Gulf Coast Fried Rice, or What To Do with Random Leftovers

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I think I might have mentioned that I hate wasting food. Perhaps you've noticed on your own. Either way, I think it's fair to say that re-purposing leftovers - ingredients, composed elements, whole dishes, and everything in between - is something of an obsession of mine.

I recently found myself in possession of an odd melange of recipe odds and ends from a couple of projects I've been working on, as well as some scant leftovers from a dinner out earlier in the week. Thinking through how to use them, I had to consider impact. I had very little of several of the key items (a handful of leftover grilled shrimp and a few spears of grilled asparagus from Goode Co. Seafood), and quite a bit of another (epazote).

To blend these effectively would require a dish that uses its protein and vegetable components as flavorings, stretching them through the addition of other, highly flavored ingredients. It also had to be something designed for brief cooking, so as not to destroy the textures of the already cooked veg and seafood. A strong flavor base was also a must, in order to stand up to the pungency of epazote.

Fried rice sprang immediately to mind. The process not only encourages, but demands quick cooking and small portions of a wide array of ingredients. Strong flavors - ginger, garlic, scallion - are common base elements in much Chinese cooking, the Eastern version of mirepoix, and work well as a foundation for fried rice. Plus, I figured the smoky flavor of the Goode Co. leftovers and the assertive pungency of the epazote would work well together in that guise. Before we go any further, let me cut the trolls off at the pass: this makes no claim toward authenticity.

I'd meant to make some rice the night before, as leftover rice fries better. The lack of moisture and firmer texture ensures that each grain maintains its integrity and individuality, rather than forming mushy clumps. When I remembered, halfway through the day, that I'd forgotten, I called my wife to ask her to put a pot on, then shove it in the fridge. No answer.

I briefly contemplated stealing the bulk of a large tray of dirty rice from Treebeard's, which had been part of that afternoon's catered lunch for a meeting with clients. Not only would it fulfill my need for leftover rice, the flavors would go fantastically well with what I had in mind, and really reinforce the "Gulf Coast" theme of the dish. The former shift-worker in me rebelled at that thought, though, reminding my M-F/9-5 addled brain that leftover catering is the lifeblood of my erstwhile brethren.

When I got home, I immediately made rice. When it was (slightly under)done, I dumped it out into a thin layer on a sheet pan, and set it outside on the patio to cool, covered by a side-towel to absorb condensation and help dry the rice out as much as possible. By the time I had prepped the rest of the ingredients, par-cooking where appropriate, the rice was mostly dry and somewhere near room temperature. Near-freezing weather comes in handy, occasionally.

In the meantime, I had chopped my half-dozen shrimp into bite sized pieces, sliced four stalks of asparagus thinly and on the bias, minced a hefty amount of garlic and ginger, sliced scallions, cut a nice handful of epazote into chiffonade, made small dice of a lone carrot I found languishing in the fridge, roughly diced an onion, and beaten a couple of eggs. The carrot and onion went into a smoking-hot skillet with some canola oil, flash cooking and picking up some brown-verging-on-black-ing. These were removed and set aside, and the flavor base of ginger, scallion, and garlic went in for 30 seconds or so.

As soon as the aromatics were fragrant, I added the rice and tossed like mad. A bit of soy sauce for flavor, and then, as soon as the rice was all lightly fried and re-heated, I tossed in the asparagus, shrimp, and epazote. Another quick toss to distribute everything evenly, and things were just about done. I made a bare spot in the center of the skillet and dumped in the egg. I gave it a second or two to begin cooking, then swirled the egg into the rice, distributing it in thin strands throughout.

I called everyone to the table and passed soy sauce and Sriracha. My kids have been going through a strange and spontaneous culinary daredevil period, dangerously one-upping each other with small but plentiful dots of chili sauce on a myriad of foods. This was no different, but the pair wolfed down their spicy bowls of rice like true trenchermen. Well, the older one did. Our younger, brasher daughter overdid things, despite our numerous warnings.

I was right about the mix of flavors, with the mesquite essence informing the dish with a subtle smokiness, underlined by the epazote. Its slightly petrol-edged bitterness brought an intriguing depth, playing well with the greenness of the asparagus and the brightness of the ginger spiking up from the background. Laced with a generous squirt of the red stuff, it made for a satisfying dinner, all the more so for the knowledge that, aside from the sunk costs of leftovers, I'd only spent 4 cents on ginger to make it happen.

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