Leftovers – the Unloved Scapegoat of the Culinary World

26Aug08

I’m a closet Bento-er.

Oh, I’m not a traditionalist. Originally, I sought meals that could be eaten at room temperature, so that the contents didn’t need to be refrigerated or reheated.

This led to a somewhat depressingly small array of food choices, so I’ve since given up on the thought. It was a nice thought, just not practical. It worked well in allowing me to not have a secondary container for fruits, since they didn’t have to be segregated for the purposes of heating.

But when all is said and done, I pretty much need microwaveable food for my lunches. Enter the Americanized Bento, where the idea is to make the food pretty and in proper proportions and portions.

Finding affordable Bento containers is nearly impossible where I live, but it’s key to fulfilling all of the bento requirements. However, being frugal and suspicious of buying strange things over the internet, I’ve had to get creative with my containers as WELL as the food that I put in them.

I had to go back to my roots. If I’m unwilling to spend a half hour in the morning making onigiri and perfectly arranging lunches for myself and my husband, I need an alternative. So for the last while, a new food companion has entered the scene.

Leftovers.

Now, now, I know what you’re thinking. I used to be there too. Leftovers. Ugh. Who would want to eat those, right? You slap them into some kind of plastic leftover container, and when you open the fridge, they look so…unappetizing. So undelicious.Pity the poor leftovers. It’s not their fault that the standard leftover container is not intended to fully display the time-safe delectability of its contents.

I will be the first to admit that if I put something in a glad leftover container, whether it be potatoes, or lasagna, or soup, I am less likely to want to eat it. As a matter of fact, it sometimes turns my stomach, the thought of pulling them out and eating them.

Those blue-tinted top lids make everything look distorted and gross. Or maybe you reuse containers, and it’s in a cool whip tub or something. Either way, you open it up, and the smell of cold food wafts out. It doesn’t smell good at all, right? And it certainly doesn’t LOOK tasty.

Why eat that, when you could pop in a frozen dinner, or grab something from the local store, or cook something from a box, right?

And so you end up throwing away a good 4/5 of the food that you dutifully transformed into leftovers, aghast at the thought of the starving children in Ethiopia (or whichever country is fashionable for modern-day parents to threaten their children with).

Fear not!

Leftovers are not your enemy. They hold within their cold and unloved grasp, every facet of delicious flavor that they had before you placed them in the Cold Box of Forgetting.

Your mom was right to teach you to save leftover food.

You just need to learn an unamerican way to store the stuff.

The american way, of course, being the “throw it into a container” or, even worse, “slide the thing you cooked it in right into the fridge”.

You have to store it with an eye to how you plan to use it later.

Bento-style.

We get these long plastic containers when we order chinese food that are just perfect for it. The bottom tray is shallow, and an opaque white. The lid is a clear plastic, without design. This allows the food inside to be seen clearly. If I make a neat arrangement and then lid it with a blue plastic lid that’s semi-transparent but has the word “GLADWARE” across the top, I can’t see what’s inside to be woo’d by it.

Yes, “woo’d”. I want my food to fight for my affections.

So what is the secret answer? The solution which dispells the cloud of uncertainty and ugliness that so clutters our leftovers?

Presentation. =]

With colorful side dishes, preferably.

If it’s some kind of meat dish, chicken or pork or steak or somesuch, I’ll sometimes add brown rice or quinoa (or my homemade fried rice, depending on how bland the meat is) and a hefty serving of veggies. I like to add either peas or carrots, because my food is generally an offwhite color – chicken, rice, corn…all sort of look the same. Carrots and peas are a blast of color, and do a ton to make something look more appetizing.

Can also add some kind of noodle or broccoli or sauteed zucchini and onion – whatever floats your boat.

For spanish food, I like to do a spanish rice (uncle ben’s has a lovely orange-colored one). Mr. Ninja likes jalapenos on his, which add a nice green color, and a little dish to hold taco sauce and sour cream. The dish is a bright blue, I think. Anything, so long as it’s not yellow or orange!

I keep a bag of frozen peas and a bag of frozen corn for just this purpose. Frozen carrots do not thaw well, in my opinion, so I’d just as soon boil those separately (this gets done less often since it requires more work than simply pouring veggies out of a bag).

Those little new potatoes (red skin) work well for this, since they have thin skins and can be boiled whole, giving you a lovely creamy baked potato to add without making the meal huge-gantic.

An added benefit is that it makes you think of your food in portions. Don’t eat a whole chicken breast and fill up. Eat a quarter or a half of a chicken breast, and the veggies too.

Anyrate, the trick to the whole thing is making your lunches and dinners ahead of time. Appeal to your own sense of the delicious, and portion out the leftovers NOW, instead of waiting till it gets cold and icky and you don’t want to touch it.

