The Fine (and Frugal) Art of Repurposing Leftovers
In these times of budget cuts, rising food costs, job losses and ever-increasing expenses, we can’t afford to let anything go to waste. In fact, it isn’t far-fetched to consider this our practice run for the tough days that may be ahead.
One way to stretch your food budget is with the humble leftover.
Have you ever been really poor? I don’t mean “I can’t afford Starbucks until my next paycheck” poor. I mean “Should I buy food or pay the electric bill before the power gets shut off” poor.
I have absolutely been that poor, back when my oldest daughter was a baby. When you are that broke, every single bite of food in the house counts. You cannot afford to let anything go to waste. This is where the “Menage a Leftover” bucket in the freezer comes in.
In our freezer, we kept an ice cream tub. After each meal, those tiny amounts of food that don’t add up to a full serving got popped into the bucket. And because of our situation, I often would take food that was uneaten on a family member’s plate to add into the bucket. Desperate times, desperate measures. What people might consider “gross” in good times, they would feel lucky to have in bad times. Then, usually about once per week, the contents of that bucket in the freezer were turned into a meal.
I drew some criticism from friends and relatives during that time for the distance I went not to waste a single bite of food. A few people commented that it was ridiculous, others thought combining all those different foods in the freezer was disgusting and one person even referred to the meals as “garbage disposal meals”. It stung a little at the time, but looking back, I’m glad to have had that experience. I can draw upon it if times become difficult in the future. While other people are trying to figure out where their next meal is coming from, I know that I can take the same amount of groceries and make at least 2 more meals out of them.
I always considered meals from the leftover bucket to be “free food” because they were items that you’d normally throw out. So, let’s say, you have a little bit of broccoli, some mashed potatoes, some beef gravy, a scoop of ground beef, some corn…you know? The remains of meals. What can you do with that?
This is where being creative with the spices comes in. I might take the above, add a can of beans and a tin of tomato paste, and turn it into a chili-flavored soup. Alternatively, I could stir in some yogurt and some noodles and make it into a creamy casserole, well-seasoned with thyme. I could sprinkle a bit of cheese on it, wrap it in pie crust and make turnovers. The trick is to make something totally new and different from it so that it doesn’t even seem like leftovers. Some of the concoctions were absolutely delicious – so good that we recreated them with fresh ingredients later on. Others were not-so-great. Only a couple of times did we end up with something that was really awful.
If you can serve your family one “freebie” meal per week that results in a savings, for a family of 4, of about $10 – $520 over the course of a year. It doesn’t sound like much until you add it up, does it?
We don’t always do the leftover bucket these days because times are not as tight as they were back then. However, we do creatively use our leftovers. Here are a few ways to remake leftovers into something new and delicious.
We have some nice little oven safe dishes that are divided. We use these on “Leftover Buffet Night.” Simply put, all the items from the fridge are placed on the counter. Everyone takes their divided dish and helps themselves to whatever leftovers they’d like for dinner. The dish is then placed in the oven and heated up – sort of like a “TV Dinner” of choice. Aside from the kids scrapping it out over the last enchilada, this is generally very successful.
When I don’t have quite enough to make 2 full servings, but it’s a bit more than one serving, I often make soup. I can broth on a regular basis, so it’s an easy thing to grab a jar of broth, chop up the meat and add some vegetables and a grain. You can stretch your soup by adding barley, pasta or rice. If you have fresh bread to serve with it and a little sprinkle of parmesan or cheddar for the top, you have a hot, comforting meal for pennies.
I use this technique quite often with leftover root veggies. Using a food processor, puree potatoes, carrots, turnips, parsnips or other root vegetables. You can add milk, broth, or even water to thin the puree to the consistency of soup. Season with garlic powder, onion powder and other appropriate spices, and garnish with a tiny amount of bacon, chives, cheese or sour cream. Other vegetables that are suited for puree are cauliflower, broccoli, and squash.
This is a great way to use up leftover meat and gravy. In the bottom of a pie pan or cast iron skillet, stir meat that has been cut into bite-sized pieces with gravy. If you don’t have leftover gravy, a creamy soup, a bechamel sauce, or a thickened broth will work. Add in complimentary vegetables, also in bite sized pieces. We like peas, corn, and carrots with poultry, and green beans, carrots, and potatoes with beef. Add seasoning if needed.
Top your pie with either a standard pie crust, cornbread batter, or with a biscuit dough topping. (2 recipes below) Bake as directed, then allow to cool for about 5 minutes before serving.
For even smaller amounts of leftovers (or picky eaters) you can use individual sized ovenproof containers or ramekins to make single serving “pies”. I’ve also used muffin tins designed for the jumbo muffins to make individual pies. When using a muffin tin, you will want to make it a two crust pie to enclose the filling.
If I bake it in a pocket, my kids will eat it. Whether the filling is savory or sweet, there’s something about a piping hot turnover that makes anything delicious.
The key with a pocket is that the filling cannot be too runny. So, for a savory pocket, you can mix a small amount of gravy, tomato sauce or cheese sauce with your meat and/or veggies, but you don’t want it to ooze all over the place as soon as someone takes a bite. If you want to eat this as a handheld food, allow it to cool for at least 15 minutes before eating it.
