Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Parlor and the Kitchen- Monday Blues

Mondays suck out loud. And they require a special kind of sustenance.

It doesn’t matter that I work for myself, often in sweatpants (read: pajamas), in my living room. It doesn’t matter that I am smart enough to avoid scheduling Monday meetings. I am pretty diligent about giving myself actual weekends, with as little working as I can manage, hoping to start the week refreshed. I am not successful. For whatever reason, Mondays are a hard to get out of bed day, a cranky day, a day you want to just curl up on the couch and watch bad TV and eat something soft and comforting.

One of the things that is awfully dangerous about loving to cook is that you can easily start the week with a fridge full of drips and drabs, little bits of leftovers, the flotsam and jetsam of a well-spent weekend in the kitchen.

Thanks to RealSimple for the pic!

As I have mentioned before, I am slightly OCD about food safety, so while Charming Suitor will happily grab something a week old for a snack, leftovers get tossed after three days in my house. I’m just too paranoid. So by the time I get to Monday, it is the last day for whatever I made on Friday. And despite the desire to head to the store and spend the afternoon whipping up something fun and new to beat the Monday blahs (and procrastinate actual work), I do hate the wastefulness of my stringent food policies, it makes me crazy to throw away food when so many are hungry.

Yesterday was no different. I dragged my hateful Ms Cranky Pants self out of the dark comfort of my bed to discover that the weather here in Chicago was overcast and threatening to rain. I looked at the e-mails to be answered, and the contest entries to be logged. (If you haven’t already, check out the fab contest Jen Lancaster and I are running, and enter! CLICK HERE for details, you won’t be sorry….you could win the two of us coming to your hometown to take you and your best bud to lunch! With presents!)

I decided that I needed to take stock of the fridge. While I could have simply made lunch from leftovers, eating them in their original state didn’t set my heart aflutter. I wanted something simple, new. It made me think of all of the casseroles of my youth. Born of frugality, the casserole was the garde manger of the home, making something out of nothing, the waste not want not mentality.

These days, when I make a casserole, it is usually its own thing, not a response to something already in existence. It is because I am craving turkey tetrazzini, not because I have leftover turkey. And yet, that doesn’t honor the origin of those deeply comforting dishes. The all-in-one meals that can be served in a bowl with a spoon and eaten in one’s lap.

Here is what I had in the fridge:
A bit of flank steak
A large chunk of turkey breast
One ear of corn
A small handful of steamed asparagus
2 grilled yellow squashes and 1 grilled zucchini
A large bowl of rice salad with black beans

Hmmm. Both of the meats had been done on the grill. The veggies are all pretty complementary. Rice is a good vehicle for most anything, and all good comfort foods have some sort of starchy element.

I took out the bowl of rice, and began chopping everything else up.

I went to the pantry and discovered a can of cream of chicken soup. In the fridge, the end of a tub of sour cream and a quarter cup of half and half. About an ounce of grated Chihuahua cheese and the same of grated parm. I tossed all the gloopy stuff in a bowl and mixed. Some salt and pepper.

And then dumped the mess into the bowl of leftovers and stirred it up, and transferred to a foil pan. (no one wants to scrub casserole dishes on a Monday.) Some bread crumbs and a drizzle of olive oil, and into a 350 degree oven.

I knew it might be a disaster. I knew that it was possible that I was rendering a fridge full of perfectly good leftovers into a nightmare pan of inedibility. But I also knew that I was unlikely to actually eat any of them in their current state, and would let them languish until I could safely throw them away.

It was a leap of faith, made easier by the knowledge that if it sucked like Monday, no one would be the wiser.

I got lucky. The rice and goo melded to make a soft creamy vehicle for the meats and veg. The occasional pop of a kernel of sweet corn was a wonderful surprise, and I wish I’d had a second ear to throw in there. The zucchini and squash retained their flavor and texture and shockingly didn’t get lost in the dish, and the turkey and steak were great tender nuggets, and it didn’t seem at all weird to have both in there, probably because they were both done on the grill, so the smoke unified them. The asparagus, which had been toothpick thin, completely disappeared, but I think it would have been good if it had been larger. But all in all, it was enormously satisfying and made Monday lunch something of a celebration.

(The fact that Monday dinner then became cakes made of the casserole, lightly pressed together and dredged in flour before pan searing in olive oil, served with softly scrambled eggs was a major bonus!)

