The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / Cooking  / In Praise of Leftovers

In Praise of Leftovers

What if one meal fed you twice?

Repurposing has been associated with discredited hippie cooking and, yet, last month a photograph of a potato peel elegantly spiraled down the length of the front page of The New York Times dining section under the headline, “That’s Not Trash, That’s Dinner.”

Is “waste not, want not” respectable again?

The recipes in the article were downright strange: “White Gazpacho with Watermelon Rind” and “Sweet Corn and Black Raspberry Ice Cream.”

Maybe the idea of using peelings made the editors uncomfortable. Fancy-sounding dishes were a way of excusing the reuse.

Zester Daily contributor Cliff Wright argued that smart chefs at a lobster feast should place a large pot near the table. As the sweet meat is devoured, the “empty cracked pieces, arms, legs, fan tails, claws, tail shells and body” can be tossed into the pot to be used to create savory soups and sauces.

Throwing away all those lovely carapaces was the cooking equivalent of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Repurposing as culinary alchemy

Many cuisines demonstrate the value of using things most people throw out. Classic French cooking requires great quantities of bones as the basis for stocks. Practitioners of vegetarian cooking have argued for years that beet greens were as valuable as beets for making salads, pastas and soups. Peelings, like shells and bones, can be used to make delicious stocks. Italian recipes call for stale bread to create a bread salad or a thickener for hearty soups. Jewish cooks would never throw out chicken bones until they were first boiled to create stock for matzo ball soup. Think of your doggie bag as a second pantry.

Why leave perfectly good food on your restaurant plate to be thrown away? Say you had dinner at an Italian restaurant and you brought home all the beautifully caramelized grilled vegetables and some of their luscious bread.

With very little effort, those vegetables can become pasta primavera and the bread delicious croutons. When you go to your favorite Chinese restaurant, you usually bring home the steamed rice, orange chicken and Szechuan long beans, because they make a great late night snack. But you could also turn those doggie bag leftovers into the most delicious rice entrée-comfort food dish you’ve ever eaten.

Let the restaurant’s sous chefs work for you

Using the food you bring home in a doggie bag, you’re letting the restaurant’s sous chefs do your prep work. There is nothing leftover about the resulting dishes. They can be original and inventive and, as an added benefit, you’ve saved money. That’s a definite win-win.

Roasted Vegetable Pasta Primavera

The recipe works well with home-prepared grilled or roasted vegetables or ones you bring home in a doggie bag.

Serves 4


2 cups finely chopped roasted vegetables, including carrots, broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower or eggplant
½ cup roughly chopped, fresh tomatoes
¼ cup Italian parsley, leaves only, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons sweet butter
1 pound pasta
½ tablespoon kosher salt
1 cup pasta water
Sea salt and pepper
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan or Romano cheese


Spaghetti with grilled vegetables

  1. Bring a gallon of water with the kosher salt to a boil. Add the pasta. Stir well at the beginning and every couple of minutes to prevent the pasta from sticking together. Place a heatproof cup in the sink. When al dente, strain the pasta, capturing a cup of the salted pasta water.
  2. Return the cooked pasta to the pot, drizzle with olive oil, add 1 tablespoon sweet butter and season with sea salt and pepper. Stir well. Keep the pasta warm by placing a sheet of aluminum foil over the top but do not seal.
  3. In a large frying or chef’s pan, heat the olive oil and remaining tablespoon of sweet butter. Sauté the garlic and parsley until lightly browned. Add the roasted vegetables, chopped tomatoes and ½ cup pasta water. Simmer on a medium flame until the liquid is reduced by half. About 5 minutes.
  4. Taste and adjust the seasoning with sea salt and pepper.
  5. Add cooked pasta. Toss well to coat. If you need more sauce, add the remaining ½ cup of pasta water and a pat of sweet butter.
  6. Serve with freshly grated cheese


  • Add ⅓ pound raw, peeled deveined shrimp when you sauté the parsley and garlic.
  • Add ⅓ pound grilled, peeled deveined shrimp when you add the cooked pasta to the sauce.
  • For heat, add ¼ teaspoon cayenne with the tomatoes.
  • Add 1 cup grilled chicken, sliced or roughly chopped when you add the tomatoes.
  • Add 1 tablespoon, chiffonade of fresh basil when you add the tomatoes or just before serving, with the cheese.
  • Add 1 tablespoon fresh oregano leaves when you add the tomatoes.

