Perfectly Good

November 7th, 2011 · 27 Comments · Dinner, Pasta, Posts by Andy, Quick, Uncategorized, Vegetarian

Every spring, growing up, my elementary school would put on a fifth grade Science Fair. They’d clear out the gym, bring in a bunch of those long cafeteria tables, and the fifth graders would file in early, groggy and grumpy, to set up their exhibits. Later that day, we’d take our places behind our posters and dioramas and baking-soda-and-vinegar volcanoes, as the rest of the school filtered through, pretending to be interested. My exhibit was a poster-board triptych about beach erosion, which is strange to me now, seeing as we lived nowhere near the beach and I gave not one fig about erosion.* The thing I remember most from that day, though, was not my lame poster or the sweet feeling of relief when the fair was finally over. What I remember most was an exhibit, a few doors down from mine, cheerily titled “Nuclear Winter.”

I wasn’t sure what nuclear winter was, exactly. Was it related to acid rain, that great scourge of the late 70s and early 80s? Was it the same thing as fallout? Would it require a bulkier winter coat? No, if this exhibit was to be believed, nuclear winter was something far, far worse. This was no shoebox diorama. This was, no exaggeration**, a 2×3 foot topographical model of a ravaged landscape. When nuclear winter came knocking, it announced, the world would turn the color of cigarette ash and bus exhaust. Human beings – those that survived – would be forced underground. The sun would be extinguished, winter settling in for the long haul. Here and there were shattered (painted plastic) tree trunks and a pile of rubble that was once a house. The boy who made the exhibit had strewn some white, stick-like things on the ground which, he said, were supposed to represent animal bones. Here was a simple law of nature that even a fifth grader could understand: without sun, there is no food; without food, everything dies. Call me sheltered, but this was a possibility I had not yet contemplated in life. What fifth grader does? Either this kid was the love child of Cormac McCarthy and Ingmar Bergman, or he was onto something real, in which case my family would need to be prepared. We had no stockpiles of food in our basement, only a workbench, a giant foam mattress, a pool table, and some old cans of Minwax. If nuclear winter hit and the animals died and our Safeway was reduced to a gray smudge, how would we survive? What would we do for food?

Thirty years later, I know exactly what I’d do: I’d head to my in-laws’.

Open the door to Jenny’s mother’s refrigerator, and this is – more or less – what you will see: very little that resembles what we think of as “groceries.” You will see orange juice and water, a tub of whipped cream cheese, and a smattering of condiments. But mainly, you will see endless bowls and plates and little glass dishes, all neatly covered in Saran Wrap, containing leftovers. A dessert plate with five green beans. A bowl with three flaccid strawberries. A plastic take-out container with two ounces of plain spaghetti, cooked, and another plastic take-out container with about four tablespoons of marinara sauce. One-third of a breaded chicken cutlet. Half a piece of French toast. A Chinese food carton containing a single piece of black-bean shrimp. A Ziploc bag containing one sad leaf of Boston lettuce. Enough hummus to satisfy a field mouse. A slice of honeydew melon, vintage unknown. None of this will go to waste, by the way. Not one bit of it will be thrown out. Everything here will be repurposed, over the coming days, into the brown bag lunches that Jenny’s mom has taken to work every day for the last 30 years. Think of it as leftover tapas. This is an actual picture I took at her house last weekend:

When Jenny and I were first together, and I was just getting to know her family, I could. Not. Get. Over. This. My family was not a leftover family. This was not a wasteful thing; we mostly ate the leftovers before they had a chance to become leftovers. To give you a sense of our general stance at the dinner table, my plate-clearing mother’s nickname growing up was “The Disposal.” Jenny’s family, though, was a little daintier. She grew up in a house where people ate with unfathomable restraint and nun-like discipline; she knew what portion control was before portion control was a thing. (Famous story in Jenny’s house: her parents once bought a single pint of ice cream for a dinner party for… nine people! Okay, another famous story: we once had a single bottle of wine for Thanksgiving dinner. Everybody, raise your thimbles! If you want more famous stories, email me directly.) And whatever was left over, no matter how small, was not ever swept into the sink. “Don’t throw that away!” Jenny’s mom would say, as I tipped a plate containing a lone baby carrot toward the garbage pail. “That’s perfectly good!” Anything edible was deemed perfectly good, wrapped up, and put away to be reckoned with later.  I was so amazed by this, actually, that I decided to conduct an experiment one day, to see just how far this would go: on a Sunday morning, before we were married, I took a blueberry pancake from my plate, and perched it…just…so…on the lip of the garbage can. And waited. Jenny’s mom finished up at the stove, moved to put the pan into the sink, turned to join us at the table, and then froze. She has the vision of a barn owl. She had spotted my pancake. She moved closer. Unaware that we were watching, she bent down to inspect it. And lifted it out of the garbage can. At which point, Jenny and I exploded into laughter. “Very funny,” she said. And put the pancake on her plate.

