My father always shakes his head when he sees me or my mother peeling potatoes. “Tsk tsk,” he clucks, “You throw half of it away in the peel; good thing my mother is not alive to see this!” While this is a running joke in our family—not just about potatoes, but anything we use or cook in the kitchen—underlying it is a deeper story.
My paternal grandmother, born at the tail end of World War I, lived through World War II and the 1948 Palestine war, when scarcity was a way of life and wasting anything was akin to sacrilege. My father, who was born in 1950 and lived through a couple smaller wars himself, inherited his mother’s aversion to waste, an aversion seen across many of his generation.
For many of us in the US, worrying about wasting potato peels may seem like overkill, but food waste is a serious issue. If you find yourself trying to be more conscious of your ecological footprint, taking cues from the way previous generations managed to get the most out of their ingredients is a good place to start. The methods I describe here for using up leftovers in order to reduce waste aren’t about specific recipes (although I've provided recipes to guide you); they’re more of a blueprint or a mindset that anyone can easily adopt. And it helps that they end up producing delicious food.
Beyond reducing food waste, what I love about repurposing leftovers is that, with a little coaxing, they can not only become a whole new delectable meal, but they can also be transformed to the point of becoming unrecognizable, so that the discards of one dish can become the star of another. I tend to view the week ahead of me as a jigsaw puzzle, a series of unique and flavorful meals that feed off each other. Normal people count sheep to fall asleep; I lay in bed arranging weekly meals in my head until I doze off.
Here are a few examples of the branching possibilities of specific ingredients in the kitchen labyrinth of my mind:
- If I’m coring zucchini to make kusa o waraq (dolma), I might pan fry the cores with onions and garlic for a simple caponata-like dish; I might use the raw cores to make fritters; or I might sauté and mix them with yogurt for a refreshing condiment to serve alongside.
- When I’ve blanched Swiss chard to stuff and roll its leaves, I chop and mix the stems with tahini for an accompanying dip.
- Roasted or fried fish one night? I make a sauce of lightly caramelized onions and tahini thinned out with water, smother the leftover fish with it, and bake it all until bubbly and golden. If I want to make something a little more elaborate, I’ll brown some onions, layer them and the fish between rice, and then I’ll add a seafood broth flavored with cumin and coriander and simmer everything together on the stovetop.
- Hashweh, which literally means “stuffing,” is a pilaf of rice, beef, pine nuts, and spices, and it’s a full meal in its own right. I always make a generous amount for dinner, then use the leftovers to stuff a chicken the next day. I then use the bones from the roasted chicken to make broth for a soup for the following night, and what starts out as a single meal idea produces three days of dinner, as well as a little extra chicken broth that I can put in my freezer.
While I have many more examples, if there’s one thing I always have leftovers of, it’s plain white rice. If you eat rice, and it’s likely you do, given that more than 4 million tons of rice were consumed last year in the US, you probably regularly find yourself with a similar surplus. Rather than being a chore, I find using up leftover rice to be an inspiring challenge, since it provides one of the most exciting backdrops on which to build a meal.
The easiest go-to option in my kitchen is labaniyeh, a creamy dish of rice cooked in garlic-flavored yogurt; you can think of it as a cross between risotto and congee – comfort food at its best. When I’m in a patient mood, I might even fry some pine nuts or almonds for garnish and serve it with a dill seed-tomato salsa.
If I have good homemade chicken broth on hand, then the question of what to make with the rice is even easier to answer: I make a simplified version of shurabet el eid (literally: holiday soup, pictured at the top of the page), for which I bake marble-sized meatballs made of ground lamb or beef mixed with a few spices, and toss them into the broth with the leftover rice, and garnish with fresh parsley.
But if the weather is warmer and you want a dish to cool off, then a North African-inspired rice salad is the way to go. Preserved lemon, harissa, olives, and fresh herbs transform leftover white rice into a meal so aromatic and satisfying you just might start deciding to make the rice from scratch to enjoy it.
These are but a few examples meant to serve as a blueprint that inspires rather than a rigid procedure that limits. With practice, however, this way of cooking can become second nature. Until such a time, these rice recipes are an easy way to get started.