I’ve always liked leftovers. They would nudge me to be creative, to look for possibilities. To make whole old nothings. When leftover pieces of fabric are turned into a patchwork blanket, it becomes the best blanket your linen cupboard has ever seen. The blanket that you keep.
This spring, I enrolled for an art course. And it turned out to be a masterclass in leftovers. We met in a big room, next to the river, with a high ceiling that peaked in the middle. Exposed beams of old wood. A long wooden table battered by years of art. Shelves and drawers that spilled over with paints, brushes, scalpels, lethal liquids and things that you would (wrongly) assume had nothing to do with art. The room’s pièce de résistance was a large window, which let in sumptuous natural light, views of the water and of lunchtime joggers. In that room, and around that table, sat an odd assortment of twelve people, including an author of crime fiction with a deep interest in tulips. Our teacher, a lovely woman with a passion for the Incas, started the first class with a simple instruction. Don’t draw, don’t paint. Explore and research. Surely an unexpected turn for an ‘art class’? We looked at one another, each hoping the other knew what to do.
But soon we were dipping twigs, wires and feathers in ink, swirling toilet paper in PVA glue and brushing varnish on a savoy cabbage. At home, things which earlier would’ve been binned, were kept aside for the next class – leftovers from a sheet of bubble wrap, apple peel or egg shells. I looked at everything and saw TEXTURE. I would have an orange juice from the market stall, then ask for the peel and pulp.
Finally, by the end of the art course, the odd assortment of people, had created an odd assortment of beautiful things, while inspiring, and often humouring, each other.
I made ‘tea’. With bits of gauze, used teabags, red lentils and anything else within arm’s reach. Here’s my imprint of leftovers from the room by the river.
But in the kitchen, my love of unfinished bits and bobs is no secret. At the end of a meal, my mother-in-law would often watch me put away leftovers, with trepidation written large on her face. Because, leftovers from four dishes would not be stored in four separate boxes, but one.
I could literally taste what they could become when put together. Fill a frittata? Bake in béchamel? (stop with the alliteration already!) Anyway, the taste would in my head long before it was on my tongue. Soon, my mother-in-law began to enjoy the surprises that the little leftovers brought to the table. Her shoulders stopped tensing when I packed food away. She would just smile with a little shake of her head – here we go again.
Here’s one of my favourites – my ‘Everything Stew’. Perfect for the day when all you have left are leftovers, and very little time. So go on, scavenge! You’d be surprised what your fridge and wine cellar can come up with at short notice.
The Everything Stew
Apart from the red wine, which you do need, this list is really yours to make. It depends on the vegetables you have at home, the meat in your fridge, throw in some tofu or halloumi, or paneer if you have some. Make it vegetarian if you want. Use whatever you need to finish off, whatever is closest to their expiry date. This is what I had on hand:
6 cocktail sausages
4 chicken thighs
3 strips of bacon, sliced into smaller strips
6 brown chestnut mushrooms, halved
8 stalks of tenderstem broccoli
½ cup peas
100 gm halloumi, cut into cubes
1 large tomato, cubed
4-5 cloves of garlic, lightly crushed
1 bay leaf
Small bunch of parsley, chopped
1 cup dry red wine (I used a Pinot Noir)
1 cup water
1 tsp pepper, coarsely crushed
2 tbs olive oil
A pat of butter (optional)
Heat oil in a heavy wok or saucepan, which has a lid.
On medium heat, sauté the halloumi till lightly browned. Spoon out of the oil and keep aside.
Add sausages and bacon to the oil. Brown them on all sides. Spoon them out and keep aside.
In the same oil (add some more if you need) add the onion, garlic, pepper and chicken. Sauté till the chicken is lightly browned.
Add the tomatoes, the cup of water and the bayleaf.
Adjust the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for 8-10 minutes.
Add all the vegetables, Pour in the wine. And add half of the chopped parsley.
(Since I used vegetables that cooked quickly, I kept them for the end. But for something like florets of cauliflower, brown and soften them in oil earlier in the cooking process)
Gently simmer, without the lid, till all the vegetables are cooked.
Take pan off the heat. Stir in the halloumi, sausages and bacon. Add the butter if you’re using it.
Put the lid back on and let it stand for a few minutes, so that all the flavours soak into the broth. Transfer into your serving dish, garnish with the remaining parsley, and serve with pieces of crusty bread.