Anne Zimmerman lives in and writes from the Bay Area. She is working on a book about the food writer M.F.K. Fisher.

The beauty of leftovers

A single person’s best friend in the kitchen

By
May 7, 2008

One of the unrealized joys of living alone is leftovers. I love them, and can’t understand why others don’t. Some people look down on leftovers. For them, leftovers are the foods that you no longer find appealing but know that you should eat, or the meal that tasted so much better the first day it was cooked. They relegate leftovers to sad Tupperware squares and eat them cold and half-heartedly at work, perhaps a day or two after they were originally made.

I look forward to leftovers. I like making enough good food to last me a couple of days. On Sundays, I pick weekly recipes for their alluring qualities and their staying power. Recipes must be charming and full of enough flavors to satiate me over several nights. They must be flexible — a dish that can be paired with salad, meat, or nothing at all, depending on my whims. They must be genuine.

All leftovers deteriorate just a bit after a couple of days, but there are recipes out there that really do improve with a bit of time. Recipes that are capable of coming back to life with a splash of olive oil, a big pinch of rocky salt, and a swift turn or two with the pepper grinder.

Indian chicken
Add a garnish of freshly chopped herbs to perk up leftovers.

For me, leftovers are like a small gift of time. I arrive home at night, tired and hungry. I open the fridge, peek inside containers, and set the skillet on the stove over very low heat. I pour myself a glass of wine — a short or long pour directly correlates to the kind of day I’ve had. Perhaps I eat an olive or two, a handful of walnuts, maybe a chunk of cheese. I spread my leftovers in the pan. Tonight it is a spring pasta of orzo with lots of sautéed yellow squash, fresh herbs, big shavings of Parmesan, olive oil, salt, and pepper. Often I add a tablespoon or two of water (or less!) to moisten and eventually slightly “steam” the food.

Then, I wait. I open mail. I flip through catalogs and dog-ear pages with things I like, knowing I’ll never return to order them. I open magazines and bend the covers so they wrap back around the spine. This way I can hold the magazine with one hand and the round bowl of my just-full-enough-wineglass with the other. I sit.

Soon enough I hear the frying pan begin to talk, a sputter and spatter here and there that lets me know that things are beginning to heat up. One piece of advice: With leftovers, you must be careful about the heat. You want them warm, maybe even hot, but not scorched, burned, or dried through. Unless you are careless or otherwise involved, this delicate balance is an easy thing to manage. And then soon enough you have it — dinner for one on a plate. Hot, homemade, and (hopefully) delectable.

It is a great thing to prepare food for one’s self, but better still to do it and have it feel effortless, even luxurious.

Leftovers are like my guilty secret — something I plan for, something I dole out to myself nightly if I’ve been very good. I love to cook, but what I love more is to come home after work and to have dinner more or less ready and waiting for me. Yes, sometimes it feels shameful to put so little energy into my dinner. Yet it is also infinitely better then take-out, a deli sandwich, or a frozen and lifeless microwaved pod of a meal. I get the ultimate pleasure — a good, home-cooked supper without the stacks of dirty dishes, the time spent waiting for it all to be done, or even the necessary dinner-table diatribe and minute conversation (though sometimes I miss that).

These are my leftovers, and I’m not sharing.

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1. by Greg Gisi on May 16, 2008 at 8:28 PM PDT

Anne,
Being a spoiled husband to a culinary trained wife, I could not agree with you more. My Leftovers are usually enjoyed for lunch at my jobsite though. Great article! 1

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