Some tips for successful off the cuff casserole-ing:

If they went together well on your plate at dinner, they are likely to play well in a casserole. Just be careful about things that are seasoned in a complicated way, or come in a lot of sauce, or are likely to give off a lot of water in the cooking. If you have raw veggies left over from a crudités platter or the like, steam them quickly in the microwave, or sauté before using them.

Keep a couple of condensed cans of cream of something soup in your pantry….I like chicken for things that will have meat, and celery for things that don’t. This stuff is just great casserole glue, and don’t be ashamed to use it! Do buy the highest quality available.

Anything creamy always helps, sour cream, milk/cream/half and half, cottage cheese, cream cheese, goat cheese, mascarpone. You can also stir in an egg or two as a binder.

Something tangy, like leftover shredded cheese or grated parm can be a good addition to brighten flavors.

Starch is key, leftover pasta, rice or potatoes are wonderful in casseroles. If you have the protein and veg but are shy on the starch, cook up some new stuff quickly. I also freeze leftover rice that comes with Chinese takeout, an excellent back up plan.  If your leftover starch is something that won't mix well, like stuffing or mashed potatoes, think about using it either as a base for the rest of the stuff, or as a topping. (Stuffing crust or Shepherd's Pie style mashed potato topping!)

Season simply with salt and pepper. Lemon zest can also be a good addition to a casserole. Parsley almost always works. Be careful with other herbs to be sure that they won’t fight with the flavors.

A crunchy topping is always welcome, experiment with toasted crumbs (great way to use up stale bread), the remains of a bag of chips, crispy chow mein noodles, crumbled crackers leftover from the weekend cheese board….

BE BOLD! BE FEARLESS! Its leftovers, the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll have pizza night. (which is another fun way to use up leftovers, but that is another post….)

Bake about an hour at 350, then check the temperature…you want it to be pretty steaming hot, at least 160, just to be sure that any little unwanted beginnings of bacteria that your leftovers may have been harboring are thoroughly dealt with, especially since the point of the casserole is to give you an extra couple of days of viability.

(Feel better with some actual recipes for inspriation?  Click any of the casserole mentions above for some good casserole cookbooks!)

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath

@staceyballis on Twitter...come follow me!


  1. I've been wanting to get into casseroles lately, in hopes of prepping them on the weekend and popping them in the freezer to be enjoyed later in the week. I've been so gun-shy about it because I want something a little more adventurous than the casseroles I grew up eating. Now that someone has basically broken it down for me, I look forward to making some rocking flavorful dishes!

  2. I am such a huge fan of casseroles. Nothing makes me happier than to have all my food smushed together and in a bowl!

  3. Now I'm hungry! :p

    I'm so bad about being inspired by whatever is in the fridge. I'm terrible at thinking of things to cook based on what we have. My fiancé, on the other hand, could whip up something tasty and amazing out of 3 disparate ingredients. I honestly don't know how he does it.

  4. Seriously? Is that an actual picture of the inside of your fridge? It looks like one of the pictures that they would use on the fridge brochure to show how much stuff your fridge could hold.....if anyone actually organized their fridge. Particularly love the fresh herb terrariums.

  5. Fantastic post!! I'm constantly throwing out food, and it drives both the hubby and I nuts.

    Quick question, how do you freeze your leftover rice and fresh veggies? I seem to always have left over veggies that don't get used. When I've tried to freeze them, they always end up with freezer burn. :(

  6. That is an actual picture of the fridge I would like to have. The location of my own fridge made taking a pic damned impossible. Apparently the caption didn't post, but hopefully it is there now, I got the pic on the Real Simpe website. However, I chose it out of al the fridge pics on the web because it highlights some stuff I actually use....like the Prepara Herb Savor pods on the door (I have three in almost constant use, love them!), the juice carafes on the top shelf (Bed Bath and Beyond and really pretty, but plastic!) and the Snapware containers, seen in the fridge and freezer and about which I have written before.

  7. Jamie- The best way to freeze is in a freezer ziploc bag, being sure to press out as much air as possible. Also, be sure to store the items in the fridge until well chilled before putting in the freezer, if you put them in the freezer warm, it will make steam and that will ice over. Also, these items are not good for long term storage, so try to use within a month of freezing.

  8. Thanks for the clarification on the origination of the fridge picture. I don't feel so inadequate now.

  9. Thank you Stacey! I usually put my cooked veggies in the freezer while they're warm, so obviously that's the culprit. :)