Wake Up Call

Let Them Eat Leftovers

In France, the only way to leave a restaurant with a doggy bag and the waiter's respect is if the food you're taking home is truly for your spoiled poodle. The protectors of French cuisine, and indeed waiters at snotty restaurants the world over, just do not appreciate leftovers. I confess that as a server in a local restaurant, I do turn up my nose à la francaise when patrons ask me to box up the remains of their Caesar salad. Don't they realize that the limp leaves on their plates are only going to get progressively soggier?

Ah, but there are joys to leftovers as well. Take the remains of the Thanksgiving turkey, the mother lode for leftover lovers. To be honest, slices carved from the oven-fresh bird don't really thrill me. But turkey and cold-stuffing sandwiches with cranberry mayo? My mom's next-day turkey enchiladas smothered in green sauce? Shredded turkey simmered in chipotle salsa and wrapped in a warm tortilla? Now those are truly reasons to give thanks.

My mom may have first inspired me with an appreciation for leftovers. She has always maintained that some foods, especially those with tomato-based sauces, benefit from a night in the refrigerator. It didn't stop us from eating the pizza, spaghetti, and homemade salsa the first night they were made, but we were sure to double the recipes so that there would be more for the next day. And it may not have been just a mom's ploy to reduce kitchen time -- even Martha Stewart has some recipes that call for overnight cold storage. The extra time allows flavors to fully develop.

Another family leftover classic is the Chinese-food breakfast. There are multiple schools of thought on this subject, each of which I have explored at different points in my life. As a kid, my dad would blend every dish from the night before in the ultimate family-style pot, melding everything into one surprisingly satisfying flavor. As a teenager, I naturally rebelled and began to heat up each dish separately, covering the stovetop with multiple pots and pans. In college, I discovered that a hangover helped overcome initial qualms about cold Chinese leftovers and their coagulated sauces. (My personal preference: General Tsao's chicken.) But certainly there has never been any question that the folded-paper containers be left until lunch. Who can wait that long?

Every culture has its own way of making do with what is left behind at the end of a meal. That Mexican classic, refried beans, is simply a reformulation of the previous day's pot. Fried rice springs from a similar need to make something new out of a staple foodstuff. Italians break eggs over leftovers for frittata. The Vietnamese wrap small quantities of meat and veggies into spring rolls. And soup is used the world over to recycle what's on hand.

My boyfriend's grandmother recently introduced me to my latest leftover favorite. A true child of the Depression, Busia (Polish for grandma) is a resourceful cook who hates waste of any kind. But grandmotherly instincts force her to cook up massive quantities anytime there is a mouth to feed, so there are bound to be leftovers. Lucky us! When the mound of mashed potatoes is only slightly reduced at the end of dinner, we know we are in for a real treat the next day. Bound together with a little egg and flour, seasoned with garlic, and fried in a generous dose of oil, fried potato patties are crispy on the outside and deliciously creamy within. Busia refers to them as a cheat's potato pancakes. Truth be known, I slightly prefer them to the grated version and infinitely prefer them to the comparatively dull, mashed original.

Once attuned to the beauty of leftovers, you may even begin to plan your weekly meals this way. The last dregs of wine in Saturday's bottle can be used on Monday to craft a hoity-toity sauce for pan-fried steak. On Tuesday, thinly slice the cold meat from Monday over fresh greens and top with homemade vinaigrette for a meal to rival any restaurant's $10 steak salad. Wednesday's roast chicken can be cut off the bone and mixed with mayo and spice to become Friday's mean curry chicken salad. (The carcass, of course, could be simmered on Thursday to yield a tasty broth.)

Leftovers have gotten a bad rap. With the economy's lackluster performance taking a bite out of food budgets, I say it's time to cast a more appreciative eye on the items abandoned in our refrigerators -- before they turn to mold.