There are times the use of leftover foods produces wonders, with the remains of one meal transitioning into something special, something better than the original.
Other times, leftovers are merely leftovers, sad things, like a prom dress hung in the back of a closet after the date never knocked at the door, when the corsage went undelivered.
Like a condom in a teen’s wallet, there never to be used, degrading into sad latex debris.
With Thanksgiving off the radar, we are scooting out of a major leftover zone. With other holiday meals on the horizon, we will soon have cause to consider leftovers again, with other opportunities to affect the transformation of one menu item into another.
When I think of leftovers, many things come to mind. At first, the memories are fine: foods scrounged cold from the refrigerator by a short, “husky,” myopic and gap-toothed lad and spirited to the bedroom, there to be devoured, the feast illuminated by the fuzzy light emitted by the massive cathode-ray tube in a vintage Motorola black and white set. (“Husky,” incidentally, can still be used as a somewhat gentle synonym for “fat” so long as you don’t use it to describe a young woman.)
That refrigerator of my youth held delectable holiday goodies — slabs of stuffing, wads of cold, mashed potatoes, hunks of flesh — as well as favorite everyday residue such as monster blocks of lasagna (nothing beats a lasagna sandwich — with cheap white bread and mayo), interlocked diamonds of fatty kibbeh (take care the pine nuts don’t fall on the sheets), potato cakes once crisp and gone soggy, bricks of sour cream chocolate cake, et al.
Later in life, leftovers took on a different character.
The dark side of leftovers was revealed a long time ago, in a place far from Siberia With a View.
It was 1967, in Manhattan.
My signal, post-youth, nasty leftover experience was provided by Bob and his indefatigable and intellectually challenged companion, Teensy. They firmly established the pole opposite the lasagna sandwich on the leftover scale.
I was in residence at the time in a rundown dump on East Third Street, in the East Village, close to the music school, fairly near Moscow High School. I lived in a four-story tenement building, in a one-room “apartment” (no toilet, no kitchen, no closet) on the third floor. I lived there during the spring and summer, thankfully, since there was little or no heat in the building during the winter. The mid-summer atmosphere inside the building was oppressive, but the danger that accompanied winter made the discomfort desirable. That danger was manifest in one of the “apartments” on the fourth floor, its entry sealed, soot streaks still visible on the wall above the doorway, witness to a homemade winter heating scheme gone bad.
Bob and Teensy lived on the second floor. This dynamic duo did not live in a conventional “apartment.” They were holed up in a storage space beneath the stairs.
Why Bob was called “Bob” I don’t know, since his name was Louis. He looked like a bedraggled D’Artagnan, complete with lace-front musketeer shirt, and was a prep school dropout from a wealthy family in Connecticut. His indefatigable but dense companion, Teensy, an Iowa farm girl, earned her moniker for obvious reasons: though she was a good 5’11”, her feet were abnormally tiny. Sideshow small. It was amazing she stayed balanced when upright.
Bob and Teensy had moved into the space beneath the stairs a year or so before and the landlord didn’t seem to care. Bob tapped into the juice via a line run to an abandoned light fixture in the hallway and he installed a small lamp in the crowded storage space — their “pad.” The space was approximately ten feet long; one entered the “pad” through a hinged plywood door. The ceiling of the “pad” sloped with the stairs. Bob and Teensy put their “bedroom” at the end of the space with the lowest ceiling. Their “living room” occupied the end of the space with maximum headroom — four feet at the most.
It was cozy.
Especially when you were invited in for dinner.
I heard a knock at my door. It was four in the afternoon and I was sleeping. I had a musician’s work schedule and my sense of time was a bit askew.
I opened the door and there stood Teensy, clad in a long, shapeless dress she had fashioned out of cheap Pakistani tablecloths. Her tiny feet were dirty (she walked the streets of the East Village barefoot) and she reeked of patchouli oil (a potent deodorant if one lacked bathing facilities).
“Come to dinner.”
“Come to dinner. At our house.”
“We’re havin’ leftovers.”
When the time arrived, I put on my best T-shirt (the one painted like a dress shirt, complete with tie) went downstairs and knocked on the “door” of the “house.” It opened, the bottom of the plywood scraping the pitted floorboards in the hallway. Bob’s head poked out. “Welcome, my friend. Please, come on in.” He smiled broadly. His teeth were succumbing to the pressures of a bohemian existence.
I got down on my knees and scooted into the “house.”
Into the “living room.”
