Revelers call it the holidays, retailers call it shopping season. To me, it’s leftovers season. It runs from about Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day, when the last of the Christmas leftovers are used to sponge up the libations of the previous night’s revelry.
Conveniently, leftovers season happens to be a period when the weather is cold enough that jam-packed fridges can overflow into unheated garages and onto porches, turning these spaces into temporary walk-in refrigerators, easily capable of holding multiple roasting pans and serving bowls.
Growing up, I pretty much thought I invented refried turkey for breakfast. Each passing holiday turned the kitchen into a temporary lab for my continued research. Little did I know the art of cooking previously cooked food is a universal, with variations having been honed the world over, producing delicious recipes like Brazilian roupa velha, which means “old clothes.”
In the U.K., there are several dishes that specialize in rehashing Christmas dinner, like the Scottish rumbledethumps or English bubble and squeak, which in turn has many variations, like parsnip bubble and squeak hash. There’s also a Finnish dish called hänt i veckan (“happened this past week”), as well as biksemad, a Danish dish loosely translated as “food which as been mixed together.”
Today, many of these recipes use some combination of fresh and leftover ingredients, while some postmodern renditions are made with entirely fresh ingredients, but in the spirit of leftovers. The only ingredients I consistently add to my leftovers are olive oil, garlic, hot sauce and perhaps an egg.
You don’t need a recipe to cook leftovers. You just have to heat them up. But you have to do it tastefully, and there are some important principles that should be followed. If they are, and the leftovers are properly resurrected, round two could very well eclipse the first.
When deciding how much food to reheat, keep in mind that the nutritional value of food breaks down with successive heatings and coolings, as does the food’s aesthetic value. You don’t want to face the prospect of leftover leftovers.
If all you want to do is simply reheat last night’s glory, then you might as well do it in the oven. It will heat the food, put a little brown crisp on top and won’t screw anything up. I like to customize my leftovers as I reheat them, so I prefer the pan.
I start by frying the leftover proteins, be they ham, fish or tofurkey, in olive oil. Any cooking oil, or even butter, will work, but the drippings in the pan do not qualify as oil. While they do contain grease, there are many more constituents as well, some of which will burn in a hot pan.
But the drippings are valuable in their own right. I regard drippings as a poor man’s demi-glace, to be used judiciously and thoughtfully in order to add richness to the food. When it’s almost done cooking, simply add drippings to the refried leftovers pan. A recipe like spiced parsnip bubble and squeak would likely have you include fresh onions, caramelized in oil or butter. I rarely bother, as the leftovers themselves likely contain caramelized onions.
As the proteins sputter in the oil, add whatever else you want to cook, in order of longest to shortest cooking times. Add potatoes and carrots first, so they can brown. Add greens, broccoli and other sensitive veggies at the end, so they don’t overcook.
Fry at no higher than at low-medium heat. There should be no rush, and you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you have to act quickly to prevent burning. Especially on New Year’s Day.
While reheating, I don’t like to stir the whole pan together into some kind of mishmash goulash surprise. Instead, I’ll stir each little pile of individual leftovers, keeping the groups separate. When the proteins are sputtering, stir in some minced garlic. Once the garlic has had a moment to cook, and the kitchen smells amazing, gingerly stir in some of those pan drippings.
If you’ve been nibbling at the leftovers as they reheat, and there’s almost nothing left for breakfast—or if you just really want to pig out—now would be a good time to consider adding an egg to the pan.
Scrambling an egg in with the leftovers may sound like an easy way to go, but it’s a tricky move to pull off in an appetizing way. The egg will absorb all kinds of unsightly bits and pieces of food, stick to the pan, and perhaps burn. If you want scrambled eggs with your leftovers, it’s best to scramble them in a separate pan and add them to the leftovers.
Cooking a fried egg atop the leftovers, however, is a completely respectable way to go. The leftovers should be fully reheated by the time the egg is cracked, with each component pile of leftovers having achieved its requisite skin of pan-fried crisp. The garlic and pan drippings have been added. It’s time to turn off the pan, in other words.
But first, crack an egg (or two) on top of the whole business. Choose a place to dump the egg where it will stay together, rather than letting the egg white spread like a creeping amoeba into crevices among the leftovers.
Add a few drops of water to any exposed patches of bare pan, and cover the pan with a tight lid so the eggs steam. At this point, the leftovers could probably use a little water anyway, to loosen up some of the crispy refried turkey and potatoes that have bonded to the pan.
Peek at the egg while it cooks, adding more water if necessary to keep it steaming. When the egg is done to your liking, serve the leftovers or eat them straight from the pan. Have a bottle of hot sauce on hand, as well as coffee, mayo, the newspaper and whatever else you need to fully enjoy your refried leftover breakfast. ‘Tis the season, after all.