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4 New Ways to Look at Leftovers
what I've learned from Tamar Adler's THE EVERLASTING MEAL COOKBOOK
This is the third installment of Cookbook on a Budget, where I share not-expensive entry points to books I love. Check out the earlier installments, on Via Carota’s Onion and Bread Soup and Ruby Tandoh’s Beans and Rice + Leek Pasta. These posts will always be free for everyone. If you want to support my work, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription, or sharing this post with someone you think will enjoy it.
Flipping through Tamar Adler’s The Everlasting Meal Cookbook feels like living with a never-ending advent calendar: every day you can open it up and find a tiny gift, a suggestion of how to turn those things lurking in your fridge into something that feels alive and new. This is a leftovers cookbook, but also an encyclopedia: leftovers are organized by type and listed A-Z, with suggestions and recipes kept succinct. Its eye is global and generous: here you have tips on how to use up pappadam and bourekas and burritos and pannettone and stale oreos and pork rinds and even congee, whose best use is a recipe titled “More Congee”.
Especially since the pandemic’s onset we have all become obsessed with the pantry meal — pantry pasta is everywhere!— which allows us to cook from what we have without leaving the house. But leftovers have not received the same fervor. You can watch Bon Appetit Youtube videos about pantry pastas and pantry sandwiches and pantry desserts but leftovers rarely get the same treatment, unless we’re talking Thanksgiving. If everyday leftovers are discussed at all it’s usually rice, something plain and unassuming, ready to be fried.
I suspect this is because leftovers have a used quality to them. We look at them and immediately think: I already ate that. All novelty has been shed. No misogyny but the phrase sloppy seconds come to mind.
As she did in her great first book, An Everlasting Meal, Adler resolutely rejects this disrespect of leftovers. Leftovers, for her, are an opportunity for creative thought. “I love them because they are unloved,” she writes in the introduction to The Everlasting Meal Cookbook. And as with her first book, this book offers a way of thinking about the kitchen as an ecosystem, where today’s pasta becomes tomorrow’s frittata. She turns what many consider drudgery into a world of magic. I keep thinking about what Tejal Rao wrote about Adler’s new book: “trying to waste as little as possible is a creative act, undervalued only because it happens in the realm of the home kitchen.”
I’ve been living with the book for a few months now, and have found great pleasure in the way it holds my hand as I confront the contents of my fridge and freezer and pantry. Adler’s elegant writing is so quick to transmit the pleasure she finds in cooking and thrift. “I am torn between rhapsodizing about the uses of bean broth,” she writes, “and leaving you to the satisfaction of discovering them and finding your own evangelical language.” The book inspires similar evangelism. And as Bettina Makalintal smartly writes of the book in Eater, her recipes, with her confident looseness, guide readers towards the holy grail of “intuitive cooking”.
Before sharing a recipe for brilliant cornstarch-based savory pancakes that will wrap any leftover grains in a swaddle of excitement, I wanted to share a few of the best lessons that the book has taught me as I’ve cooked and read through it.
Crackers are just future breadcrumbs.
Last week, I threw together the sort of meal that Adler’s book was made for: I had some meat and cheese my mom had brought me, and some iceberg and cucumber from making veggie burgers, and flipping to ICEBERG LETTUCE, OLD I found a recipe for “pizzeria salad”. It’s a clear cousin of Nancy Silverton’s iconic chopped salad: crunchy greens, fatty meat and cheese, pickle-y stuff, a red wine vinegar-heavy dressing full of dried oregano. Adler notes breadcrumbs as optional, and I craved them.
Staring at the sleeve of crackers that had traveled to me along with the meat and cheese, I flipped to CRACKERS, OLD, and realized that what I was looking at was just a pile of potential breadcrumbs. This is a particularly useful piece of information for me as someone who often buys crackers for parties but almost never eats them at home. Surely I can’t be alone? Anyway I crumbled them up and fried them in plenty olive oil with some garlic powder, and won’t you know it, I had a little carb confetti to sprinkle over my salad, crunchy and salty and savory. Like so many of Adler’s recipes and suggestions, it made me feel like a thrifty genius.
