Monday, July 18, 2011

Leftovers, anyone?

Like most people, I'm busy.  I do a lot.  So leftovers become a big part of my weekly meals.  I try to cook "real" meals on the days I can - usually Friday or Saturday, Sunday, sometimes Monday, and Thursday, and I try to cook enough that we can eat the leftovers the rest of the week.  Sometimes this means literally just a reprise of what we had the night before, but personally I would rather have something different.  Lots of times, this means pasta.

One of my personal cooking specialties is "Pasta Ala Whatever the Heck I Have in the Fridge."  This is very similar to my Super Top Secret Mac & Cheese recipe, in the fact that it doesn't really matter what you put in it.  Pasta is good like that.  Basically every time I'm watching "Chopped" I think: "Oh, I would make a pasta with that basket."  Got a bit of meat?  Throw it in a pasta.  Even better, got two different kinds of meat, neither of which is enough to make a meal?  Don't eat them as a midnight snack!  Throw them in some pasta.  Some random, kind of old vegetables?  Cook them down, add some butter and cream... like magic you have pasta sauce.  Rock hard cheese that you're not sure what it used to be?  You got it, grate it over your pasta.

Pasta is cheap.  It's filling.  It can take a lot of additional, random ingredients if you have them, or it can be eaten basically on its own.  It's a good meal.  The below recipe is just a possible example.  Basically anything can be substituted for any of the items.

This recipe is technically out of order.  I recently graduated from my MBA program, and in celebration had a crawfish boil.  The crawfish was not, as you might expect, local.  But it was good, and it did include many local ingredients - including local sausage which I have used in the below recipe.  More on my boil later...

Spinach Pasta with Chicken, Sausage, Mushrooms, and Zucchini

  • 2 servings (approx. 8 oz each) fresh spinach pasta (L/L*), or use dried pasta from a box
  • Leftover chicken - about 1 breast worth (L)
  • Leftover sausage (In this case, spicy andouille sausage) - about 1 link (L)
  • 5 or six large cremini mushrooms, sliced (L)
  • 1 small zucchini, sliced (L*)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tbsp butter, divided (L)
  • 1/4 cup half and half (L)
 Cook pasta in a medium pot with well salted water, and cook until pasta is just under al dente.  Meanwhile, melt 1 tbsp butter in a large frying pan.  Add chicken, sausage, mushrooms, and zucchini, season with salt and pepper, and saute until meat is warmed through and veggies just start to get tender.  Add half and half and remaining butter, and cook, stirring, until butter melts and small bubbles start to form around the edge of the pan.  And pasta, stir, and allow to cook a 2-3 more minutes, until pasta finishes cooking and all ingredients are well combined.

Another choice for using leftovers is to make something that's almost a recipe.  For example, many quick weeknight recipes call for boneless, skinless, chicken breasts.  Generally when Jeff and I have a whole chicken, we end up with 1 breast and 1 thigh leftover.  By carefully slicing the meat off of these two pieces, I can get pieces of chicken that serve the same function as a chicken breast - even if they are a little smaller.  From there, I just follow the recipe, substituting my pieces of chicken for the chicken breasts, and cooking for less time since the meat is already cooked through.  This would work for chicken marsala, or you could cut the pieces smaller and use them in tacos.  In this case, I made chicken saltimbocca... sort of.  I made this a while ago, while there was still asparagus at the market.  You could substitute any veggies you want, or not use the vegetables at all.  If you are not using vegetables, reduce the wine to 1/4 cup, and the butter to 1 tbsp.

Chicken Saltambocca (ish) with Asparagus and Turnips 
  • 3-4 slices bacon (L), or use prosciutto to be more traditional
  • 2 cooked chicken breasts, or one breast and one thigh, sliced into tenders about 1/2 inch thick. (L)
  • 1/4 cup flour (L)
  • salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tsp fresh chopped sage, plus whole leaves (L*)
  • 2 tbsp butter, divided (L)
  • 1/4 lb fresh mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced (L)
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • approx. 10 stalks asparagus (L)
  • 2-3 small turnips, sliced (L)
In a large frying pan, cook bacon until it is done, but not crispy.   Remove from pan and drain on paper towels, but leave bacon drippings in pan.  Season flour to taste with salt and pepper, and stir in chopped sage.  Dredge chicken tenders in flour, and fry briefly in bacon fat over high heat (you want to create a crust on the chicken here, but you don't want to leave it in too long as the chicken will dry out due to being already cooked.)  Remove chicken from pan and set aside.  Add 1 tbsp butter to pan and allow to melt.  Add vegetables and saute for about 3 minutes.  The veggies should not be cooked through.

Meanwhile, assemble chicken by layering 1 piece of bacon on top of each chicken breast, followed by sage leaf, followed by mozzarella cheese.  Trim bacon, sage, and cheese so all items are the same size as the chicken tender.

Add remaining tablespoon butter and wine to pan, and cook just until butter melts.  Add chicken to pan, turn heat to very low, and cover tightly.  Cook just until chicken is heated through and cheese is melted.

My point, I guess, is that food is not a science.  Most of us learn to bake before we learn to cook.  I can remember helping to mix up cookies and brownies well before I was cooking anything.  This makes sense, I guess, because baking rarely requires sharp knives, and the hot part can easily be handled by mom or dad or grandma without the kids feeling left out.  But, in reality, that's backwards.  Baking is a science.  It requires following precise directions, or things don't turn out well.  I think we learn, at an early age, that cooking also has to be precise.  But it doesn't.  There are no rules.  Your pasta won't fall like a cake or a souffle.   It doesn't really matter what you put into your food, as long as it tastes good.  And the only way to learn what tastes good is to try different combinations.  I've found, if I can eat my leftovers in a meal that isn't an exact replica of what the leftovers originally were, I'm more likely to eat them, and less likely to throw food away.

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