How to Stop Leftovers Shame

Holiday leftovers** are standard for most and a priority for some. What we do with surplus food can lead to a sense of shame or gratification. This is the story of my journey to the latter.

My first night home from Camp Juliette Low was a joyous occasion of Cornish game hen stuffed with syrupy canned peaches, Uncle Ben’s wild rice, and imported Le Sueur peas, straight from the can, soft and sweet. Mom knew how to welcome me back after a couple of weeks of skirting around camp food with peanut butter and honey sandwiches and covert Slim Jims snuck in via care package. I knew mom felt terrible about the stinky outhouses and the fall off my tent platform without the appropriate consequential comfort food. I know this because on night two of my arrival home, she made me pintos and cornbread, just enough, no leftovers. 

Those were the single digit years when I was an only child, and we ate each dinner only once. A few years later, when two more youngins and full-time careers barged in, the culinary climate changed. Mom was a great cook who suddenly became a time and space strategist. She didn’t freeze food for a later date; Stouffers and creamed corn paid rent on that property. But there would be no tossing away weekend hard-cooked fare. We would eat it all.

We gathered each Sunday at a beautifully set family table, and Mom served us something yummy that she gave precious time to cook. Chicken tetrazzini was a crowd favorite, which on Monday warmed up, was delicious again. If it made it to Tuesday, not so much. Pot roast could make it a while, and if Mom made vegetable soup, it was prix fixe until minimum mid-week. I would pine for the single digit days of cream-chipped beef on white bread toast; it didn’t save well enough to keep. But chicken perloo, the one-pot tomato and rice dish built for the masses? It might survive until the Catholic Friday tuna casserole, the recipe with the crispy potato chip topping and a preservative base that could fly it to the moon.

Most of my high school goals were worthy; go to college, become a teacher, and change the world. But there was one long-term goal that I kept to myself because it was shameful. While I imagined the little milk cartons with coin slots we brought home from Catholic grade school, the ones for change to fight hunger, I pledged to discard with leftovers one day, to never again eat the same meal twice.

Years later, newly married, I watched Elizabeth, my grandmother-in-law, pull an 8-ounce Tupperware of rice from her freezer and set it on the counter in preparation for my first dinner at her house. I felt a pang of regret at the food I stealthily scraped each night into the garbage. I rationalized freezing that puny portion of rice must be something older people do.

Leftovers loathing has caused some friction in my marriage. My husband is the grandson of rice-freezing Elizabeth, so when I make too much food, I get the third degree if I am caught scraping too much.

 “Why are you throwing that out?” He asks as he helps load the dishwasher.

“Blame my mother,” I say. “I hate leftovers. I’m not eating that again.”  

“If you are going to throw it away, why do you make so much?”

“Blame my southern roots.” I deflect, “What if someone stops by and needs to eat?”

Dan sets a dirty, slotted spoon on the counter, turns to look at me, and says, “Beth, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, honey, but we live on a farm, many miles from town. Who do you think is going to stop by?”

I shrug and respond, “a wounded civil war soldier?”

Most cooks have evolved since the days of canned asparagus and TV trays, including my mom, who still makes food for me whenever I pass through. But her meals now are seared scallops atop lemon angel hair pasta, fresh corn and tomato platters sprinkled with homegrown basil and sliced scallions, and, if I’m lucky, pinto beans and cornbread. She, too, has changed her thinking, grown tired of the canned green beans with the metallic taste. Instead, she strives for freshness with servings enough for one sitting. Occasionally, she lapses and goes big, but her husband, Leslie, Virgo leftover-a-phile, ensures there is no waste.

Cultural tendencies like cooking for neighbors when you don’t have any are hard to rub out. We are duplicate hands of those who raised us, and our values and perspectives are set very early. With time, education, and the persistent push of change, most of us shuffle the deck, keep a few of the cards we think will help us, and discard the ones that no longer apply. Unfortunately, choosing the right cards can feel risky, so sometimes we hang on too long, and systems we keep without reason prevent us from being our best evolved selves and citizens.

I continue to cook more than we can eat in one sitting, a habit I tried for twenty one days to shake and failed. But rather than tossing the surplus food, I have adopted a new strategy that I find creative, challenging, fun, and shame reducing. I recycle and repurpose our leftovers. No more dumping rice and beans or uneaten meatballs. Those basics are burgeoning ideas just waiting to take a new and enlightened form.

Is this a food blog? You tell me.

Until I started repurposing, I was conservative in my cooking, steadfastly relying on others to offer solutions. I read every cookbook and regularly updated my Pinterest. I asked others for their recipes, and some, like the Columbia, South Carolina’s Dorothy Cason’s Swiss cheese grits, are now Kentucky famous thanks to generous sharing.*

I hold a small collection of notable recipes close, like the collard greens I tore out of Southern Living magazine decades ago. It is steamed into memory, but I still have it, just in case, wrinkled with bacon-grease stains, folded in a recipe file. But most recipes have term limits; we cycle through them over time because we tire of them, they no longer serve our interests, or our palates change and we seek zestier flavors—lemon, ginger, and cayenne. We move on without fear, regret, or nostalgia for tomato aspic or ambrosia with the maraschino cherries and marshmallows.

A few years ago, a doctor told my husband to stop eating animals with four legs. That means no more cow or pig, and the timing was terrible. We were obsessed with the cast iron skillet, and we seared filets in butter every Friday night for months. Many folks belittled the doctor’s guidance and tried to convince us to stay with the party. They debunked it as a mere theory, provided Atkins testimonials, paleo blogs, and dogmatic pledges to the mighty cow. They called it fake news and urged us to eat bacon because we are Americans, and it is our constitutional right.