If you go ahead and make the lunches with all the leftovers, and arranged in a neat and delicious way, then you just grab one of them on the way to work, or when you’re home and dinner calls. Heat it up in the microwave, and you’ve got a delicious, organized meal that you didn’t have to spend a ton of time on right then.

You also make the food look better – I’m more likely to eat a portion of lasagna with a pool of corn next to it and a little potato cut in half, already sprinkled with salt and pepper than I am a large hunk of lasagna in a leftover container all by itself. Not only do I have to cut the lasagna that way, I also have to cook any side dishes I might want right then.

And I am way too lazy to cook every night of the week. I’m much more of a “bug in the head” person, where I just go nuts and do a lot of work once, and then relax for the rest of the week. (or half week, depending on how much gets cooked).

So my fridge, instead of a ton of baggies and containers of leftovers, ideally contains two rows of neat white boxes with clear lids that I can glance at and get hungry from.

This morning, for example, I chose between steak and mushrooms or chicken lemon stir fry.

The steak and mushrooms were arranged neatly across a third of the container, drizzled with the gravy from the cooking. A fence of bright orange carrots separated it from a pool of vivid yellow corn, speckled with pepper and small diced bits of red pepper. In the last quarter, I have my glass fruit container, filled to the brim with Galia melon, peaches, and raspberries. (it’s in its own container so I can pull it out while I nuke the rest).

The chicken stir fry was a skillet meal, so I didn’t separate veggies from meat. The small bits of spiced chicken swam in a lemon/wine sauce, mixed in with a very generous portion of red pepper, onion, and zucchini. An identical glass jar of fruit sat on the corner of this meal. Once I get closer to my goal weight, I’ll probably put this over some lemon pepper quinoa with corn and peas mixed in.

Both of them looked absolutely delicious, and the chicken stir fry leftovers will probably be tomorrow’s lunch.

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8 Responses to “Leftovers – the Unloved Scapegoat of the Culinary World”

  1. You have a great plan for leftovers! I don’t usually have many but do take them to work when i do. Your right you really do have to have to make food look good it sets the mood for a great meal ;)

  2. Love the post.
    Love the Bento
    Love my husband.

    Now. Is there any way I can convince him to tote the leftovers to work? (Rhetorical? Kind of—-not really.)

    *I* could care less what he does (and I’d be making more to ensure leftovers!) but he laments his lack of healthy foodchoices @ lunch time and yet won’t ‘bring.’

    Oops.

    Did I just hijack this with my personal lamentation?!

    ;)

    Miz.

  3. @Suzanne
    *nod* definitely. Ugly leftovers take too much mental strength to eat. I am too lazy for that.

    @MizFit
    *laughs* Personal lamentations are allowed on my blog as part of the Ninja Blogging Peace Agreement of Aught Eight.

    Find out why he doesn’t want to take them, is all I can say. My husband was wishy-washy on the whole thing before I started bentoing, and now he makes sad faces when I don’t pack up his lunch for him. It’s adorable, and I love that he enjoys it.

  4. 4 debroby

    You can now purchase (granted plastic and blue or red) bento lunch boxes by the “regular” ones in stores. They are the “hot” accessory in schools. Check out the great lunches my friend Belinda has been making for her daughter Bella this year.

    At the moment, I’m still home for lunch, but I see a time in the future where I’ll be making bento boxes for myself. And unfortunately, our local Japanese restaurants don’t pack up the to gos in bento style boxes.

  5. @debroby
    *clicks* oooh, those are nice. Do you know if each indivdual container has a lid? Otherwise lifting it by the side would cause…issues.

    But that’s really nice, albeit kinda big for the size lunches I personally eat (depending on the depth). Target and Walmart type stores is where those are sold?

  6. Beautiful, well though out leftovers? I think you’re my hero.

    Thankfully, I’ve thrown out almost all of my nasty Gladware and I’m slowly coverting over to less scary food recepticles. And for the record, there’s nothing worse than wanting some Cool Whip and opening a container of old leftover chili. Ick.

  7. Wow! you have a nice plan for leftovers! But it is to be taken care that bacterias forming when proper care is not taken. Be sure about the container details and don’t keep for a long time.

  8. @FBG
    *laughs* I am hero to every leftover pan of lasagna, every hastily-stowed chili, every tinfoil-covered bowl slowly turning green. Where there are leftovers, so too shall I be, for I am….THE NINJA.

    (Okay, that last part didn’t quite mesh.)

    @dieting
    Very true – never store food for more than a week in the fridge, and store some foods for far less than that. Seafood especially.


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