Pasta

How to Give Leftover Pasta a Second, Even More Flavorful Life

March 27, 2017

When I was a kid, I would intentionally order take-out from a restaurant that delivered limp, overcooked spaghetti tossed in no-frills marinara sauce. That spaghetti went straight to the refrigerator, so my father could find it the following day and perform my all-time favorite culinary feat: transforming cold leftover noodles into a warm, born-again pasta. My dad called it “the spruce up.”

The spruce up method is meant for any leftover pasta featuring a tomato-based sauce. Regardless of how sad-looking those tangles may be, the spruce up will often make your pasta look and taste better than it did in its youngest form.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

The guiding light of the spruce up is a bath of olive oil (just enough to coat a large skillet) and garlic (six thinly sliced cloves), to which you add your leftovers to and gently pan-fry. First set the oiled skillet over medium heat, then add the garlic; as soon as the cloves begin to turn golden brown along the edges, add the leftover pasta. If your leftover pasta will not fit comfortably in the skillet, then work in batches. Cook the pasta, stirring occasionally, until the sauce darkens to a deep, rusty red. This results in bold umami flavors that are similar to slow-roasted tomatoes. Be patient, and only stop when the sauce turns a brick-like red—you want to wait for that definitive transformation of noodles, sauce, and, most importantly, the garlic, which will take on some of that red hue. This, I believe, is the most compelling part of the dish, because the garlic’s sweetness and toasty crunch travels to each bite. Garnish the dish with a sprinkle of grated parmigiano, and you have comfort food at its best.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

There are infinite variation on the spruce up. Feel free to add a handful of your favorite fresh herbs just as the noodles finish cooking (try basil, parsley, thyme, or even some finely chopped rosemary). You could also grate a heavy layer of your favorite cheese over the top of the finished pasta and place the whole skillet under the broiler until a layer of bubbly brown cheese caps your spruced-up meal. Vegetables are another great add-in: Try a handful of spinach, chopped radicchio, diced bell peppers, or any other vegetable that tastes good when it is just barely cooked—in other words, something you would be happy to eat raw, but that will also taste good slightly warmed in pasta.

My dad’s pasta spruce up has lingered in my memory since childhood because it instilled in me a valuable cooking lesson: If you start with a skillet, add some olive oil, and fry some garlic, you are bound end up with something delicious to eat, almost regardless of what the main ingredient was destined to be.

The following recipes would make for excellent original meals, and equally excellent leftovers for the spruce up:

Do you have any tricks for sprucing up leftover pasta? Let us know in the comments!

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13 Comments

WIC April 10, 2017
My entire life that is how we've reheated our spaghetti, aka 'Fried Spaghetti' and it is especially delicious when you get a crispy part or two. YUM! We purposely make extra, so this can be lunch the next day. I urge anyone to try it that has never tried it.
 
Rose H. April 2, 2017
Just tried this with some left over pasta from Friday night, on a Sunday. Added some fresh rosemary, parsley, and a spill of red wine, let it cook, and added also grey sea salt and pepper...and then on mine a little grated Asiago after plating it. My husband and I enjoyed it. I too always cook too much spagetti, especially, with other pastas I measure two cups for two servings and it's usually not too much left over, but with spaghetti, I can never the fist fulls so I go by half a box. or a little less.
 
Rose H. April 2, 2017
Just tried this with some left over pasta from Friday night, on a Sunday. Added some fresh rosemary, parsley, and a spill of red wine, let it cook, and added also grey sea salt and pepper...and then on mine a little grated Asiago after plating it. My husband and I enjoyed it. I too always cook too much spagetti, especially, with other pastas I measure two cups for two servings and it's usually not too much left over, but with spaghetti, I can never the fist fulls so I go by half a box. or a little less.
 
Rose H. April 2, 2017
Just tried this with some left over pasta from Friday night, on a Sunday. Added some fresh rosemary, parsley, and a spill of red wine, let it cook, and added also grey sea salt and pepper...and then on mine a little grated Asiago after plating it. My husband and I enjoyed it. I too always cook too much spagetti, especially, with other pastas I measure two cups for two servings and it's usually not too much left over, but with spaghetti, I can never the fist fulls so I go by half a box. or a little less.
 
tamater S. April 2, 2017
For those who can still eat carbs around here, I almost always cook "too much" pasta. <br /><br />Over the years, I've tried all of the tips given here, except the glug of milk and the egg on top, which I will try, adding the egg or glug of cream (since that's only what I ever have on hand). <br /><br />When I do the garlic, I don't wait till it turns brown but do get it soft, so the flavour to carries throughout. <br /><br />Sometimes I add hot sauce or chilies fresh or dried, and sometimes, if I have them, I'll pile it on top of cooked portabellos. <br /><br />Pretty nice leftovers us Food 52ers get to chow down on!
 
BerryBaby March 30, 2017
I just add a pat of butter and heat it up. Delicious!
 
bea March 29, 2017
I don't add garlic, just leave the spaghetti in the oiled pan until they become crisp. Then I turn the giant spaghetti pancake over, and let it crisp on the other side. We call this "torta di spaghetti", and it works with any.kind of dressing, not just tomato-based sauces. It's also very good with leftover risotto ("riso al salto")
 
Noreen F. March 29, 2017
My leftover pasta usually ends up in a baked frittata, but I'll give this a try next time!
 
j T. March 27, 2017
Just chiming in to say thank you! I appreciate the time and effort you spent on this article and recipes. Now, where in fridge did I put the leftovers ... ??
 
hilary March 27, 2017
My Italian grandmother did this in butter we called it "Fried Spaghetti"
 
lastnightsdinner March 27, 2017
Yes! I fry in butter and add a runny-yolked egg on top :)
 
Travel April 2, 2017
Before microwaves, we also made fried spaghetti to warm up leftovers. I might try this again.
 
mrslarkin March 27, 2017
My mom and dad's pasta spruce up always involved reheating the pasta in a skillet with a good glug of milk, especially when reheating lasagne or fettuccine bolognese or spaghetti.