Bob and Teensy cooked on a small propane camp stove — a single ring affair. Meals were, by necessity, a mélange, everything cooked in one small, tin pot and served in mess kits shoplifted from an Army surplus store. The meal had to come together quickly; stove time was limited due to the carbon monoxide problem — though a hefty dose of CO2 would not have put a dent in Teensy.
We engaged in some idle chitchat as whatever was in the pot bubbled away. Bob and Teensy wanted to know how my career in the music business was going. I lied and told them everything was swell.
I asked Bob and Teensy about their hopes and dreams.
Turns out, travel was on the agenda.
“Actually,” said Bob, “this is just our summer home. When the weather turns, we’ll head to Miami. I mean, autumn in New York is beautiful, don’t you think? But it sure is easier to live in Florida during the winter. We can hitchhike down there, set up shop outdoors, sell the beads we string, and there are plenty of leftovers at the hotels.”
“Yep. We always eat leftovers.”
“How can you always eat leftovers if you don’t cook something to be left over?”
“Oh, heck, that’s easy. They’re someone else’s leftovers. That’s what we’re havin’ tonight. Leftovers. Teensy found ‘em today, so they’re fresh.”
Turns out, leftovers were items scavenged from the garbage cans at restaurants and delis.
“We’re havin’ pastrami and macaroni salad soup. The other day, we had meatloaf and kugel soup. We have soup every meal.”
It was a delightful evening.
We wolfed down the soup, Bob and I discussed the merits of the lettering on the cover of the East Village Other, Teensy scurried down the hall to the communal bathroom to do the dishes and I felt the first rumblings of some nasty business taking place in Gastroville.
Things came to full flower at about midnight, while I was at work, playing the drums at The Balloon Farm.
It was not pretty.
But, with elements of my recent Thanksgiving meal at hand, the leftover situation has veered to the bright side of the spectrum.
I had family in town for the holiday and they are game for anything. They all drink.
So, as is the norm, the first meal after Thanksgiving was turkey molé. I whipped up a pot of the molé with extra chile, and my brother made a cooling slaw. I mixed up some masa cakes (two parts masa to one part flour — sautéed corn kernels, onion and garlic, a bit of Espanola red, cumin, oregano, salt, pepper, water to the proper consistency). I crisped the cakes in olive oil over medium high heat, pressing down on them after they were turned and, when done, draining them on paper towel and keeping them warm in a 200-degree oven. I drained and rinsed a couple can’s worth of pinto beans then warmed the beans in a pan with some chicken stock, a bit of crushed, fire-roasted tomato, a smidge of the Espanola red, cumin and oregano, until they started to tighten up. At the end of the process, I blitzed about a third of the beans with an immersion blender.
The production: Down goes a cake. On goes a mess o’molé. On top of the molé, some grated Asadero (or Queso Fresco for those who prefer it) and a glob of sour cream. Perhaps a flutter of chopped cilantro. On the side, a pile of beans and a pile of slaw.
Heart attack, anyone?
The next day, for breakfast, leftovers, part deux. Down goes a warmed masa cake, on goes some warmed molé, a mat of shredded Asadero is applied and a couple fried eggs, sunny side up, crown the creation. Oh, and some sour cream, for good measure.
Eat this too often and the next words you hear are “Code Blue in the ER. We need the crash cart, stat.”
For the remainder of the remainders of the Thanksgiving feast: stuffing cakes and a turkey tarragon slather.
The leftover stuffing needed to be pulverized. I made mine pretty darned chunky this year, and there were hunks of hot Italian sausage in the mix as well. So, I broke up the hunks of bread and sausage and moistened everything with chicken stock — just enough to bind a patty together.
I cooked some finely sliced white onion in olive oil and added a very small amount of minced celery. I diced and blanched some carrot to fork tender and tossed in some frozen peas during the last couple minutes of the blanch. I drained the peas and carrots and set them aside.
I made a roux in the pan with the onion and, as the roux cooked to blond, tossed in a bit of minced and smushed garlic. I had some turkey stock left over and I added it to the roux, just enough to make a thick paste. I added half and half to complete the sauce. When the sauce was velvety good, in went the carrots and peas and chunks of turkey, white and dark meat. Tarragon, salt and pepper to taste. A few minutes over a pot of simmering water, just enough time to allow everything to get hot, and the meal was on the glide path.
I formed patties from the stuffing mix and browned them in a mix of half olive oil, half butter. When the crispy patties were drained, they were covered with a molten flow of the turkey mix. On the side, greens and tomatoes, with a lemon vinaigrette.
Now, if I can just work up the nerve to put leftover kugel and meatloaf in a blender, and …