Savory Rice Stew (Congee)

In traditional Chinese and Korean variations of this breakfast dish, congee or rice porridge is served with vegetables, poultry, meat or seafood. When prepared properly, authentic congee is Asian comfort food.

Negatively, congee can be boring. The rice can be overcooked and soupy, dominating all the other ingredients. The resulting rice slurry is filling but without much flavor.

In this recipe, the cooked rice is added to the liquid at the end, preventing the rice from absorbing too much of the stock.

Infinitely variable, all the ingredients can be changed out for others.

Use any kind of rice you enjoy. Broken jasmine works as well as Chinese long grain, Japanese sticky or brown rice.

For the liquid, use homemade vegetable, poultry, meat or seafood stock. Bring home soup in the doggie bag and you can use won ton soup (without the solid bits), Korean hot pot soup, Vietnamese clear broth or Japanese miso soup. In a pinch, water will do.

Just about any meat, poultry, seafood and vegetable can be used.

Tempura vegetables and shrimp are especially delicious in congee. Not very Asian, but barbecue chicken or fatty brisket and collard greens are also very tasty.



4 cups cooked rice
4 cups liquid, preferably homemade stock, water if nothing else is available
4 cups roughly chopped cooked vegetables and meat, poultry or seafood
¼ cup finely chopped Italian parsley, leaves only
1 garlic clove, peeled, finely chopped
½ cup yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
Sea salt and pepper


  1. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or small pot. Sauté the parsley, garlic and onion over a medium flame until lightly browned. Add the leftover chopped, cooked vegetables and meat. Stir well and sauté about 5 minutes.
  2. Add liquid. Use water if you don’t have stock. Stir and simmer 10 minutes; longer if using water to concentrate the flavors.
  3. Taste and adjust flavors with butter (optional), sea salt and pepper. Add rice. Stir well. Simmer 5 minutes. Serve immediately so the rice doesn’t absorb all the liquid and become soggy.
  • For heat, add ¼ teaspoon cayenne or 1 teaspoon finely chopped jalapenos to the parsley-garlic-onion sauté.
  • If using shellfish, to avoid overcooking, add with the rice.
  • Add 3 cups, washed, roughly chopped spinach leaves to the parsley-garlic-onion sauté.
  • Add 1 carrot, peeled, finely chopped to the parsley-garlic-onion sauté.
  • Add 1 small red, green or yellow pepper, finely chopped to the parsley-garlic-onion sauté.

{igallery 142}

Zester Daily contributor David Latt is a television writer/producer with a passion for food. His new book, “10 Delicious Holiday Recipes” is available from Amazon. In addition to writing about food for his own site, Men Who Like to Cook, he has contributed to Mark Bittman’s New York Times food blogBittenOne for the Table and Traveling Mom. He continues to develop for television but recently has taken his passion for food on the road and is now a contributor to Peter Greenberg’s travel site and the New York Daily News online.

Photos, from top:

Congee with spinach, shiitake mushroom, broccoli, corn, red peppers, tempura shrimp and vegetables.

Spaghetti with grilled vegetables.


Credit: David Latt


Zester Daily contributor David Latt is a television writer/producer with a passion for food. Putting his television experience to good use, he created Secrets of Restaurant Chefs, a YouTube Channel, with lively videos by well-known chefs sharing their favorite recipes. In addition to writing about food for Zester Daily and his own sites, Men Who Like to Cook and Men Who Like to Travelhe has contributed to Mark Bittman's New York Times food blog, BittenOne for the Table and Traveling Mom.  His helpful guide to holiday entertaining, "10 Delicious Holiday Recipes,"  is available on Amazon eCookbooks. He still develops for television but finds time to take his passion for food on the road as a contributor to Peter Greenberg's travel siteNew York Daily NewsHuffington Post/Travel and Luxury Travel Magazine.