All of which is a very long way of saying that, when it comes to leftovers in our house, Jenny and I fall somewhere between our two families, in the middle of the spectrum. We save what gets better with age (stews, braises, meat sauces) and what can be used in school lunches the following day (drumsticks, pizza slices, pork tenderloin for a mind-blowing sandwich). But maybe the best, quickest leftover meal – and one we would make once a week if we could get the kids fully on board with eggs – is the spaghetti omelet. It’s perfectly good. – Andy

Spaghetti Omelet
Do not try this with freshly made pasta — it won’t work. Use 3 eggs for every 1 cup of cooked spaghetti.

Fry leftover, unsauced spaghetti in 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat. Add some salt and cook for 5 minutes until crispy on the bottom. Add 1 tablespoon finely chopped onions or scallions, 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, then flip over like a pancake. Whisk together some grated Parmesan cheese with eggs.  Add eggs to the pan and cook until they are done, 2 to 3 minutes. (You can also crack the eggs right into the crisped spaghetti.) Flip one more time. Serve like a pizza, cut into wedges.

*The original plan, hatched with my friend J., was to demonstrate this with a tub-sized plastic container, a bag of sand, and a few gallons of water, dyed a Carribean blue. I would then attach a fan to one end of the tub, turn it on high, and make actual waves – which, in turn, would slowly erode the beach in real time. When I relayed this plan to my dad, he responded, “That’s a wonderful idea. Wow. Or you could just do a poster.”

**Okay, a little exaggeration.

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27 responses so far ↓

  • 1 kimberly // Nov 7, 2011 at 9:39 am

    aaaaahahahahahahaa…I grew up in Jenny’s house. Thankfully I married a “Disposal” so I don’t have to move around all those dishes of tiny leftovers ;)

  • 2 Cecilia Madden // Nov 7, 2011 at 9:58 am

    hilarious! my grandmother is kind of the same way, my mother less so. This is good that the insanity decreases each generation…i think!

  • 3 Essie // Nov 7, 2011 at 10:33 am

    This is brilliant!

  • 4 Jen // Nov 7, 2011 at 10:49 am

    My husband is the disposal! I’m definitely the tosser. This dish sounds good enough to be made the *first* time around.

  • 5 Torrie @ a place to share... // Nov 7, 2011 at 10:54 am

    I’m with Cecilia on this… My grandmother is the same… my mother less so. I’m bringing it back to my grandmother’s end of the spectrum though, since I find it to be a sort of exhilarating challenge. Using leftovers is just like checking off the to-do list… and it feels SO good :) .

    Love the stories too btw! My husband has many similar stories.

  • 6 Kristin // Nov 7, 2011 at 11:51 am

    My paternal grandmother was “famous” though not in a good way for her slumgullion. If it could go in pot with some kind of broth…it did.

  • 7 joan dorgan // Nov 7, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Hi Andy: I was Jody’s roommate in college and though i don’t remember her being the Food Savior, I do remember her teaching me to always make my bed before i got out of it (and i still do to this day)

  • 8 Julia's Bookbag // Nov 7, 2011 at 12:24 pm

    FUNNIEST POST EVER! I might be able to give Jenny’s mom a run for her money however: my best friend likes to tell a story about how I once saved one small piece of broccoli and one small piece of Chinese orange chicken after eating out. I think she is making this up because I have zero recollection of such insanity!

  • 9 Andi // Nov 7, 2011 at 1:48 pm

    Hilarious post. Not only was I also tormented as a child by the threat of nuclear winter (do you remember the TV movie called The Day After? It still haunts my dreams), we also have a human “Garborator” in my family. My dad comes by his reluctance to throw out “perfectly good” food honestly, it was his mother who would save milk- soaked granola in the fridge if one of us didn’t finish.

  • 10 Jenny // Nov 7, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Andi – I totally remember The Day After! My entire middle school shut down to have a conference about it. And Joan: Love that you chimed in and so glad to have you! For everyone else who doesn’t remember, she is the Joan behind the famous onion trick! http://tinyurl.com/7x4zo65

  • 11 Amanda // Nov 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    The Day After – oh my god that movie scared the bejeezus out of me. We love the spaghetti omelette, and in homage of saving scraps and bits from dinners past, we throw that into the omelet too. Watching the kids hunt for the errant pieces of bacon or favorite vegetable of the moment is pretty fun too. My depression-era grandmother (if she were still alive) would delight in knowing that leftovers don’t go to waste in our family and others too – most of the time.

  • 12 Michelle // Nov 7, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    I love this post! It describes my in-laws perfectly as well as explains the reason my husband REFUSES to eat leftovers. I will try the spaghetti omelette, it sounds like something the kids will love.

