Learning how to make clever use of leftovers saves money and waste, and arms the budding cook with a wide range of skills. Try these simple tips to earn kudos (and save a fortune)
Not being much of a one for small talk, when I go to other people's houses I can often be found with my head thrust into the fridge.
Recently, at my mother-in-law's, I found myself pondering how similar the contents were to those of my mother's fridge: dozens of tiny bowls, carefully clingfilmed, containing all sorts of bits and pieces from cooking the week before. A couple of broccoli heads, a tablespoon of cassoulet, tomato sauce, one and a half boiled potatoes. That sort of thing.
Both women learned to cook in the postwar years: they hate waste and take pride in never throwing anything away. Where their approach to leftovers differs, however, is that while my mum is a freestyler, my mother-in-law is a planner. She follows the classic template of thrifty housekeeping: start the week with a Sunday roast, the leftovers from which can be eked out into a week's worth of carefully planned suppers. A roast chicken, for example, might reappear as cold cuts, then risotto, then soup, and finally - once the bones have been picked cleaner than the Queen's porcelain - boiled up into stock.
I don't have room in my head for a whole week of menus, so I have adopted my mum's freestyle approach instead. I'll buy the ingredients for a couple of specific meals and some general vegetables. Then I devise menus on the hoof, dreaming up creations from what's left of previous meals. To make either method work, though, you need to know which leftovers can be turned into what, and how. Here are some of my favourite tricks:
• Old hard cheese can be grated and frozen. Add it straight from the freezer to whatever you're cooking, such as cauliflower cheese.
• Bake stale bread at 120C/250F/gas mark ½ until it dries out. Blitz it in a blender and freeze the breadcrumbs. (You could mix them with the grated cheese to make a killer topping for macaroni.) Fry a handful of frozen breadcrumbs in butter with some chopped garlic and salt. In Italy, this is known as poor man's parmesan. You can sprinkle it on pasta, salads, stews - pretty much anything.
• Slice bananas and freeze them so they can be reused in cakes or smoothies. (They'll turn mushy when they thaw, but still taste great.)
•Be brave: mix those bowls from the fridge together to create a new dish. Stews, soups and veg can all be recycled in this way.
•Mash and hash almost any combination of starchy veg and greens. They all taste good when smooshed together and fried, bubble and squeak-style. Mix in a little frozen cheese, and some wholegrain mustard, and fry it long enough to get brown crispy bits.
• Have a top soup recipe to hand for leftover chicken. Jane's, below, is as good as they get.
• If you have any leftover gravy, add it to lots of chopped, cooked greens (leeks, broccoli, peas) and leftover shredded chicken with a little crushed garlic. This can all be warmed together gently and served topped with more chopped tarragon or other fresh herbs.
• Havea go-to recipe that can be used to hoover up any general leftovers. For my dad it was always Spanish omelette. Jane swears by stir-fries. My standby dish is a pilaf:
Henry's recipe for pilaf
Gently fry an onion and some garlic in olive oil. (You can also throw in some thinly sliced carrots, leeks, fennel - or whatever else is wilting at the bottom of your fridge.) Add some basmati rice (one cup for every two people). Add 1½ cups of stock (or water) for every cup of rice. Simmer for 5 minutes. Add whatever meat you have left over (lamb is classic, but anything will do) and some sultanas or raisins. Simmer for 15 minutes. Check the rice is cooked. Add more stock and cook a little longer if need be. It should end up moist, but not soupy. Season. Add a squeeze of lemon. If you have any green herbs or spring onions, sprinkle on top, along with some toasted almonds (or poor man's parmesan). Serve with a blob of yoghurt.
Cooking time: 1 hour 20 minutes
Preparation time: 15 minutes
1 leftover chicken carcass
2 small onions
2 sticks celery
1 small bunch parsley
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 chicken stock cube (optional)
Salt and black pepper
100g egg or rice noodles
1 Strip all the meat from the chicken carcass and set aside. Dice the onions. Cut the veg into 1cm-thick slices or long batons. Keep all your trimmings for the stock, including the parsley stalks. Set the chopped parsley aside.
2 Place the carcass in a large pan with the trimmings, stalks, peppercorns and bay leaf. Cover with water and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for about 1 hour.
3 Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes. Add the crushed garlic and cook for another minute before tipping in all the chopped vegetables. Stir well and cook over a low heat for 15 minutes.
4 When the stock is ready, strain through a colander and check for seasoning. Add about 1 litre to the pan containing the vegetables and bring up to a simmer. Cook for another 5 minutes and - important - taste it. If you feel that it is lacking in flavour, crumble in a good quality chicken stock cube and cook for another 2 minutes.
5 In another pan, cook your noodles according to the packet instructions. Drain and add to your soup pan along with the reserved cooked chicken and simmer for another 2 minutes to heat through. Add the chopped parsley and add to the soup. Check seasoning and serve.
Recipe by Jane Baxter
For showing off
Go down the Asian route by adding chopped ginger and chilli to the soup base along with the crushed garlic. Sliced Bok Choy can be added 5 minutes before the soup is ready. It can be finished with a dash of soy sauce, chopped coriander and a squeeze of lime.
What's your favourite way of using up leftovers? We'd love to hear your ideas in the comments below!
Photo: Leftover chicken from a roast goes to great use in a tasty noodle soup. Photography: Jill Mead for the Guardian.