Hoard your starchy, flavorful liquid like the little freak that you are
Every since reading An Everlasting Meal, I’ve known of Adler’s obsession with the flavorful liquids we so often cast off: murky water that was once used to blanch greens and carries their essence and color; that starchy gold left behind after boiling potatoes. Adler dedicates a whole paragraph to POTATO COOKING WATER here, which can become gravy (with meat drippings), or bread, or soup. I knew all this advice, for the most part, but was mostly too lazy to follow it. Until, after boiling some rice noodles, I looked in my pot and saw the cloudy, starchy water left behind (I’d used a spider to lift out the noodles) and I simply couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. The next day I boiled some potatoes in there, and two days later, I added this super starchy salty water—of which I had maybe a cup left—to a pot of black beans, to add a bit of thickness and salt, and was quite happy with the result.
I’m sure many people’s response to this suggestion will be lmao I’m not gonna do that, which, fair. But I think it’s a valuable tip to share because it is so indicative of what Adler is trying to offer here: the idea that your scraps and refuse can be things to tinker with, to hoard, to bottle up for tomorrow’s potions. There’s great joy, for me, in treating my fridge like an alchemist’s chest, from which I can pull little bits and bobs of potential flavor when I’m feeling restless or unsatisfied with a pot of something. It has a nothing-into-something quality, which is one of the great pleasures of cooking: a magic trick.
Processed foods are leftovers too
One of the most exciting chapters of this book falls near the end: Snacks. I will admit that I bought an entire bag of Cheetos so that I could try Adler’s Fried Rice Cheeto Salad (!!!!!). It adds a handful of Cheetos to a pan of fried rice, and serves the strange but alluring mixture over a heap of lettuce, and yes, it’s great. I also can’t get Adler’s Mozzarella Stick Frittata out of my head. This expansive view of what gets to be an “ingredient” is really exciting to me, and exceedingly pragmatic.
The most revivifying home for leftovers is a cornstarch pancake
It appears I have a thing for savory pancakes right now, but I’m just going to go with it? I had some leftover rice noodles hanging around (see above), and instead of stir-frying them as Adler suggests under RICE NOODLES, I went rogue and flipped to RICE, COOKED. Here I found a recipe for Savory Grain Pancakes, which combine kimchi and leftover grains with a batter of cornstarch, dairy, and egg.
Everything gets whisked up and fried in little pancakes. (Larger ones, I learned, have less structural integrity.) The edges of my pancakes offered crispy wisps of thin noodle, their bellies rich with egg and tart with kimchi juice. I dipped them, as advised, in a mixture of black vinegar and soy sauce, and couldn’t wait to make more.
Savory Grain Panackes
from The Everlasting Meal Cookbook by Tamar Adler
3 tbsp buttermilk (or yogurt, or kefir)
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch
1/2 tablespoon oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups finely julienned kimchi (or scallions or chives, or a combination)
a drizzle of kimchi juice
1/2 cup cooked rice or other gran (or rice noodles)
Black vinegar and soy sauce for serving (optional)
In a bowl, whisk together the egg, buttermilk, cornstarch, oil, and salt, then stir in the kimchi, juice, and grains. Heat a heavy-bottomed pan to medium-high and add olive oil to just coat the bottom of the pan. Drop about 1 tablespoon pancake mixture at a time into the pan as little pancakes. Don’t worry about how liquid-y the batter seems; constarch firms up as soon as it hits the pan. These cook quickly. Flip and eat topped with more kimchi, or scallions, or dip in a combination of black vinegar and soy, or eat plain.
TELL ME IN THE COMMENTS: WHAT IS YOUR FAVE THING TO DO WITH LEFTOVERS????