Like love, leftovers can be better second time around

January 25, 1998|By Rob Kasper

LEFTOVERS ARE LIKE old friends. They aren't new and exciting, and that is why you like to have them around. They are the stuff comfortable evenings are made of.

Recently I was encouraged by a report on the state of the nation's leftovers. According to the 1998 Old Farmer's Almanac, the practice of cooking extra food, thereby guaranteeing that there will be leftovers, has increased 30 percent in America during the last 10 years.

I am not sure what survey method was used to come up with this finding. But

I believe the report because it comes from a publication popular with farmers, a group of folks who, in my experience, know how to eat. If there aren't leftovers at the end of a farm meal, the farmer's wife is likely to think she didn't cook enough food.

I am a longtime admirer of leftovers. During my teens, I often could be found in front of the family fridge, studying its contents. Instead of saying hello, my father would routinely greet me by saying, "Close the refrigerator door." I still like leftovers, but usually by the time I get home the contents of our refrigerator have already been scavenged by my two sons. Sometimes I stare at the empty fridge shelves and feel like an old lion who has been beaten to his prey by younger, quicker members of his pack.

Not all foods are good as leftovers. Some dishes, like some marriages, work better the second time around. Fried chicken, for instance, is delightful when eaten warm, shortly after it has emerged from the skillet. But it tastes even better, I think, when it has had time to cool off. If, like me, you are a drumstick gnawer, feasting on a lunch of cold fried chicken is about as good as life gets.

Soups and big pots of chili also improve over time. This happens because the ingredients in soup behave like folks at a cocktail party. At first, most are standoffish, keeping to themselves. But after a while they start mingling, interacting with strangers, and the whole shebang develops an harmonious buzz.

On the other hand, some dishes do not make good leftovers. Carrots get mushy the second time around. Salads get soggy. And tacos, well, don't ask.

There are leftovers that resemble old actors making a comeback. If they present themselves in a new package, they can be successful. Plain old mashed potatoes, for instance, are a pretty ordinary leftover. But if they are reworked -- shaped into potato pancakes and reheated in a skillet coated with melted butter -- they are a smash.

The allure of some leftovers, like take-out Chinese food, is overpowering. Any time I look in the refrigerator and find some leftover moo shu pork, I immediately eat it. Several factors are at work here. Among them are the pleasing flavor of moo shu pork, and the thrill of the hunt. At our house, you only get so many shots at bagging leftover Chinese food. If you pass on your chance at having the moo shu for lunch, other predators won't.

One of my favorite desserts is bread pudding, made with five cups of stale bread. There are a variety of explanations for my bread-pudding ardor. One is that the recipe for this bread pudding comes from Paul Prudhomme, who, like many Cajun cooks, can make anything except a tree stump taste like dessert. Another reason is that while this dish is made with leftover bread, it tastes surprisingly fresh and sweet. This bread pudding may be related to leftovers, but it rarely sees the dawn of more than one day.

New Orleans Bread Pudding with Lemon Sauce and Chantilly Cream

Serves 8

3 large eggs

1 1/4 cups sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 1/4 teaspoons ground nutmeg

1 1/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

2 cups milk

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans, dry roasted

5 cups very stale French or Italian bread, with crusts on

In a large bowl, beat the eggs on high speed with an electric mixer until extremely frothy and bubbles are the size of pinheads, about 3 minutes (or with a metal whisk for about 6 minutes). Add sugar, vanilla, nutmeg, cinnamon and butter and beat on high until well-blended. Beat in the milk, then stir in raisins and pecans.

Place bread cubes in a greased loaf pan. Pour egg mixture over them and toss until bread is soaked. Let sit until you see only a narrow bead of liquid around the pan's edges, about 45 minutes, occasionally patting the bread down into the liquid. Place in a preheated 350-degree oven. Lower the heat to 300 and bake 40 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 425 and bake until pudding is well-browned and puffy, about 15 to 20 minutes more.

To serve, put 1 1/2 tablespoons warm lemon sauce in each dessert dish, then spoon in 1/2 cup hot bread pudding and top with 1/4 cup Chantilly Cream.

Lemon Sauce

Makes about 3/4 cup.

1 lemon, halved

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons cornstarch, dissolved in 1/4 cup water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Squeeze two tablespoons juice from lemon halves and place juice in a 1-quart saucepan; add lemon halves, water and sugar, and bring to a boil. Stir in dissolved cornstarch and vanilla. Cook 1 minute over high heat, stirring constantly. Strain, squeezing sauce from lemon rinds. Serve warm.

Chantilly Cream

Makes about 2 cups

2/3 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon brandy

1 teaspoon Grand Marnier (or Triple Sec)

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons sour cream

Refrigerate a medium-size bowl and beaters until very cold. Combine cream, vanilla, brandy and Grand Marnier in the bowl and beat with electric mixer on medium speed 1 minute. Add the TTC sugar and sour cream and beat on medium until soft peaks form, about 3 minutes. Do not overbeat.

From "Chef Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Kitchen" (William Morrow, 1984)

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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