Our meal path zig-zagged when we left the four-legged animal. The family history and bloodwork science were part of the decision, but what cemented our conversion was how much better we felt after eating this new and different way.

I am a moderate. I maintain southern roots fused with a global outlook. Butternut squash ravioli atop a bed of bacon-seasoned collards is a favorite. Hoppin’ John with jalapeños, fresh salsa, and avocado slices over a moist cornbread cake is another. I make too much food on purpose and not because a wagon train might roll by in need of a hot meal. Instead, for the next night or two, I get to shift into clever leftover recycling mode, become an artist in my kitchen, stretch the limits, and see what works. Some ideas don’t, so I’ll call it “rustic rice bowl” or “country lentil soup.” We eat it, and I learn. The reimagining of leftovers opens a world of possibility and gives me control of my food destiny. It tastes like optimism with a dollop of butter, a salt sprinkle, and a fresh lemon squeeze.

Stuffed peppers were the dish grandmother-in-law Elizabeth made when she pulled out the 8 ounces of rice from the freezer. She wasn’t a hoarder; she was a repurposing pioneer! A stuff peppers recipe is included below.

For those interested, here’s an example week of my leftover strategy with links to some of my favorite recipes.

Sunday: Barefoot Contessa Tuscan Bean Soup with harvest salad and crusty bread.

  • Harvest salad is whatever fall fruit I find that suits my fancy—pears, apples, blackberries…roasted pecans, or walnuts. I use queso fresco as my cheese, but many like blue cheese instead, and that’s okay. I like to toss in some dried cherries for color. I make a homemade French vinaigrette that is a staple (olive oil, white balsamic, a touch of Dijon, a touch of honey unless you want it sweeter, salt and pepper). Still, sometimes I mix it with dressing from a bottle like Garlic Expressions, with which I am obsessed. 

Monday: Homemade cast iron skillet pizza with pesto and sauteed spinach, artichoke hearts, onions, and mushrooms.

  • Oven 500 degrees. Preheat the skillets with olive oil before adding the dough. 
  • For years, I made pizza dough from scratch. I used a variety of recipes, but it was yeasty and dense. And then I found Trader Joe’s pizza dough next to the cheese section, and hands down, it is the best. 
  • You can make pizza in many ways with a bunch of small skillets; individual pans are the way to go. Everyone gets a vote!

Taco Tuesday: Grilled burritos with leftover sauté from pizza night; I add seasoned black beans (cumin, garlic, pepper, maybe green chiles, and smoked paprika) and cheese, and I top with homemade enchilada sauce.

  • We are taco Tuesday fanatics and find some way to repurpose food into Mexican fare every week. It’s not hard, trust me; pretty much anything in your pantry or fridge can turn into a quesadilla. 

Wednesday: Baked salmon rubbed with olive oil and my seasoning salt (think Lowry’s but propriety, random blend), finished with lemon, served atop reduced and mashed Tuscan bean soup and a side of ratatouille, tossed in leftover pesto from pizza night.

  • I bake my salmon at 425 degrees for 15-16 minutes. 
  • I pour off the soup from the Tuscan beans and use a potato masher to roughly smash them into a “country” puree. 
  • My ratatouille is simple. Zucchini chopped however you like it, Roma tomatoes chopped, onion if you want it, garlic for sure, fresh basil or a dollop of pesto, salt, and pepper as needed. I sauté the whole lot in a skillet over medium heat. 

Thursday: Turkey meatballs and spaghetti; Caesar salad using leftover crusty bread from Sunday for croutons.

  • I rarely make homemade tomato sauce, but I have nothing against it. I like Rao’s, and it keeps very well in the fridge if I don’t use the whole jar. 

Friday: Chili and corncakes for football night.

  • Throwback to childhood, I still use a McCormick’s chili pack for making my chili. I add an extra can of beans, so one can of red beans and one pinto (I love me some pinto beans) to one can of tomatoes. I use a self-rising cornbread mix and add extra milk to loosen it up for the corncakes. I cook them like pancakes, perfect for topping with something delicious for another meal down the road. The other night I ventured into the kitchen late at night, and one of my son’s fraternity brothers was eating a leftover corncake with vanilla ice cream and honey on top. That’ll work!

Saturday: Curried meatballs using extra meatballs from TH with rice and sugar snap peas.

Sunday: Stuffed peppers using spaghetti sauce from Thursday and leftover rice from Saturday.

*Dorothy Cason’s Swiss Cheese Grits: 

1 cup quick grits

1 stick butter

1 quart milk

1.5 cups grated Swiss cheese

½ cup grated parmesan

Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter in the milk over medium heat. Bring to a slow boil (careful not to scald the milk). Add the grits, stirring regularly until thickened (5 min). Pour into a separate bowl and mix with an electric mixer on medium for 5 minutes. Add the Swiss cheese, salt, and pepper to taste, and blend until smooth. Pour into a greased casserole dish, sprinkle with parmesan cheese, and bake in the 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes or until slightly golden on top.

**Brown Betty, the perfect solution for leftover cornbread dressing, turkey, and gravy. We have it for brunch the day after Thanksgiving.

Leftover turkey, chopped in to bite size pieces

Boiled eggs, peeled and chopped

Leftover warmed/thinned gravy

Cornbread dressing and/or bread of any kind, toasted

Add all of the top three ingredients to a pot, stirring until blended like a stew. Heat and serve over toasted bread. YUM.

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