How to Make the Most of Leftover Grains

December 29, 2015

Every cook needs a few go-to methods for leftover grains (besides forgetting about them for just long enough that the only option is to feed them to the compost bin). Here’s mine: Give them the fried rice treatment.

I owe many a meal to this method. It's quick and super satisfying, and it works with just about every leftover grain, from millet and quinoa to emmer and every kind of rice. The only stickler is that the individual grains be separate and dry—so no amaranth or teff, sigh. Otherwise it is endlessly variable, taking on innumerable combinations of vegetables, herbs, and seasonings without flinching.

Here are a few tips for success:

Get organized. This method is simple, but once you start cooking, it helps to know what's coming next. My basic ingredients list includes grains, a handful of in-season vegetables—leeks, frying peppers, cilantro stems—a few spices, herbs, and a little protein—an egg, seared tofu, seitan sausage, or even pigeon peas. My basic process is to cook the vegetables first, when I'll incorporate any spices; then, separately, to sear the grains. Once the grain is ready to go, I'll add the vegetables back in, any liquid seasonings, any protein (like an egg scrambled separately), and stir fry for a minute or so until everything is warmed through. Herbs go in at the very last to keep them bright.

Don't underestimate the fat. Light oils like grapeseed oil are perfectly inoffensive, but unless you're using crazy high heat (and you don't need to with this method), you'll get far more dividends with your finished dish by using something with more character, like coconut oil, unrefined peanut oil, or sesame oil.

More: Another option? Deep fry the grains, like at Los Angeles's Sqirl.

Don't be afraid to look outside the box for your seasonings. Asian pantry staples always seem right here—one of my favorite versions includes shoyu and ground Sichuan peppercorns—but I also love using smoked paprika with loads of fresh thyme and cracked black pepper; and crushed coriander, cumin, and hot chiles.

Use the widest skillet you have. You want enough room to keep the grains in one layer without too much crowding so that they toast and crisp a bit instead of steaming. If you're making more than one serving, cook the grains in batches if necessary, which you should be able to do in quick succession if all your ingredients are prepped. Which leads to...

Cook your main components separately to keep flavors and textures vibrant and avoid overcrowding those grains in the pan. As mentioned above, I tend to saute my vegetables first until they're just golden around the edges, then set them aside and use the same skillet (wiped clean) for the grains.

Don't forget the flourish. Garnish ties it all together, sure, but it also just pretties things up. Scatter more herbs, toasted nuts or seeds, or some fried shallots or pickled chiles over the top.

And there you have it. Upcycled grains, better than ever.

More tips for using up the dregs (scroll over the images to see what's what):

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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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Emily Horton is a Seattle-based freelance writer.