Here, Eat This

Frittata: The Leftovers Workhorse You Never Knew You Never Knew

Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Frittata based on a ribollita riff.

Anyone who’s followed my writing — or my cooking — knows that leftovers are kind of a thing for me. I love them on their own, but I love tinkering with them even more. Over the years, I’ve developed a sort of mental workflow for cooking with leftovers, a branching series of Choose Your Own Adventure assessments that help determine the direction in which I’m going to take that half cup of asparagus tips, a chicken leg and some penne. Dotted throughout those branches are a handful of standby techniques, each chosen for its ability to absorb a wide array of leftovers like The Blob the day after Thanksgiving. Frittata is one of my favorites.

Frittata is the leftovers workhorse you never knew you never knew. It's sort of like the eggy Italian answer to fried rice (in terms of its leftovers utility), in the form of omelets for a crowd.

A frittata is sort of like a crustless quiche, though its “filling” does not typically contain cream. What it does contain is mostly limited by your imagination and the contents of your refrigerator. I’ve never tried it, but I’m reasonably confident you could pull off a sweet version if you really set your mind to it.

click to enlarge A frittata of leftover parmigiano-roasted zucchini with salami, onion and cheddar, in its final moments under the broiler. - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS L. HALL
A frittata of leftover parmigiano-roasted zucchini with salami, onion and cheddar, in its final moments under the broiler.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
The process is pretty simple, to the point that I’ve never used a recipe for a frittata.

Step One: Sauté your ingredients in an ovenproof skillet large enough to hold the number of eggs you’ll be adding. I typically use a 12-inch skillet and between eight and a dozen eggs, as I’m always feeding a crowd.

Step Two: Add beaten eggs and stir often, until large curds begin to form and the eggs are mostly set at the edges. The fillings should be mostly submerged, with some bits poking up above the surface for optimal textural variation as they crisp under the broiler.

Step Three: Slide the pan under your broiler and cook until the eggs are set and the top is lightly browned. This only takes a few minutes, typically. Sometimes, the whole thing puffs up a bit, kind of like a souffle. That’s OK.

Step Four: Slice and serve, maybe with a nice salad.

I know this is barely even a sketch of a recipe, which is at least part of the point. Frittata is flexible. I’ll add a few more general pointers, just to get you started.

Generally speaking, you want to add already cooked items to your frittata. The whole thing cooks very quickly, and you don’t want to end up with raw green beans in the center of your frittata. Roasted vegetables are perfect. Fresh, tender greens like spinach can definitely play in a frittata, but you’ll want to make sure you give them a minute in the pan before adding the eggs, to drive off most of their moisture.

Size matters. Most of the time, you’ll want to make sure that you cut the items you’re adding to your frittata into manageable pieces. This might be as simple as cutting your roasted baby potatoes in half. More tender items - say a handful of roasted asparagus spears — don’t necessarily need this treatment. Meat generally does. You don’t want a whole slice of leftover pork loin, but a dice of the same works beautifully. A whole chicken breast probably won’t work out well, but if you shred it first, you’re golden.

Remember that you’re adding cooked items. The first step, the sauté step, isn’t really doing a lot of actual cooking. It’s mostly a matter of getting everything in the pan and mingled, and getting the whole setup hot and ready for the eggs. Certain items (like the whole asparagus spears mentioned above) don’t even really need this step. Super tender things like asparagus, I often add directly to the eggs after I’ve added them, just before I pop the pan in the oven. Asparagus takes no time to heat through, and adding it like this helps preserve its texture.

While a frittata is a great way to use up leftovers, I often add a few new items to help things along. I almost always add some fresh onion, and frequently add some sort of flavorful cured meat product. Pancetta is something of a pantry staple for me, and it’s great in a frittata. Just make sure you render the fat from it and get it crispy before adding your other items. The same holds true for anything similar: pepperoni, bacon, etc.

Cheese is your friend. I know this is always the case, but it still bears mention. Shredded or cubed cheese adds flavor and creamy texture to a frittata, and a final flurry of parm is a great finishing step. Don’t get stuck on cheddar. Go nuts. Goat cheese along with green vegetables can be terrific. Feta with roasted mushrooms and quickly sautéed spinach. Leftover steak, roasted potatoes and a nice blue cheese.

click to enlarge Pasta frittata with parm, arugula, tomatoes, shallots, capers, pine nuts, chiles, lemon zest. - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS L. HALL
Pasta frittata with parm, arugula, tomatoes, shallots, capers, pine nuts, chiles, lemon zest.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
Frittata is the single greatest use for leftover pasta, especially when you’re left with that awkward amount that’s more than one person will eat, but not enough for the crowd you have to feed. Toss it in the bowl with your beaten eggs and proceed as described above. It’s so good, you’ll find yourself eating less spaghetti on Wednesday just so you can have pasta frittata on Thursday. If you’re lucky, that leftover pasta is carbonara. Nothing beats “Inception Frittata.”

A frittata loves a sauce. I’m partial to cheat-y aioli-esque sauces, taking the easy out of whisking some hot sauce or herbs into good quality store bought mayo and calling it a day. Gochujang mayo is pretty nice served alongside a frittata filled with leftover bits of bulgogi and banchan. Beef fajita frittata with Valentina mayo. You get the picture.

Frittata especially loves a sauce when served chilled or at room temperature. The ability to navigate a range of serving temperatures is one of frittata’s many charms. It makes for a particularly excellent dish for a brunch or breakfast buffet, since you can prepare it and set it aside while working on other things, and it’ll be just fine if it cools off. A leftovers dish that doesn’t mind being leftover, if you will.

click to enlarge "Inception Frittata" with leftover carbonara and adders of onion, ham, parm and greens. - PHOTO BY NICHOLAS L. HALL
"Inception Frittata" with leftover carbonara and adders of onion, ham, parm and greens.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall
As I’m sure is apparent, my approach to frittata is very open-ended. It’s a dish — a technique, really — that encourages spontaneity. I have yet to throw something at a frittata and walk away disappointed or regretful. The downside of this is that my recipe-less approach and tendency to simply make use of the random odds and ends I have lying around means that it can be tough to perfectly recreate a particularly successful frittata, much to the consternation of my family. All things considered, that’s not the worst problem to have, especially when it comes to leftovers.