You can use pie crust or pizza dough for your pockets. Pizza dough is our personal favorite because it is a bit more filling. I make pockets and keep them in the freezer. I take them out the night before and place them in the refrigerator – by noon the pocket is thawed and makes a delicious lunch-box treat at school.
We like pockets with veggies and cheese sauce; meat, mushrooms and gravy; meat and bbq sauce; pizza toppings, marinara and cheese; and meat and cheese. Another favorite is empanada style: meat flavored with Mexican spices, mixed with salsa, beans and cheese. As well, you can fill pockets with chopped fruit that is topped with either cream cheese or syrup for a dessert-style turnover.
The fact is, you can mix nearly anything with a creamy sauce and top it with a crispy topping and you have a tasty down-home casserole. A basic casserole consists of pre-cooked meat, a veggie, a sauce, a grain and a topping. Bake at approximately 350 for 30-45 minutes until bubbly and the top is browned. The less meat and veggies you have, the more cooked grains you should add. Try barley, quinoa, rice, pasta or wheatberries to stretch your casserole. Instant comfort! For toppings, you can use stale bread that has been finely chopped in the food processor, cheese, crumbled crackers, crumbled cereal, or wheat germ, just to name a few items. I often use things that have perhaps become a bit stale – just another way to use up a food that would otherwise be discarded.
You’re only limited by your imagination when it comes to turning your leftovers into delicious, tasty new meals. Think about your family’s favorite dishes. For us, it is anything in a pocket, pot pies and creamy soups. Therefore, when repurposing my leftovers, I try to frequently gear the meals towards those types of foods. A hint of familiarity makes the meal more easily accepted by those you are feeding.
The beauty of my granny’s pie crust recipe is the versatility – you can use what you have. Ideally, I use butter and water for the fat and liquid, however, I have used many different ingredients with excellent results. This recipe makes enough for one double crust pie or two single crust pies.
- 3 cups of flour
- 1 cup of fat (butter, shortening, coconut oil, lard, vegetable oil)
- 2 tsp of salt
- ½ cup of liquid (water, milk, whey)
- Place your liquid in a dish with a few pieces of ice, if available. Keep this in the refrigerator while you’re combining the other ingredients.
- Combine the flour and salt.
- Cut the butter or fat into tiny pieces and incorporate it into the flour mixture, either with a pastry cutter, a food processor, or a couple of knives. Once the mixture resembles cottage cheese curds, you have combined it sufficiently.
- Add your ice water to the mixture a couple of tablespoons at a time. This is where practice makes perfect – after you make this a couple of times, you will begin to know when it looks and feels “right”. Use a fork to mix this into the dough – if you use your hands you will heat up the dough too much and the crust won’t be as flaky.
- You don’t want to dough to be wet and sticky – you want it to be sort of stringy and lumpy. When you think you have the right consistency, squeeze some dough in your hand – if it stays into a nice firm ball, it’s time to move on to the next step. If it is crumbly and doesn’t stick together, you need more water.
- Make the dough into 2 balls and press them down. Place them, covered, in the refrigerator for at least an hour.
- On a floured surface, roll out the dough with a heavy rolling pin until it is thin but not broken. Fold your circle of dough into quarters and carefully move the dough over to your pie pan.
Bake as per your recipe’s directions or at about 375F for approximately 45 minutes for a two-crust pie or 35 minutes for a one crust pie.
- 1 cup of warm water
- 1 tbsp of sugar
- 2 1/4 tsp of active dry yeast
- 3 tbsp of olive oil
- 1 tsp saltDirections
- Stir water, sugar and yeast together and allow it to sit for 5 minutes.
- Add olive oil and salt, then stir in the flour until well blended.
- Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, then let it rise, covered, for 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 425F.
- Knead the dough again, then break off balls of dough. Roll them out and cover one half with the desired topping.
- Fold the other half over the topping, moisten edges with water, and press them together with the tines of a fork.
- Place the pocket on a greased baking sheet.
- Once all the pockets are on the baking sheet, brush them lightly with olive oil. If desired season the top with a sprinkle of garlic powder and salt, or whatever herbs are appropriate.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until lightly golden brown.
- 2 cups of flour
- 3 tsp of baking powder
- 1 tsp of salt
- 1 tsp of sugar
- 1/2 cup of milk
- 1 tbps of white vinegar
- 3 tbsp of cooking oil
- Preheat oven to 425°F.
- Mix milk and vinegar in a small bowl and allow it to sit for about 5 minutes.
- Mix flour, baking powder, sugar and salt in a bowl. Add milk and vinegar mixture, and oil.
- Stir just enough to hold dough together.
- Knead lightly about 10 times on a well-floured surface.
- Pat or roll dough about 1/2-inch thick .
- You can move the dough in one piece over to your pie pan or you can cut circles with a floured drinking glass and place the individual biscuits on the dish you are topping.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes or until golden brown. Top with butter if desired.