How to turn sad leftovers into dream dinners

My young, new-to-the-city self had a simple but cost-effective weeknight cooking strategy: buy the same few ingredients every week (pasta, spinach, tomatoes, feta, frozen dumplings, sausage, yoghurt), throw a surprise item (Sweet potatoes! Cookie butter ice cream! An avocado!) into the cart, and make it all work with the rest of my pantry.

The meals were sometimes mundane, but hey, I fed myself, saved money and wasted nothing. My fridge is fuller now. But I still firmly believe that working with what you’ve got and not overbuying groceries (child-free privilege alert!) are good principles for weeknight cooking. This meal plan is dedicated to the ingredients I tend to have in my fridge, which I think of as ticking time bombs, mere days from becoming food waste. These use-them-or-lose-them ingredients, more than anything, dictate what I cook.

This is what I had left over one recent weekend: herbs, hot dog buns, mince, vegetable odds and ends (carrots, broccoli, onion), and dressed salad greens. And here are five recipes that came to the rescue.

Creamy pasta with ricotta and herbs

In this simple, springy pasta, milky ricotta thinned out with a little starchy pasta cooking water makes for a saucy, soupy dish that’s seasoned with loads of black pepper and herbs. For the best flavour, use at least three different kinds of herbs, break out some nicer olive oil and look for fresh ricotta. Lemon lovers can grate in the zest of half a lemon as well.

By: Melissa Clark

Serves: 4

Total time: 20 minutes



450g short pasta, such as shells, cavatappi, chiocciole, farfalle, ditali or wagon wheels

340g fresh, whole-milk ricotta

70g freshly grated parmesan, plus more for serving

120ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving

1 tbsp coarsely ground black pepper, plus more for serving

150g coarsely chopped soft herbs, such as basil, chives, fennel fronds, parsley, mint, tarragon, chervil or dill (try for a combination of at least 3 kinds)


1. Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, according to package instructions. Reserve 2 cups (480ml) pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta.

2. In the same pot, make the sauce: add ricotta, parmesan, olive oil, pepper and a large pinch or two of salt, and stir until well combined.

3. Add 1 cup (230ml) pasta water to the sauce and stir until smooth. Add the pasta and herbs, and continue to stir vigorously until the noodles are well coated. Add more pasta water as needed for a smooth, soupy sauce. Taste and add more salt if needed.

4. To serve, spoon the pasta into bowls and finish with more parmesan, olive oil and pepper.

Salt and pepper prawn rolls

These prawn rolls celebrate the flavours of salt


Inspired by jiao yan xia, the classic Chinese dish of head-on, fried prawns finished with a Sichuan or white pepper salt seasoning, these prawn rolls celebrate the flavours of salt and pepper. Peeled prawns are seasoned, breaded with cornstarch and fried until super crunchy, then sprinkled with a black pepper-salt. Once cooked, they’re tucked into toasted rolls smeared with a zingy garlic mayo. Fresh coriander, sliced chilli and a squeeze of fresh lime brighten the hearty sandwich. Store any leftover pepper-salt in an airtight container and use it as a seasoning for roasted meats and vegetables.

By: Kay Chun

Serves: 4

Total time: 15 minutes


Vegetable oil, for frying (about 600ml)

115g mayonnaise

¼ tsp grated garlic

1 tsp ground black pepper

½ tsp salt

4 hot dog buns, preferably top-split

450g peeled and deveined jumbo prawns (16 to 20 prawns), tails removed

60ml whole (or 2%) milk

120g cornstarch

2 chillies, thinly sliced

Tender coriander sprigs, for garnish

Lime wedges, for serving


1. In a 30cm cast-iron or heavy frying pan, heat 2½cm of oil over medium-high until an instant-read thermometer registers 180C.

2. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, combine mayonnaise and garlic; mix well. In a separate small bowl, combine pepper and salt.

3. Heat a medium nonstick frying pan over medium. Using 1 teaspoon of garlic mayonnaise per bun, spread on outer sides of buns, then toast them until golden, about 1 minute per side. Transfer to plates.

4. Season prawns with about 1 teaspoon of the pepper-salt, dip in milk, then dredge in cornstarch, gently pressing so cornstarch adheres. Working in two batches, fry prawns until crispy and cooked through, turning halfway, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Season with more of the pepper-salt mixture.

5. Smear some garlic mayonnaise on the inner centre of buns, then divide prawns among buns. Top with chillies, coriander and more pepper salt. Serve with lime wedges.

Rice noodles with spicy pork and herbs

This cold rice noodle dish has roots in Yunnan, a southwestern Chinese province


This cold rice-noodle dish, dressed in vinegar and chilli oil and topped with spicy pork, herbs and peanuts, has roots in Yunnan, a southwestern Chinese province, where the garnish may vary according to the kitchen and season. The dish is quick to put together but can be served at a leisurely pace: plate it, or set all of the components on the table and let people put together their own bowls the way they like, to their taste. It’s in the spirit of the dish to improvise with what’s in season and what’s on hand.

Recipe from: Simone Tong

Adapted by: Tejal Rao

Serves: 4

Total time: 20 minutes


450g thin, round rice noodles

2 tbsp rice vinegar

1 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp black vinegar

1 tbsp chilli oil (like Lao Gan Ma brand)

1 tsp sugar

1 tbsp canola or other neutral oil

225g ground pork

1 tsp salt

2 garlic cloves, sliced

1 2½cm piece ginger, chopped

2 spring onions, light parts chopped, green parts reserved for garnish

1 tbsp yacai (Sichuan preserved vegetables, optional)

Handful of herbs like mint, basil and coriander leaves, washed

30g salted, roasted peanuts, chopped

4 breakfast radishes, sliced (optional)


1. Bring a large pot of water to boil, and cook noodles according to instructions. Drain noodles while running under cold water, until they are cool to the touch. Set aside. Mix dressing by whisking rice vinegar, soy sauce, black vinegar, chilli oil and sugar until sugar dissolves. Set aside.

