My family struggles with leftovers. My wife and kids rebel at the mention of "last night's pot roast," and pale at the thought of eating something twice in as many days. I consider leftovers a gift to future me, affording me one more day before I have to be productive in the kitchen again (I love to cook, but that shit gets tiring sometimes). I'll even eat them straight out of the fridge if I'm feeling particularly lazy.
A lot of my love of leftovers has to do with the fact that I detest food waste more than most other things. Feeding a family of five is an expensive proposition, in terms of time, effort and money. Watching all three of those tossed unceremoniously into the garbage because my kids don't feel like eating leftover meatloaf fills me with the kind of depressive rage that probably warrants therapy.
Naturally, I've spent some time and effort trying to figure out how to bring the wife and kids around. It's actually been much simpler (and much more rewarding) than I'd have guessed. It's all about transformation. If I can work with and around my leftovers, weaving in fresh ingredients and a few techniques to create something that looks, tastes and feels new, I can bring everyone to the table, happy and hungry. In this series, I'll document my adventures in leftovers. I hope it gives you a few ideas, some inspiration to help you do something with that little bit of leftover braised chicken, or the handful of ears of grilled corn left over from the cookout. Feel free to toot your own leftovers horn in the comments. The more the merrier.
The very idea of leftover barbecue is anathema to some. I've been questioned by many, the blank incredulity straining the muscles of their jaws, when I've mentioned that I had somehow not consumed every last scrap of brisket, every slice of sausage and gnawed every rib to the bone. The thing is, I've never figured out how to order barbecue
appropriately moderately. Over the years, my absolute inability to transfer how much I should be ordering into words from my mouth to the pitman's ears has changed into a semi-considered strategy. This is especially because when I eat barbecue, it's probably from a place that took me some effort and planning to get to, I like to maximize the experience. This means ordering enough that I not only get a serious case of the meat sweats, but have enough left over to pull from the fridge as a casual snack and enough to make into something else, should inspiration strike. It always does.
It's true to say that barbecue loses something if you have to reheat it. Even with the most careful precautions, the gentlest application of heat, the texture of barbecue simply reheated simply suffers. In my leftovers explorations, I've learned to bypass the issue entirely, using the meat for its flavor and letting the texture take a backseat. If you're eating it 24 to 36 hours after it came off the smoker, you're should not expect it to pass the "pull test." You should expect it to have great flavor, though. Choosing applications that can use that flavor as a base, modifying and complementing it with other ingredients and techniques is the key to the joy of leftover barbecue.
Step One: Fat Equals Flavor
This is true in the literal sense, in that fat tastes good. It is also true in that fat is a great carrier for flavor. Given a small(ish — remember my scale issue) amount of leftover smoked meat, a good dose of fat can be a great way to spread that smoky deliciousness out, getting more bang for your barbecue buck. There are a lot of ways to do this, from using your leftover brisket as a stand-in for a quick riff on beef Stroganoff, to infusing your rib bones into melted butter, turning that into ghee, and making a month's worth of meals with clarified barbecue butter. I've never actually done either of those, but I'm going to now. This column is turning out to be a heck of an idea generator. What I have made, though, is mac and cheese. It's a pretty obvious one, I'll admit, but delicious nonetheless.
You can be as lazy or as industrious as you want. I've gone with the path of least resistance, adding chopped Killen's barbecue to leftover Killen's mac and cheese, heating the whole mess up in the microwave. I've also made scratch mac with homemade cheese sauce, crumb topping under the broiler and everything. It can't help but be delicious. It's also nice that it stays highly thematic, and well within everyone's comfort zone. Hell, there are entire restaurant concepts built on the back of this one.
Step Two: Barbecue as Value-Added Topping
Barbecue is a flavor-packed medium. Smoke, fat and meat come together to create something intense enough that you can easily consider it a ready finishing ingredient, like cured meats and strongly flavored cheeses. Looking at barbecue through this lens shifts the discussion, allowing the same perspective you'd apply to pizza toppings. In my world, in order to apply as a pizza topping, an ingredient has to have significant flavor, but also be able to integrate with the others around it. With its mix of qualities, barbecue fits this bill handily. Grab a few complementary ingredients (a bit of sweet, a bit of rich and a bit of acid always works well) and toss them on a par-grilled pizza crust, finishing the pie over live fire. I think I've only ever done this with grilled pizzas, a fitting thing considering the star ingredient's provenance. A favorite of mine is a combination of smoked pork, figs, ricotta, pistachios and capers. Also delicious is a more straightforward assemblage of mozzarella, smoked pork and braised collard greens.
