce — and too expensive — to throw anything edible away. (See also: Waste Not, Want Not: Stop Throwing Away Your Food!)
These days, food is relatively cheap, at least historically speaking. Thanks to better agricultural, storage, and transport techniques, many Americans have access to all kinds of food at all times of the year at a price that costs them, on average, about 6% of their income. That’s a lower percentage than any other country in the world. Even so, wasting food is a bad habit, and not just because it’s bad karma when so many other people in the world are going without (although that’s worth thinking about). Think about it this way — every time you throw away food, you’re effectively tossing a few dollars in the trash. Fortunately, cooks around the world have created a number of great recipes to transform those lowly leftovers into something with culinary cachet. Here are some of the best examples.
1. Bread Pudding
You can find bread pudding of all configurations in even the fanciest restaurants these days. But this satisfying dessert has a little secret — it was designed to use up stale bread. OK, so maybe if you douse it in bourbon whiskey, butter, and eggs like this New Orleans bread pudding recipe does, you’re really throwing good after bad by piling a bunch of pricier ingredients into an old loaf of bread. But the results speak for themselves; you can serve this at any dinner party and gobble up the rest for breakfast the next day. Oh, and if you’re not a fan of desserts, bread pudding can be savory too, like this recipe for leek bread pudding.
2. Rice Pudding
Leftover rice often gets thrown away because rice tastes so much better fresh. Unless, of course, you turn it into something else. Rice pudding is often my go-to in this case, because it’s quick, easy, delicious, and very forgiving. This recipe for pumpkin rice pudding is a great variation that can make use of a little extra pumpkin. You can also make plain vanilla rice pudding, spice it up Indian-style, or even make rice pudding popsicles. And of course, if you’re up for dinner rather than dessert, there’s always risotto or fried rice.
3. Chicken (or Turkey, or Ham, or Beef) Pot Pie
A meat-filled pie always makes great comfort food. It’s also a perfect way to clean out the fridge. If you create a flavorful sauce and top it off with a rich, buttery crust, no one will ever know the key ingredients are last night’s meat, potatoes, and vegetables. Try this recipe for a classic chicken pot pie. If you’re not a meat eater, improvise with a veggie or tofu pot pie.
4. Banana (or Apple, or Sweet Potato, or Pumpkin) Bread
It’s hard to believe that a couple of near-rotten (the closer the better) bananas can make something so good, but few people will turn down a slice of fresh banana bread. There are many ways to make this recipe. My all-time favorite banana bread recipe is a classic, but you can also add chocolate chips or spices, or replace some of the banana with other fruit purees. Quick-bread recipes are also great for cleaning up other leftover bits of fruits and vegetables like apples, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, zucchini, and rhubarb.
5. Fish Cakes
Leftover mashed potatoes are not all that appealing, especially when the gravy’s run out! Fish cakes, shrimp cakes, and crab cakes are all a great way to turn this ingredient into something brand new and delicious. These cod cakes recommend using leftover fish as well as potatoes.
6. French Toast
French toast is a weekend breakfast staple, and one that’s a lot quicker and easier to make than pancakes or waffles. Slice up slightly stale bread, dip it into an egg and milk mixture, fry it up, and serve with your favorite toppings. Try this creme brulee French toast recipe and accompany it with stewed fruit. You can even make French toast with a croissant (how very French, right?)
If you have plain, leftover pasta on hand, you can cobble together some other ingredients from the fridge and make a great casserole. After all, the pasta in these recipes has to be cooked before the whole thing’s thrown in the oven. For a classic dinner, try this macaroni and cheese. For something a little different, try this chicken and spaghetti casserole. You can even turn leftover pasta into a dessert as in this vanilla noodle kugel (try saying that five times fast).
If there’s a recipe you can throw anything into, it’s soup. Whether it’s turkey soup after Thanksgiving dinner or ham and split pea soup after Christmas, there’s almost no ingredients a soup won’t wear well. Next time you’re stuck with only a few things in the fridge, start searching recipe sites for the ingredients you have. Chances are, you’ll find a soup to match.