Cooking Techniques: Leftover Makeovers

website leftovers

There are risks, and then there are risks.

I recently read an article about people who like to ski on mountains with risks of avalanches. The article detailed the number of deaths from such risky skiing but then went on to talk about the numerous devices now available to skiers in the event of an avalanche. I couldn’t help but wonder about the type of people who would willingly ski on a mountain that requires you to carry a tracker in your pack in case someone needs to locate you underneath a mound of snow; to carry special poles which allow you to dig in case a friend is trapped underneath snow; and to strap an inflatable device to your backside with the hopes that in the event of an avalanche, you might be able to “ride” the avalanche out instead of being killed by it.

It occurred to me, though, that several friends have made similar comments about me with respect to my cooking. They have wondered aloud to me about what type of person willingly makes recipes up on the spur of the moment for company, using whatever leftovers she has in her fridge and not knowing whether the food will actually be edible or not. For some of them, that is risky behavior they are not inclined to follow.  When a friend asked such a question of me the other day, I knew it would have to be a topic for our series on cooking techniques.

The fact is that turning leftovers into a scrumptious meal for company or the family is not risky behavior. It’s being creative, and being creative is easy if you know where and how to begin.

Techniques for utilizing leftovers:

1. Make soup: Meat, beans, vegetables, fish, pasta, rice, potatoes, anything actually, can be turned into a good soup. If you have leftover vegetables, puree them with garlic, onions, black pepper, and herbs of your choosing, and add a fat free, no salt broth of your choosing to the consistency you like. Warm, and serve with assorted garnishes of choice like shredded low fat cheese or crushed croutons or chopped chives or sliced turkey bacon. Your guests will never know you were using leftovers.

If you have a little of this and a little of that leftover from a variety of meals, chop everything into bite size pieces and throw it all into a slow cooker. Don’t worry that you’re mixing a Mexican dish with an Italian one. Add a can of no salt, no sugar diced tomatoes and broth of your choosing with dried herbs and black pepper, and let it cook all day. You’ll be surprised at how tasty the soup is. If you don’t have quite enough leftovers, you can always add some thawed, frozen vegetables or a can of no salt, no sugar beans. Your soup will be a minestrone of sorts which your guests will thoroughly enjoy.

2. Make egg dishes: If you have a small amount of leftovers, you can chop your leftovers, place them into a greased pan, mix eggs with some “milk”, herbs, onions, and black pepper, pour over the chopped leftovers, and bake for a straightforward egg bake. For an egg bake, your eggs to leftover ratio is such that you have more eggs than leftovers.

If you have a large amount of leftovers, you can make a timbale or souffle. A timbale is similar to an egg bake because you use beaten eggs and milk, but your ratio of eggs to leftovers is such that you have more leftovers than egg mixture. Instead of pouring the mixture over your leftovers, you want to puree the leftovers and mix your egg mixture into your leftovers before spreading the mixture into a greased pan.

For a souffle, you separate the eggs, mixing the egg yolks into the pureed leftovers.  You then whip the egg whites until they are stiff and gently fold them into the leftovers before putting them in a pan to cook. I’ll be doing a post on souffles soon since people seem to think they’re difficult when they’re really not, and they’re wonderful to serve for company.

3.  Make enchiladas: Just about any type of meat, bean, fish, quinoa, or vegetable can become a filling for enchiladas. Simply finely chop your leftovers, add cumin and cilantro and salsa, add your type of “cheese” and scoop the mixture into your favorite wrap, whether it’s a corn, whole wheat, gluten free spinach or other type of tortilla. I make an enchilada sauce by combining tomato soup, salsa, garlic and cumin which I pour over the top of the enchiladas and then cover with “cheese”. One of my kids favorites is when I use leftover quinoa mixed with leftover black beans and vegetables.

4.  Make pasta salad: Any leftover meats, beans and vegetables go well with pasta. Just decide whether you want a cold salad or a warm one. If going with cold, make a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, onions, black pepper, and ground mustard where the lemon juice is half your amount of olive oil and the rest is to your taste preference. Mix your leftover with your pasta of choice and blend well with the marinade. The salad should be in the fridge for at least an hour or two for the flavors to meld, but then let it sit for 30 minutes to come to room temperature for serving.