The pizza-topping analogy extends to other arenas as well. Barbecue can work quite nicely into many sandwich applications, where full-flavored ingredients work together toward a harmonious whole. Likewise, barbecue can stand in for cured meats in a bowl of pasta.
In a neat twist, this approach also provides an opportunity to use any leftover sauce you have, which might otherwise only be fit for a pot of beans. Here, though, you can use the sauce as sauce. The trick is a delicate hand. This application works best with small, shaped pastas. My kids are partial to bowties, and they do a good job of holding both the sauce (a glaze comprising a bit of barbecue sauce emulsified with a good knob of butter) and the toppings. I find that, in order to keep things from bogging down, a bit of freshness and acid are both in order. Capers are a great way to get the acid, and a little bit of freshly chopped parsley adds a vibrant lift.
Step Three: Don't Forget the Sides
Now that barbecue joints across the city and the state have stepped up their game when it comes to side dishes, a few have worked their way into my standard order. If I can find a place with good dirty rice or collard greens, those two are among my add-ons. Of course, I'm still really there for the meat, so the vegetables and starches are even more likely to wind up in my fridge, just waiting for me to find a use for them. I have a handful of tried and true methods for using up leftover bits of vegetation, usually taking the form of either a hash or a casserole. I've found, through extensive trial and error, that the casserole route is the best for barbecue sides — in particular, broccoli-cheese and rice. Really, any casserole loosely based on the gratin method will work, but when starting with cooked rice and cooked green vegetables, the broccoli-cheese and rice version is a perfect jumping-off point.
Step Four: Bring It All Together
Sometimes, the path of least resistance is best. Leftovers cooking is about efficiency as much as it is about ingenuity, so if you can find a home for all of your leftovers at once, more power to you. We've already covered barbecue as mix-in and topping, so why not use barbecue as stuffing? More than a few times, when looking at a pile of leftover barbecue and trimmings, I've decided to chop the meat, throw everything in a bowl, and stuff it into yet more meat. A pork loin roast, butterflied out to lie flat, works perfectly for this. It's as easy as chopping everything to a fine and uniform size, spooning it onto the flattened roast (leave a half-inch border on all sides), rolling and tying. From there, cook via your preferred method, slice and serve. It's a bit like smoking the roast from the inside, and the leftover vegetables (assuming you've used them) help keep the meat moist. When sliced, it has a lovely pinwheel look. Serve over a few complementary sides, and you have a refined, plated entrée borne of barbecue leftovers.
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Step Five: Run With It
One of the great things about leftovers is how easily you can use them to indulge flights of fancy. After all, they represent sunk costs. If you try something new and it doesn't work out, you're not really out much in terms of new ingredients. I like to think of my leftovers as ingredients, though. Distill them to essential qualities, comparable to other standalone ingredients, and see what you'd do with them from that perspective. Barbecue is full-flavored meat, often taken from cuts once considered inferior, usually requiring significant cooking to make palatable. This is, in many ways, the story of offal and off-cuts in general. Some of the world's finest delicacies come from such off-cuts, as do many of its most humble and tasty foods.
I honestly can't remember when I first became obsessed with sisig, a Filipino dish centered around off-cuts from the pig. From what I understand, it traditionally involves the meat from the head, often augmented with liver, fried until crispy and often seasoned with onions and vinegar. Clearly, I make no representation that my leftover barbecue riff is in any way authentic, but the Filipino dish was definitely the inspiration for an ever-changing sketch I've used for repurposed mixed barbecue a couple of times now. The process is pretty simple. I chop the meat, fry some onions or shallots in a bit of oil, and add the meat, allowing it to crisp up in the pan. A bit of garlic and ginger often goes in, along with soy sauce and vinegar, to give it a salty-tart edge. Every once in a while, I'll stir in a bit of prepared pork or chicken liver pâté, just to give it an edge of funk. It renders the texture a bit muddy, but in a surprisingly pleasant way. It's not sisig, but it is delicious, and it seems in keeping with the waste-not spirit of the original.
Let's be honest: Leftover anything is rarely better than the original. Still, leftovers provide a great opportunity to approach things from a new angle, to explore the relationships between ingredients, preparations and even cuisines. In that way, I firmly believe that leftovers cooking can be one of the best ways to improve your skill set as a practical cook. I'll stand by each of these examples, though. While they might not approach the jaw-dropping deliciousness of a peak barbecue experience, each is legitimately delicious in its own way, capable of standing on its own rather than merely as a way to use something up. Plus, it's nice to have an excuse to order too much barbecue.