Reviving Remnants For Regal Repasts

February 13, 1991|By Charlyne Varkonyi

Like many of us, Kathy Gunst grew up in a home where leftovers either ended up in the trash can or came back to life hiding under a gloppy sauce.

Leftovers were true to their name -- food that was unwanted, second best and, frankly, not worth eating.

But a trip to France taught a then twentysomething Kathy Gunst that well-off Europeans were skilled at making great food out of scraps in ways that only Americans who lived through the Great Depression seemed to understand.

The peels from carrots or leeks went into the soup pot, not the garbage disposal. French bread that became petrified the day after purchase was transformed into bread crumbs or a soup thickener. And leftover pieces of cooked fish teamed with fresh vegetables and garlic in a warming stew.

Kathy Gunst matured, married, had a family and began writing about food in major magazines. She even wrote a cookbook, "Condiments," and "The Great New England Food Guide" without thinking too much about her French lesson.

Ironically, these days Gunst-the-skeptic has become th maven of how to turn leftover food into heartwarming yet innovative meals for the 1990s with publication of her new book, "Leftovers" (HarperCollins, $25). She now looks at a stale piece of bread, onions and garlic and sees a thick, rich onion soup. Leftover broiled tuna becomes Oriental fish with green bean salad. And leftover pork becomes medallions of pork with braised fennel and apple-mustard wine sauce.

Her timing couldn't have been better. The last time we saw a spate of cookbooks with "leftovers" in the title was during the last recession in the early 1980s. But now, the new recession is forcing us to rethink how we spend on food. Leftovers are back. You could call them the latest recycling project to hit the environmentally conscious home.

"In the last 10 years, we have explored fancy wines and ethnic foods and gone to restaurants," Ms. Gunst said in a telephone interview from her home in Maine. "Statistics show we are no longer going to restaurants and no longer spending money on expensive foods. We don't really want to let go of these things, but we don't want to spend money.

"Leftovers can incorporate everything we want. All we have to do is open up our refrigerators and learn to use the things that we have overlooked for years."

Ms. Gunst jokes that her book was merely good timing, not economic forecasting. She owes the inspiration to her editor, Susan Friedland, who had to talk her into doing a topic that seemed unappealing at first.

Skeptical and facing about 10 pounds of leftover turkey meat, she started developing recipes the day after Thanksgiving three years ago. Soon she and her family learned that her French friends were right: With a little imagination, leftovers can be meals that your family will actually look forward to eating.

In fact, these days when she starts roasting a chicken, her 3-year-old puts in a request for her favorite leftover -- Chinese chicken soup with watercress and bok choy. She now roasts a 6- to 9-pound leg of lamb for her family of four just so she can make lamb curry one night and Middle Eastern lamb sandwiches the next.

By her deadline, she had developed 350 recipes for all kinds of leftovers. Her biggest concern was paring them down to the most interesting and most unusual.

The format is as interesting as her recipes. Even a novice can start with her 50 master recipes and learn how to transform them into 150 second-time-around meals.

But this isn't just another rerun of a 1950s casserole book. The word "casserole" never appears and she has designed these recipes taking into consideration our new tastes -- from spinach linguine with lamb, leeks and roasted red peppers to Japanese-style beef rolls with scallions and duck burritos.

"Leftovers are part of almost every other culture," Ms. Gunst said. "But it has been a part of the American way to always have something new. We have lived with the philosophy that in America everything has to be bigger and better. We never had to reuse anything. We are starting to learn culturally, environmentally and culinarily that we are going to have to change."

Now, she said, your view of leftovers is about to change. It begins by how you look at what's in your refrigerator. You have to start seeing connections between foods rather than separate bowls of leftovers covered with aluminum foil or plastic wrap.

"Before I wrote the book I would look into a full refrigerator and see nothing to eat," she said. "I would see half a roast chicken, cooked green beans, four eggs and a hunk of stale cheese and I would make myself a chicken sandwich and throw the rest out. Now I see a frittata.

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