Assembling is an easy and creative cooking method that takes prepared food—from grocery stores, restaurants, or delivery—and turns it into a series of delicious meals.
For many people, ordering meals for delivery and takeout has always been a time-saving alternative, and often an indulgent treat. I still marvel that I can sit in my living room, tap on my phone, and within an hour (usually), someone brings a bag of food to my door.
But nationwide stay-at-home orders mean that delivery and takeout are the only ways to get restaurant food at the moment. Restaurants need our business now more than ever, and so do the people who deliver it. I spoke with Angel Madison, a New Jersey writer and editor who supplements her income by driving for Uber Eats, and she noted that customers seem to be placing much bigger orders than usual. She assumes that means they’re planning to nosh on that food over the next couple of days. (Be sure to tip her well, New Jerseyites!)
In this stressful time, it’s tempting to order a barrage of food that appeals to you in the moment. (I’m guilty of having recently gotten a hot fudge sundae with pizza breadsticks.) But if you plan ahead, you can assemble more meals out of a single delivery order.
Before you order, look over the most current menu that the restaurant has available. Don’t assume that the dish you’ve ordered in the past will be there; many restaurants have scaled way back. Select menu items that are most likely to survive a round of reheating, avoiding anything that might get mushy. Next, check your fridge or pantry for things that would pair well with your order.
Ask the restaurant to pack the components of your meal separately. For instance, sauces and dressings on the side; proteins separate from side dishes; toppings in individual containers.
When the food comes, immediately portion out what you’re going to eat now and put the rest in the fridge. This isn’t a time to let food linger on the counter. Deconstruct items to keep them fresher: for example, take sandwiches apart and separate the bread from the fillings. Eat anything that will disintegrate first, and save the more durable elements for your next meal. Below are some ideas for specific cuisines.
Order some combination of hummus, meat, falafel, salad, a vegetable, plus tahini, garlic sauce, and pita. Hummus can be a base for almost any main dish, whether it involves the meat and falafel from your takeout order or any additional pantry staples. For example, you can mix hummus with rice for a hearty side dish, topped with tahini or garlic sauce.
Vegetable dishes can also be combined with rice to make satisfying main courses that stretch your order across additional meals. Try sauteed cauliflower and eggplant (a favorite dish of mine at Al-Ameer in Dearborn, Michigan) topped with tahini.
Slice kebabs into smaller pieces and toss them with salad greens. Alternatively, make a stir-fry with vegetables, then add the meat to the pan to warm up just before serving. Top with tahini or garlic sauce, and lemon. Place that over rice or stuff it into a pita.
Falafel can be served with hummus, on top of salad, and of course, layered in a pita with veggies. (For more ideas on how to turn a veggie pita into a meal, watch the Tel Aviv episode of Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix.)
Some ideas of what to order: dumplings, noodle soup, moo shu pork, steamed vegetables, rice, and sauces on the side.
Dumplings can be eaten on their own, but you can also add them to soup. Noodle soup is a great base for more ingredients: You can use the broth and noodles separately in different ways. Add veggies to the broth, as well as slices or chunks of meat. Reserve some of the noodles from the soup and combine them with the moo shu pork for a second-day dish. (Alternatively, make some rice and top it with the moo shu.) You can top it with hoisin sauce, or make a sauce from the little packets of soy, plum sauce, and chili oil that sometimes come in the carry-out bag.
Steamed vegetables can be turned into a main dish by adding sauce. Top them with chopped peanuts and make a peanut sauce with one tablespoon of peanut butter, one tablespoon of brown sugar, one packet of soy sauce, plus a little water. Microwave that for 30 seconds, stir, and microwave 10 seconds at a time until it’s the right consistency.
Sample order: fried chicken, meatloaf, slaw, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, bread or biscuits, gravy on the side.
Fried chicken is good hot or cold. You can shred the pieces into macaroni and cheese, the way they do at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan, or make your own imitation Popeyes chicken sandwich or chicken biscuit with some mayo and pickles. Meatloaf is also good hot or cold, as a sandwich or as a main with mashed potatoes on the side—but the gravy is the perfect topper either way.
Mashed potatoes, meanwhile, can become potato pancakes. Use one egg per cup of mashed potatoes, mix thoroughly, and add salt to taste. Form patties, then fry in a teaspoon of butter on medium heat.
Veggies from your fridge can be added to mac and cheese or combined with slaw to make a heartier salad.
Sample order: tortilla soup, a platter with meat or fish, rice, black beans, and tortillas. Salsa, cheese, and lime wedges on the side.
Tortilla soup can be made heartier on a second day with additional protein from the meat platter, plus rice. Platters are better than ordering taco plates, because you’ll get more protein. Build tacos with the side of tortillas you ordered, or eat the meat it in a bowl over rice with the black beans and salsa.
Combine rice and beans, Cuban-style, to replicate the dish called Moros y Cristianos. Add a little onion, garlic and green pepper from your pantry, if you have it. Serve this over salad or tucked into tortillas for a heartier meal.
Lime juice is a terrific way to wake up flavors on the second or third day of leftovers. Squeeze it over just about everything on your plate.