I love leftovers (you know this by now ). If I can help it, I won’t let any food go to waste. This was the inspiration for Wednesday’s dinner: mushroom chicken pasta bake. The leftovers I used: cooked whole wheat penne, more of the infamous mushroom cream cheese (you would NOT believe how much of this stuff is still left!) and leftover roasted chicken.
If you take a look at my nifty photo collage (can’t believe I’ve been using Picasa for years and just discovered this feature!) you can see the before and after photos – before is in the top right, after is the large photo on the left and then my plated portion is on the bottom right, alongside some roasted veggies (eggplant, carrot, cauliflower, red pepper with cumin, olive oil and salt). Before I go on to describe how I made this casserole, let me just say that I am really getting into cumin-roasted veggies, cauliflower in particular. I’ve always LOVED cumin and its delightful smokiness (without being spicy hot)…and lately I’ve been sprinkling it on my cauliflower, then roasting with oil and salt…YUMMY! Give it a try.
Anyway…back to the casserole. My sister was visiting this week , so instead of making a dinner for two, this casserole serves three. The amounts I used of my leftovers were (approximately): just about 3 cups cooked penne (I chopped it up a bit before putting it in, because I wanted smaller pieces), 6 or 7 ounces cooked chicken, chopped and a nice scoop of the cream cheese. I started by sauteeing some mushrooms, onion, garlic and kale (for added colour, nutrition, and to use up the little bit left in the fridge) in a teaspoon of olive oil. Meanwhile, I was soaking some dried mushrooms in boiling water. I added the mushrooms, a bit of frozen spinach that I had defrosted and drained (again, why not bump up the veggies?) and the chicken, my seasonings were salt, pepper and thyme. I added in the pasta, my scoop of cream cheese and a bit of the reserved liquid from the mushrooms (if you soak dried mushrooms, save the liquid, it’s SUPER flavourful) and cooked it together for a few minutes until heated through, tasting to check for seasoning (oh: just remembered, I added a splash of soy sauce just for an extra punch of flavour).
I put the pasta mixture into a casserole dish, then topped with 1/3 cup grated light cheese (I had Tex-Mex, so that’s what I used) and 2 tbsp light Parmesan cheese (as processed as I know the stuff in the plastic can is, I like it because it’s grated so fine, a little goes a long way). I baked it at 400 for about half an hour, just to heat it all through and get the cheese nice and bubbly.
This wasn’t my absolute favourite meal, but it was a tasty and inventive way to use up leftovers, I think. It got positive reviews from the other diners too . Since this post is about re-imagining leftovers/using up food, I thought I’d share a few of my favourite tricks and tips for using up leftovers/food that’s almost going bad…there are always ways to incorporate something, and I’d much rather do that than let something go to waste!
1. Be creative! Just because you have leftovers of a meal doesn’t mean you need to eat the same meal for days straight. Leftover meatloaf can be made into a sandwich, or even crumbled onto nachos. That mushroom cream cheese wasn’t just for appetizers, but pizza, pasta, chicken…(still looking for ideas)! You just need to think outside of the box. Part of the fun of leftovers is that you can create unique combinations that you never would have thought of before and maybe make something you like even better than the original!
2. Don’t throw out produce that’s past its prime. Limp veggies can be revived! They’re probably not great for eating fresh…so cook ‘em up. Limp celery and bendy carrots? Cook them in a soup…either chopped in a chicken noodle soup, or blended into a puree for a cream soup. You can also stir fry or roast veggies that may not be at their freshest.
3. Even sour milk can be saved! Ok, if it’s separating into big chunks and clear liquid….it’s past its prime. But, if it’s just a little off, you can bake with it. There are recipes that actually call for soured milk (it’s true!)…like my favourite banana cake recipe (will have to post it here some time). And speaking of out-dated dairy, remember that expiration dates are just a guideline. I eat yogurt that’s past the date all the time…and sometimes milk too! I open it up, take a whiff, and if it smells ok, I go for it, no matter what the date says. Remember, it’s best before, not terrible after!
4. Don’t banish the bruised! Soft or bruised fruit can be used. Over-ripe bananas? Freeze ‘em! Freeze in the peel and then microwave to use in baking (hello banana bread ) or peel first, cut in half, freeze, and use for banana soft serve, smoothies, or just eat as-is for a quick and delicious snack. Pears or apples that are bruised, past their prime, or just kind of mealy or soft are great if you cook them in a little bit of water with cinnamon/spices and sweetener of your choice. You can stir them into yogurt, use as an ice cream topped, or make my squash breakfast.
I’ve got lots more great leftover tips, but I will save them for future posts. Do you have any favourite ways to use up leftovers? And…any ideas for what else I can do with my mushroom cream cheese? Or do you want some? I’ll give it away, free of charge!