2. Cook the pork topping: heat oil in saucepan over medium heat, and add ground pork and salt. Pan-fry, breaking meat into small pieces with a wooden spoon, until no pink parts and no liquid remain in the pan, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, ginger and spring onion whites, and stir occasionally until the raw smell has disappeared and the meat is starting to brown in places, about 5 minutes. Add the vegetables, if using, along with a tablespoon of water, and cook for 2 or 3 minutes more, or until mixture is darkened and thick. Set aside.

3. When you’re ready to serve, divide cool, drained noodles into four individual bowls, and top each with a tablespoon of vinegar dressing followed by a pile of ground pork, herbs, peanuts and radishes, to taste. Serve with any remaining garnish, and additional chilli oil and chilli-oil solids, on the side.

Traybake bibimbap

Bibimbap is a kaleidoscope of flavours and textures


Bibimbap, a Korean mixed rice dish, is a kaleidoscope of flavours and textures. The popular dish has multiple origin stories and, like banchan and kimchi, many variations. Cooks who ordinarily keep namul (seasoned vegetable) banchan in the fridge may add them to a bowl with leftover rice and seasonings like spicy-sweet gochujang and nutty sesame oil, for example. Or, if starting their bibimbap from scratch, some may prep each component separately. But here’s a fun way to accomplish everything at once: roast a melange of bits and bobs on one baking tray as rice heats and eggs oven-fry on another. The caramelised sweet potato and salty kale in this formula come highly recommended, but you can use any vegetables on hand, reducing cook times for delicate options such as spinach, spring onions or asparagus.

By: Eric Kim

Serves: 4

Total time: 35 minutes


170g oyster mushrooms, torn into bite-size pieces

1 medium sweet potato (about 170g), scrubbed and thinly sliced into half-moons

1 small red onion (about 170g), thinly sliced crosswise into half-moons

200g coarsely chopped Tuscan or curly kale (from 1 small bunch)

6 tbsp olive oil

Salt and black pepper

1kg cooked medium-grain white rice, preferably cold leftovers

4 large eggs

4 tsp toasted sesame oil, plus more to taste, for serving

4 tsp gochujang, plus more to taste, for serving

Kimchi, for serving (optional)


1. Position racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and heat oven to 230C.

2. On a large baking tray, arrange the mushrooms, sweet potato, red onion and kale into four separate quadrants. Drizzle the vegetables with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and toss to coat, keeping the types of vegetables separate. Try to not crowd the vegetables; you want them to brown, not steam. Roast on the top rack until the sweet potato is fork-tender, the onion and mushrooms are slightly caramelised and the kale is crispy but not burnt, 20 to 25 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, place another large baking tray on the bottom rack to heat. When the vegetables are almost done cooking, in the last 5 minutes or so, remove the heated pan from the oven and evenly drizzle the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil on it. Spread the rice over half of the pan. Crack the eggs onto the other half and carefully transfer to the oven. Bake until the whites are just set and the yolks are still runny, 3 to 6 minutes (this time may vary depending on your oven, so watch it carefully).

4. To serve, divide the rice evenly among four bowls. Now divide the vegetables evenly as well, placing them in four neat piles over each portion of rice. Use a spatula to slide the eggs over the vegetables. Drizzle each bowl with 1 teaspoon of sesame oil and dollop with 1 teaspoon of gochujang, adding more if desired. Mix everything together with a spoon or chopsticks before diving in, and serve kimchi alongside, if you prefer.

Loaded baked frittata

This sturdy fritatta is as good warm out of the pan as it is cold


Sautéed onion, pepper and spinach lace this sturdy frittata that’s as good warm out of the pan as it is cold. Bacon and goat cheese enrich the mix, which can be eaten alone or put in a sandwich (see tip below). This recipe is, of course, delicious as is, but you can also take a cue from one of our commenters, Joan, who made this with leftover peppers and onions, adding sliced roasted baby potatoes. Ready in 45 minutes, it lasts for up to three days in the fridge, so you can enjoy it as long as it lasts – which may not be very long.

By: Genevieve Ko

Serves: 4 to 6

Total time: 45 minutes


8 large eggs

120ml whole milk

Salt and black pepper

115g finely diced bacon

50g diced onion (from 1 small onion)

300g diced red or orange bell peppers (from 2 peppers)

1 (140g) package baby spinach

115g fresh goat cheese


1. Heat oven to 190C. In a medium bowl, beat eggs, milk, 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon pepper until smooth. Set aside.

2. Put bacon in a 10- to 12-inch cast-iron or oven-safe nonstick frying pan. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned, 4 to 5 minutes.

3. Add onion, peppers and ½ teaspoon each salt and pepper and cook, stirring often, until onions are translucent, 6 to 7 minutes. Add the spinach a handful at a time, stirring after each addition, to wilt.

4. Reduce heat to low and pour in the egg mixture. Stir well to evenly distribute the vegetables, then smooth the top. Drop small nuggets of goat cheese evenly on top. Transfer to the oven.

5. Bake until the top is golden brown and the eggs are set, 20 to 25 minutes. When you shake the pan, the eggs shouldn’t jiggle. Cool on a rack for about 10 minutes.

6. Cut into wedges to serve warm or at room temperature.

Tip: To make into sandwiches, slide the frittata onto a cutting board. Cut to match the dimensions of your bread, trimming the rounded edges if needed. Sandwich between the bread and serve immediately or wrap tightly in foil, plastic wrap, or wax paper to pack for lunch. A sandwich assembled in the morning should be eaten by lunch.

© The New York Times


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