Thursday, July 5, 2012

One solution for leftovers

Leftovers are something that everyone has to deal with, whether you enjoy cooking or not – or even if you don’t cook at all. There is little that’s more depressing than finding a bowl of a green and fuzzy substance in the dark recesses of your refrigerator and realize that something that was never finished has now died and gone to food heaven, rather than being enjoyed.

Leftovers can be a great boon or an albatross hanging around one’s culinary neck. After a long day, it can be quite wonderful to realize that eating that evening is simply a matter of heating up something not finished at a previous meal. Leftovers become a chore, though, when you realize food is on the slippery edge of going bad and must be eaten or thrown out – and maybe you have other plans for dinner. Our moms always chided us as children about not wasting good food, and that early conditioning still hangs on with much guilt being felt when we don’t do what we know we should. And as I said in the opening, there is genuine sadness as well as guilt when you find that terrific dish that got pushed to the back of the fridge and is now working hard to produce penicillin.

Casseroles, soups and stews, leftover roasts and some vegetable dishes work very well just being reheated. Other things are not so good, and we’re often left wondering what to do with them. (Other things should never be eaten as leftovers.) We all have horror stories about that, I’m sure.) Whole cookbooks have been produced on the topic of leftovers, and some of them are quite “creative”. Another solution to the perennial problem that is often overlooked is to just not cook so much in the first place. Sound simple, doesn’t it? So how come we don’t do it?

[Sidebar: I have a horror story from my youth about leftovers. It left me forever scarred. My mother, like everyone who lived through the depression, never threw out any food. Every morning in the winter, she’d make hot chocolate for us. If we didn’t finish it all, into the fridge it would go, usually in a glass jar. One day, I arrived home from school, and being cold, searched the fridge to see if there was any leftover hot chocolate. I found two jars with enough in them to make a large mug with maybe seconds! Not paying much attention, I threw the liquid into a saucepan and while reading something, lazily stirred the pan so the HC wouldn’t scald. Pouring it into a mug, I took a taste and immediately spit my mouthful out. I didn’t know that mom had heated up some Campbell’s Condensed Cream of Mushroom soup for her lunch and hadn’t finished it. Believe me when I say that Chocolate Cream of Mushroom soup is unlikely to ever become a gourmet treat! (It also shows you just how little mushroom they include in the soup.)]

Regardless, everyone has to deal with leftovers, whether we want to or not. But what are problems without solutions? I’m here to over one small solution to a problem I bet you’ve faced on numerous occasions: what to do with that leftover baguette?

Baguettes can be wonderful things. Here at the Blechta Test Kitchens in Beautiful Downtown Toronto we’re particularly fond of the country grain baguettes made by Stonemill Bakery located in the basement of the St. Lawrence Market. If you live in the GTA (greater Toronto area), you may also be able to get these at your local supermarket. Down at the SLM on a Saturday morning, we often find them still warm from baking, and taken home and eaten immediately, they are wonderful things indeed.

But all baguettes have a very small window during which they’re at their best. Even if you store them in a carefully sealed plastic bag, they’re not very good the next day, especially if part of them has already been used. The delightfully crispy crust gets soft, the inside dries to cardboard, and even putting them briefly in a microwave to soften the inside or reheating them in a low oven for 10 minutes to crisp up the outside never restores a baguette to its full glory.

In Paris, where the baguettes are truly wonderful, one can purchase smaller ones, or half of one (cut by a terrifying guillotine-type contraption), but here in North America, those options aren’t available. So we’re often left with a length of bread that we can eat more out of a sense of obligation than anything. And if it’s a few days old, that’s not even be an option.

We often had that problem…and then we discovered crostini. Actually, it was part of a recipe for an olive tapenade we make. In the recipe, we were told to make crostini from a fresh baguette, but then I thought, it will work with stale ones, too. Our problem with leftover baguettes was instantly and forever solved. Stored in an airtight bag or container, they’ll keep for several months – although ours always disappear quickly and mysteriously, especially when the boys are around.

The basic recipe is utter simplicity and the only thing of any difficulty is slicing the baguette really thinly and evenly. Once you’ve got that down, you can change that leftover food into something quite wonderful in a matter of minutes. Add some dried herbs or a touch of salt and pepper if you want, and you’re off to the races!

Make as much as you want or have baguette for

Leftover (or fresh) baguette
Olive oil
Additions to consider: sea salt, pepper, garlic, dried oregano, powdered rosemary, cayenne pepper, smoked paprika, etc.

1. Slice the baguette about 1/8" thick, and as evenly as possible. You’ll need a sharp bread knife for this. Spring for a good one. They’re not expensive and they last forever if treated well. If you want to be fancy, slice the baguette on the bias.

2. Lightly brush one side of each slice with some good quality olive oil. If you’re using extra flavorings, but them on this side. For garlic, just slice a clove and give the bread a few swipes only. For any other additions, you just want a hint of their flavor, so go lightly!

3. Arrange the slices olive oil side up on a baking sheet, and put under the broiler. Keep the door open and light on so that you can watch the crostinis like a hawk. You want them lightly toasted, not burnt – and they burn quickly. I usually turn the pan a few times, so everything toasts evenly.

4. When the first side is done, flip them over and toast them a little less. Again, watch carefully! You want the crostinis to be dried out completely so they’ll store well and not go moldy, but no more. If you’re going to use them immediately, you can toast them a little less. They won’t be as crisp, but that can be nice, depending on how you’re using them. For longer storage, you want them pretty crisp.

5. Cool your crostinis thoroughly and then store them, tightly wrapped in a cool, dry place.

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

I forgot to mention that crostini is Italian and means “little toasts”. I like the meaning!