  • 13 Janine // Nov 7, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    My mother does this! Once she bought a half a gallon of milk for our family (of 6, including 2 babies who got half their nutrition from milk). It lasted twenty minutes.

  • 14 Cay // Nov 7, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    Hilarious! And in our house, that there dinner is called “Fried Spaghetti!” Learned it from an aunt by marriage who grew up with it. You can even use leftover spaghetti WITH sauce…

  • 15 Beth // Nov 7, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    coming from the offspring of a woman who saves previously dressed salads.. I know you’ve been dying to write this post ! picturing, knowingly, your mother-in-law. gave me a huge smile!

  • 16 Lisa // Nov 8, 2011 at 7:36 am

    The Day After scared the bejeezus out of me too! (But I thought it was cool that the guy in the Volvo survived; we had a Volvo. Very Safe Car!!)

    Anyway, my trick with leftovers (learned from a family I lived with in my 20s) is instead of putting each dish from dinner in it’s own container (i.e. meat, veg, carb all separate) is to make “snack packs” – put together complete meals: in single-serve tupperware goes a bit of meat, a bit of veg, a bit of potatoes. Then voila! In the a.m. you can grab one for lunch that day no fuss no muss!

  • 17 Lex Apostata // Nov 8, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    I married into a Chinese family and discovered that fried rice is only meant to bind together small piles of such leftovers. In fact, when I make fried rice from fresh ingredients it seems a little flat. But when I empty out a half-dozen little plastic containers and carryout boxes into the pan, fried rice seem perfect.

  • 18 Susan // Nov 8, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    What a funny post. Have to say I do love leftovers. The kids are at school and I just have a bit of everything. Love the pasta fritata. I usually have it with some meat sauce mixed in too… yummy. Or… what ever other bits of veggie are left over.

  • 19 My2girls // Nov 9, 2011 at 2:15 am

    To begin with I think this post should have a warning at the top because red wine shot out of my nose while reading the “famous stories.” I think we all have family members like Jenny’s mom and I think that is wonderful. My brother was also called the human garbage disposal and was why there were never leftovers in our house. But the really interesting thing about this post is that it ties in with two of my families favorite repurposing recipes and both I owe to this blog! First, when I make the “Six Kid Crowd Pleaser” chicken I always double the sauce and it becomes pasta sauce the next night and mixed into omelets after that. Second, when I make the “Detox Dinner” (aka fish presents) I clean out every scrap of vegetable left in the crisper – half a bell pepper, bunch of withering kale, graying cauliflower, etc. it all goes in and it all tastes great when it comes out. So thank you for the much appreciated laugh and the great recipes and please keep up the incredible work you guys do here at DALS.

  • 20 Patrice behnstedt // Nov 9, 2011 at 11:49 am

    This is the perfect picture of my mother-in-laws frig. I cleaned it out one day and she could not believe I threw away all the “good food”

  • 21 Jen // Nov 9, 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Andy, I love, love, love your posts!

  • 22 Monica // Nov 9, 2011 at 10:21 pm

    That picture of the plastic bagged bits just cracks me up! I’ve looked at it three times and burst out laughing every time. Great writing, too.

  • 23 Julie // Nov 11, 2011 at 12:04 am

    Made this tonight and it was great. I offically have my “OMG it’s 5 o’clock and I don’t know what I am going to make for dinner” dinner.

  • 24 betsy // Nov 18, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    I love this story. i grew up in a family of 7 and remember my mom making one box of ‘kraft’ macaroni and cheese for all of us! at the time it did not seem that weird–but looking back?
    also my mother used to put our unfinished bowls of remaining cereal in the fridge as a threat. still cannot eat cereal.

  • 25 Dominique // Dec 14, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    I haven’t laughed this hard in awhile!!

  • 26 Elizabeth // Apr 26, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    hahaha – brilliant. My mother in law is the same. She once implored me to save two tablespoons worth of meat juice left in the roasting pan (I could use the juice to flavor rice!… after chilling and removing the fat, of course, which is unhealthy). Another time she showed me how to repurpose the water we had soaked rhubarb in to reduce the acid; it is apparently a very effective toilet cleaner.

    Not that I can really laugh; I save three spoons worth of oatmeal in a bowl in the fridge and mix it in with the next day’s… we’d have some seriously cultured oatmeal if we didn’t occasionally finish the whole morning’s batch.

  • 27 June2 // May 1, 2012 at 4:29 am

    A friend told me he grew up on something his mother called, “compost cake”. Leftovers went into a freezer bag and were baked into a cake once a month. When I asked him if he meant an actual sweet cake with only cake-like ingredients (because I was baffled by the concept), such a pained expression came over his face as he mumbled a sort of non-answer that I immediately dropped that whole line of inquiry as tactfully as possible. Poor guy!

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