A Philosophy of Leftovers

He bent boyishly over the dish before him. Malony had fried spoonfuls of powdered egg to crisp little fritters, had added the sausages, disinterred from their coffins of sodden pastry, onion, parsley, and potato, and had made of the dish a work of art.
            Elizabeth Goudge, Pilgrim’s Inn


I could almost live, I think, by a philosophy of leftovers.


Thursday: 11:18 a.m., staring at a fridge full of little plastic containers.  A couple of boneless chicken tenders. A quarter cup of corn. Some green beans. A little turkey broth. A forlorn scoop of mashed potatoes.

And suddenly I realize I have everything I need to make chicken shepherd’s pie.

I spend a mad half hour slicing onion and carrots and crushing garlic, sautéing it all in butter and olive oil in a cast iron pan, tossing in the boneless chicken, now neatly chopped.  Two tablespoons of flour sprinkled over the steaming mix, stirred until they disappear; the broth, slowly added, simmers and thickens. I throw in the veggies, add a handful of frozen green peas, and wait until the whole mess bubbles up again.

Some sage and some rosemary. Black pepper. Sea salt. And it smells GOOD. I dollop on the potatoes, reconstituted by whisking in a little cream, and I put the pan in the oven.

By the time Mark comes home for lunch, the potato peaks are just browning. We pull thick white bowls from the cupboard and scoop ourselves steaming servings. We butter up slices of country French bread from Giacomo’s bakery, pour tall glasses of water, and we sit down to lunch. Between the two of us, we eat the entire chicken shepherd’s pie.

Mark heads back to work, and I scrub the skillet, then pull open the dishwasher to stash one more little tupperware container.  The top rack is full of plasticware, newly bereft of their once-sad contents.

Leftovers, I’m thinking, are maybe NOT such an awful thing.


I do admit to having inherited a sense of thrift, possibly squared. My parents were children of the Great Depression; they remembered the shame of standing in lines for whatever clothing–however ill-fitting or outmoded,–the charity people had to give away to unparented urchins. They remembered getting handouts of almost rotten food, of eating bread smeared with applesauce and counting it a rare fine treat. They remembered days when they wished for just the bread, and when they went to bed hungry and aching.

When we were growing up, there was always food, no matter how hard times got: there was bread in the bread box and cookies in the cookie jar, and a big pot, maybe, of something like hamburger gravy. We didn’t notice so much when the gravy portion was much greater than the meat part; we made deep wells in our abundant (and cheap) mashed potatoes, ate it all, and asked for more.

My mother’s family had emigrated from Scotland, from a bleak, cold northern shore, looking for a land of opportunity and plenty. Even before Depression days, they were frugal and cautious with their money and their goods. They knew the cold nip of having no blanket between themselves and the starving cold.

I carried that thrifty thinking in my bones. It made me reluctant to part with things. Isn’t there a way, I’d think, to re-use that, to make it good?


Oftentimes, there were ways. Limp celery, bendable carrots: washed and trimmed and roasted in a pot with chicken bones and a quartered onion, drizzled in olive oil, dotted with garlic–these became the basis for a rich simmered stock.

The stock was a scaffolding on which to construct a wonderful soup–add some chopped spinach and the leftover Italian sausage, sliced into coins; sprinkle in some ditalini; and a rarer fine variation of Italian wedding soup bubbled up.

Or I could crush the stale potato chips and use them to coat a chicken fillet, dipped first in milk and egg, then baked until it was crispy and golden brown. Or I could stir those crushed chips into potato chip cookies, evoking a wonderful sweet and salty taste.

Stale bread could become a hearty  breakfast bake, studded with the end of some savory cheese and the rest of the bacon, crumbled.

An infinite variety of meats and veggies, I discovered, could meet together to make a fine hash.


‘Leftovers’ sounds so sad, so unwanted, and dishes like these–well, they can be triumphs of tastiness, ingenuity, and economy. Taking what’s on hand, prowling through the cookbooks, we morph and celebrate the disdained orts, making them into something greater, it seems, than the sum of their forlorn parts.

Perhaps we should call them something finer than ‘leftovers’. ‘Saved forwards,’ maybe?


But not everything, I realize, of course, is worth saving.

If there’s mold or icky spots, oh, then, I really need to chuck it.

If they didn’t eat it in its original form, I came to see, I shouldn’t try to hide it in a casserole. So no raisin bran was welcomed amidst the chocolate chips.

No meats or milk or creams of dubious age–unless it’s a cake recipe that calls for cream a little bit gone by.

Things we didn’t like the first time around will probably not taste better in round two.


A billboard tells me families in the United States throw out, literally, thousands of dollars worth of food each year.


Use what you’ve got: it is, I think, the basis for the locavore movement. If it’s grown in your backyard, in your town or your county, why import it from Brazil?

And if there are still-fresh, tasty ingredients in my refrigerator, why do I need to search further? Instead of planning shopping lists based on ingredients needed for recipes, maybe I should pick the recipes based on the ingredients I have on hand.


The seasons morph—the weather brightens. There’s more light. There’s more possibility. And maybe, this spring, I can shift my thinking, my shopping, my cooking, spinning my attitude, appreciating what’s already here.


11 thoughts on “A Philosophy of Leftovers

  1. Becky J Allison

    My first automatic delivery of Catching My Drift! Like an unexpected, but pleasant surprise of a visit from a friend. Appreciate the philosophy, Pam. I have the gene, too.

    Back in grad school days, early eighties, when Monica was an infant and I wanted to change our eating habits (no red food dye entering my child’s mouth and whatever other anxieties were out there at the time) I tried making a soybean based lasagna. No meat, but it was on the expensive side with several cheeses, so when it came out crunchy because I didn’t cook the beans enough and was not well received, I felt desperate to save it. I put it through the blender and reheated. I am just glad we can laugh about it today. It was painful to throw away.

  2. There is nothing more satisfying to me than to use those last bits of roast, or chicken, or veggies in something “new” rather than throw them away. And if it’s surprisingly delicious, so much the better! I think I owe it to my depression era parents too.

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