If making a hot pasta salad, decide on the type of sauce you’d like. A white sauce? A tomato sauce? A pesto sauce? A cheesy sauce? It depends on the type of leftovers you have. If it’s just vegetables leftover, any type will go well. Anything with ground meat or beef or pasta tends to go well with a tomato sauce. Chicken and turkey or ham goes well with a white or cheese sauce. Make your chosen sauce, mix your leftovers with your pasta and the sauce and pop the entree into the oven to warm, usually about thirty minutes.

5.  Make rice dishes: Leftover meat, vegetables, fish and beans are great with rice. If you have meat like sausage, chicken, seafood and vegetables leftover, make a jambalaya or paella.  Both are simply rice, broth, tomatoes and spices mixed with meats, seafood and vegetables, so they’re a great way to utilize leftovers.

You can also make a stir fried rice. Take whatever leftovers you have, chop them into bite size pieces, and stir fry them in a little sesame oil just until warm. Add them to cooked rice and stir fry a little more with garlic, soy sauce to taste and onions.

Or you can make a rice casserole. Two types I like to make are a rice parmagiana where I mix the leftover meats and vegetables with rice and beaten eggs and layer the rice mixture alternately with slices of tomatoes and mozzarella “cheese” and bake in a greased pan until golden brown and crispy around the edges, about thirty minutes.

The other way is to make a nice “cheesy” white sauce or a curried white sauce which I mix into rice and the leftover meat or seafood and vegetables and bake in the oven until warm. The curried rice dish is always especially well-liked.

The final way to utilize leftover rice and meat or seafood and vegetables is to make rice muffins. Mix everything up with herbs and black pepper. Beat some eggs and mix them into the rice and leftover mixture, and evenly distribute them among greased muffin tins.  Bake until warm and browned.

6. Make pies: Pot pies and shepherd’s pies are great ways to revamp leftovers. Chop leftover meats and vegetables into bite size pieces. For a pot pie, heat two tbsp of olive oil and stir in 1/4 cup of chosen flour.  Slowly add 2 cups of a chosen broth, and stir until the broth thickens. Add herbs and black pepper and pour over the leftover meat and vegetables. Spread into a pan and top with a biscuit or crust recipe of your choosing. and bake until the biscuits or crust are golden and the pot pie is bubbly.

For a shepherd’s pie, chop the leftovers into bite size pieces and mix them with your favorite tomato soup. Spread into a greased pan and top with mashed potatoes (shepherd’s pie is great to make when you already have leftover mashed potatoes) and a layer of cheddar “cheese”.  Bake until warm and bubbly.

7. Make chili: Throw all the leftover meat and vegetables and beans into a slow cooker. Add tomatoes and chili peppers or spices and garlic and onions and more beans if needed, and just let it simmer all day.

8. Stuff something: If you puree leftover meats and vegetables and beans and add “cheese” and sauteed bread crumbs of your choosing, along with herbs, garlic, and onions, you have a wonderful filling for stuffing mushrooms or eggplants or zucchinis or peppers or squash or anything else you can stuff.

9. Make “cakes”: Finely chopped leftovers mixed with bread crumbs, spices, and beat eggs can be made into seafood or meat and vegetable cakes. Let the mixture meld in the fridge for half an hour, and then form into little patties which you can bake in the oven or fry on the stove top.

10. Make mac and cheese: When all else fails, make your favorite baked macaroni and cheese but add chopped up leftover meat and vegetables before baking. It adds a little something to your mac and cheese as well as extending the amount to accommodate a lot of guests.

Luncheon Rice Dish (made with leftovers)


2 tbsp olive oil

1/4 cup flour of choice

1 1/4 cup milk of choice

1/2 cup fat free reduced salt chicken broth

1/4 cup white cooking wine

1/2 to 2 tsp curry powder, depending on how much you like curry

1/2 tsp black pepper

2 1/2 cups finely chopped leftover ham, chicken and vegetables

2 to 3 cups cooked brown rice, depending on the ratio of rice to leftovers you want

Optional: cheddar “cheese” of choice

Cooking Instructions:

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a casserole dish.

2. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and brown for a minute.

3. Slowly add the milk and broth. Whisk until the flour is completely mixed in, and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture has thickened.

4. Add the wine, curry powder and black pepper.

5. Mix the chopped leftovers with the rice and the sauce.

6. Pour into the prepared pan and if using, top with the cheddar “cheese”. Bake for thirty minutes until the entree is warm and bubbly.


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