Loolie’s Leftovers Challenge

It’s not that she’s vicious or vindictive, Loolie assured us.  It was just that she could never resist a good challenge.

We were sitting with a glass of wine, having enjoyed yet another wonderful pasta meal; we were relaxed and replete and working on a little wine buzz on Loolie’s patio.  It was one of those gift-y April days when the temp soars.  Three days ago, maybe, we’d been shoveling snow; now it was warm enough to take the wine glasses outside and watch the sun sink down into Lake Erie.

TJ mentioned again how good the sauce was, and Loolie said, thoughtfully, that it was really kind of a conglomeration of leftovers.

“Go on,” I said, but Loolie said it was true.  She figured sauce days were good fridge clean-out times; she stowed bits and bites in the freezer, and then she added a snippet of this, a dab of that, from the refrigerator shelves.  She sweated up  onion and a little garlic in some extra virgin olive oil, and then she poured in jars of spaghetti sauce, cans of tomato sauce, and a can of tomato paste.  She sugared it, added basil and oregano and a bay leaf, and let it simmer.

That was her base, Loolie said, but what happened after that depended entirely on the last week’s meals and the contents of her freezer.  So she might add:

–half a cooked boneless chicken breast;
–a pork bone with roasted meat clinging to it;
–two links of grilled hot Italian sausage, sliced into coins;
–a sad looking carrot (It sweetens the sauce, says Loolie)
–the rest of the mini-meatballs, the ones she didn’t use for Italian wedding soup.

Or, Loolie ruminated, she might go a completely different route.

“You know what they say, right?” she said.  “You never step in the same spaghetti sauce twice.”

We contemplated that, sipping our wine, pulling afghans around our shoulders as the April sun slipped into the still-icy lake.

And then Loolie laughed and told us about the first time her in-laws, Mort and Dewey, visited. She and Dan got married in a small ceremony, by a justice of the peace; his family was all on the west coast and the thought of planning a cross country marathon of family and friends and flights and lodging just left them tired and financially frightened.

So they suggested to his parents that they’d take the cash they would have spent on a wedding and fly them out for a good  visit. Mort and Dewey would stay at the Holiday Inn–Loolie appreciated their insistence on a little breathing space–but they’d spend the whole of their five day visit with Dan and Loolie.

And eat their meals with them, too.

“What do they like to eat?” Loolie asked Dan.

“They’ll eat anything,” said Dan.  “Except leftovers. My father refuses to eat leftovers.”

Dan said it like a kind of joke.  Loolie heard it as a kind of challenge.

Mort and Dewey arrived late on a Sunday morning, and Loolie, all a-blush with newlywed domesticity, served up a real Sunday dinner–roast chicken and mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, and a crusty loaf of bakery bread.  They had brownie sundaes for dessert, and Mort sprawled in Dan’s new barca lounger and patted his belly.

“You’re a darned good cook, Loolie,” he said.  Loolie thanked him and said she came by it honestly; the oldest of six hungry kids, she grew up helping her mom in the kitchen.

They ate well that week, and most of it was Loolie’s home-cooking.  They had a baked ham; they had chicken shepherd’s pie.  They had a lovely French toast brunch, and they had ham pancakes for breakfast one day.  They had sandwiches Loolie called “Croak, I’m Sure,” and they demolished a big skillet of Loolie’s famous hash.  They enjoyed big bowls of delicious chicken vegetable soup.

It was a great visit, with day trips and card games and the discovery of all they had in common, in addition to their shared love for Dan. The time seemed to fly by.  Suddenly, Dan was shoving Mort and Dewey’s luggage into the trunk of his aging Honda  and Loolie was standing with open arms, waiting to hug her in-laws goodbye.

Mort gave her a big smooch on the cheek. “You’re a lovely girl, Loolie,” he said, “and a great cook.  And you didn’t try to serve me leftovers once.”

Dewey leaned in close for a hug and whispered in Loolie’s ear. “The old fool,” she said.  “You’ve been feeding him leftovers all week!”

They were wonderful in-laws, Loolie told us, for the span of her marriage to Dan.  And they were awesome grandparents to Kerry–Dewey still was the world’s best long-distance grandma, although Mort was long gone.  And Dewey and Loolie stayed close, despite the divorce.

In fact, said Loolie, they liked to exchange recipes.  Dewey was always looking for clever and tasty ways to disguise leftovers.

*****

Before I left Loolie’s that night, I wrote down her Chicken Shepherd’s Pie recipe (maybe method is a better word).  I thought I’d share it with you here:

When you have any combination of these things on hand, the stars are in alignment and the time is ripe for chicken shepherd’s pie:

Leftover mashed potatoes
Cooked chicken
Broth you made from the bones of the cooked chicken (or canned broth)
An onion
Three carrots–any age will do
A cup of frozen peas

Preheat the oven to 350. Chop the onion; cut the carrots into julienne strips, about 1 ” long.

Melt two tablespoons of butter in a cast iron skillet on your stove top. Saute the onion until it’s tender and translucent; stir in the carrot and cook until that, too, is tender. (Loolie notes that she often adds garlic powder, too, at this point.)

Add the chopped leftover chicken and stir until it’s heated through.

Sprinkle two tablespoons of flour over the chicken and veggies; stir until you can’t see a single trace of flour. Gradually add one cup of the broth, season with salt and pepper, and bring the contents of the skillet to a slow boil. When the broth is slightly thickened, stir in the peas.  Remove the pan from the heat.

Put the leftover mashed potatoes in a bowl and beat them with a wooden spoon; if they’re very stiff, add milk and whip them by hand until they feel a little fluffier.  Drop the potatoes by large spoonsful on top of the chicken mixture.

You can, says Loolie, add a nice sprinkle of parsley for garnish.

Bake for about thirty minutes–until the potatoes are crusty and golden.  Loolie notes that she sometimes sprinkles a little grated cheddar on top for a savory change of pace about five minutes before serving.  She puts the skillet back in the oven just long enough for the cheese to melt.

*****

I’ve tried this shepherd’s pie recipe many times; it’s very good–good enough, in fact, to serve to company.

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