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I used to be a leftovers queen. Or, at the very least, I was comfortable with them. During my time as an intern at Food52, I went so far as to launch a social campaign called #bestovers, which featured creative ways to reuse yesterday’s lunches, dinners, and desserts. If memory serves, the highlight was turning a towering chocolate cake made by the inimitable baking goddess Erin McDowell into a cake shake (add ice cream, milk, extract, and a pinch of salt, then blend).
Recently, however, I’ve been off my leftovers game. I just moved across the country, and with an empty fridge and minimal Tupperware (and so many brand-spanking-new restaurants begging to be explored), I admit I have strayed from my leftover-eating ways.
So when I had a chance to change the way I cook, I jumped at it. I followed along with the third installment of our weekly e-mail newsletters (you signed up, right?), focused entirely on smart ways to keep your leftovers thrilling (“yes, thrilling!” claims newsletter author Sarah Jampel). I decided to put her example to the test, so I made a big batch of roasted squash, enough to create meals from for the next several days. Let’s see how I did:
I began by buying everything I would need for a bunch of squash-based dinners, plus supplies for a few zippy condiments to jazz things up, and some other basics to mix and match.
Step one was to roast a boatload of squash, enough to sustain me for days. I picked squash because it’s in season, it’s affordable, it’s vegetarian (like me!) and it is—most critically—versatile. I made use of a brand-new knife (sharp knives make such a difference!) and broke down a few butternut and acorn squashes. I ended up with three large sheet pans full of bright orange cubes, which I tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper and roasted in a 400° F oven until they were bronzed and tender. Yes, that is a lot of squash for one person; but, as Sarah suggested, I was stocking my kitchen with a “blank canvas” food to use in the days ahead.
For my first night in squash heaven, I added some freshly roasted chunks to a big bowl, topped them with a few generous spoonfuls of homemade pistachio pesto and some chopped Swiss chard, tossed everything with hot rigatoni pasta, then flurried the whole thing with sharp, nutty pecorino. Delicious. Not appropriate for a first date (it was super garlicky), but very appropriate for eating straight out of the pot while watching reruns of The Office under a blanket on my sofa. (It was a freezing, rainy Sunday night, okay?)
I emerged from my blanket occasionally to stir the saucepan of pomegranate molasses I’d left simmering merrily away on the stove, following Sarah’s tip to lean on “a bold condiment that’ll make a wide smorgasbord of leftovers exciting.” I’d never made pomegranate molasses before, and it was shockingly easy! Though it was not prescribed in my new squash-based-leftovers diet, I drizzled some over ice cream for dessert, topped with leftover toasted pistachios intended for the pasta.
On Day 2, I felt almost overprepared for my meals. For lunch I ate the cold remainders of the previous night’s squash pesto pasta, unceremoniously, straight from the Tupperware. For dinner I fully intended to toss together a healthful kale salad with the squash plus nuts and cheese, but it was rainy and gloomy outside, and, while my brain said yes, my body said no. So I opted instead for another of Sarah’s smart suggestions, one that sounded very savory and cozy: I tossed some of the squash into my food processor with a few shakes of soy sauce, a spoonful of miso, a splash of hot water, and a drizzle of sesame oil. I mixed it into a bowl of short-grain rice, coating the grains (you could easily use leftovers here, but I made some special) and topped my creation with a genius soy sauce egg and a sprinkle of sesame seeds. I forgot about the pomegranate molasses until after I’d finished eating, but I imagine it would have gotten along just fine on top of that meal.
Because my guilty conscious began nagging at me, I made a kale salad that night to eat for lunch the next day. I massaged some Red Russian kale, shaved on a bit of pecorino, and added a sprinkle of toasted walnuts and a handful of the roasted squash. I tossed it with a dressing of lemon, olive oil, pomegranate molasses, salt, and pepper, then packed the salad away in a container, feeling very adult and resourceful. I stayed up too late scrolling through Instagram and reading the new Philip Pullman book, but at least I had lunch on lock.
As promised (to myself), on Day 3 I ate the kale salad for lunch, along with some leftover squashy rice topped with the remaining soy sauce egg. I ended up sort of mixing the two meals together in one bowl, and it worked well! Perhaps the secrets to enjoying salad more often are 1) making really good, fully loaded salads with pomegranate-molasses vinaigrette, and 2) rounding them out with something carbohydrate-filled, preferably also topped with a soft-boiled egg.
For dinner I polished off the remainder of the salad alongside a pared-down gratin that I made off the cuff by topping the squash with chopped thyme and rosemary, bread crumbs, and some goat cheese. I made in a loaf pan, which was the perfect size for one (and also very cute). Bonus: If you make the gratin in one thin layer, you get optimal crispy top bits and browned cheese. This, alongside the salad, was a very satisfying meal, one that managed to be healthy and filling and also had hot cheese. Check, check, and check.
On Day 4 I decided to get really into the leftovers spirit and use up half of a cauliflower that was lingering in my crisper drawer. So I roasted it and used it, along with the squash, to make a riff on this warm, tahini-laced “salad” (with some pomegranate molasses mixed in for good measure, of course). I added a cup of farro for more heft and packed it up in a container, excited to bust it out in the middle of a flight I had later that day. Peanuts and pretzels, who needs you?
While I agree that it’s smart to repurpose basic meal staples into flashier, more complete dishes, I learned this week that, in the leftover realm, variety is key. By all means, turn your roasted squash into a kale salad; but then pair that salad with a bubbling gratin or some warm, cheesy pasta. As someone who loves to eat a bit of this and a bit of that (tapas and dim sum are my ideals), eating one dish—and especially one ingredient—on repeat can be monotonous. That’s why I love Sarah’s tips and tricks for leftovers; by creatively repurposing, investing in versatile building blocks, and adding a punchy condiment to the mix, each new meal can be delicious and, dare I say it, thrilling.
What are your best tips for making leftovers thrilling? I still have a few squashes to roast, so if you have any ideas, please shout them out in the comments!