Rice so nice you’ll eat it twice
Article and photo by Lisa Crockett
I’ve been logging more than my share of TV hours lately. Luckily, the folks at Netflix launched some new selections last month, saving me from a sad, rerun filled existence. One series, “Best Leftovers Ever” is a particularly relevant show, given that it combines totally bingeable content (a cooking competition for a $10,000 cash prize) combined with exciting new ideas for how to cook with what’s on hand at home. I think that inspiration for using leftovers is an idea whose time has come – particularly in a year when it seems prudent to limit trips to the store. As an added bonus, it is budget friendly and better for the environment too.
Contestants on the show can be found rinsing the sauce off of vegetables, perhaps to reinvent Chinese-style green beans into southern-style pickled relish. Maybe they’re smushing pasta into a dough, deep frying it, and using it as a base for a dumpling. Vegetables get blended to sauces, slabs of meat get chopped and curried, and all manner of ingredients are contorted into almost unrecognizably delicious new dishes.
Viewing the show got my own creative juices flowing, as I considered what was languishing in my own fridge. Actually eating the food I buy is the goal, and leftovers are part of that equation. Based on watching the show and a little outside research, I’ve devised a few guidelines for using up every last morsel in my fridge.
I’m generally not opposed to simply reheating something (this is particularly true of dishes like lasagna and soup which seem to actually get better with time), leftovers often benefit from being re-envisioned. Boredom with food is one of the chief reason things don’t get eaten, so a dash of seasoning, the addition of some fresh ingredients, or a smothering with a savory sauce can bring new life to a meal. A well-stocked pantry (a hallmark of the “Leftovers” show) that includes a variety of spices, including a few curry blends, is critical to success. Other pantry items like canned broth, evaporated milk and all-purpose flour are essential.
Because the dishes created on the show are being constructed from previous meals, fat tends to already be incorporated (fried chicken, for instance, doesn’t need more oil). A big chunk of protein – like a chicken kebab – is combined with noodles, bread, a tortilla, or some other starchy carb to give it balance and to provide a blank canvas for flavor. Leftover carbs like noodles or rice are stir fried with other carbs (vegetables), protein, and sauce to re-moisten them and give them the heft necessary for a satisfying meal. One classic technique is to turn day-old carbs into some sort of pancake (think potato latkes or polenta) as a bed to make whatever star ingredient in a dish shine.
Finally, a gentle touch is necessary when dealing with food that’s already been cooked. Meat, in particular, becomes dry when it’s reheated, so gentle, even heat applied only for as long as necessary to warm the ingredient is key to success. This means that dishes constructed from leftovers don’t generally need a lot of time in the oven or on the stove, so if you pair them with dishes made from scratch, make the leftovers last so they’re not overcooked.
Bearing these ideas in mind, I toured my refrigerator to determine what I might be able to use. A nearly full take-out container of white rice was front and center, along with a single zucchini that was just beginning to wrinkle, a smidgen of sliced ham, and a forgotten piece of cheddar cheese. While I had plenty of rice, the other ingredients weren’t substantial enough for fried rice – my usual go-to for rice leftovers. I decided to make a rice frittata, using the rice as a sort of crust. The eggs are the star of this dish, and a simple sautéed onion rounds out the flavor profile. The rice provides balance and satisfying structure. As an added bonus, it makes for very few dishes to wash and tastes great warm or cold.
I am now thinking of ways I can make rice for dinner so that I can purposely have leftovers to use in this dish. Even though I won’t win $10,000, I do get the pleasure of making sure nothing goes to waste in my kitchen. Netflix may have a show about the best leftovers ever, but I get to eat them right in my own home.