It’s summer 2010, the end of the month, and food costs are high. One of the sous chefs at Pittsburgh’s Pennsylvania Macaroni Company tells me I need to get rid of an excess of giardiniera from the kitchen. Giardiniera, you probably know, are the spicy pickled vegetables commonly found on Italian beef sandwiches, and Penn Mac makes a good one. It’s hot and vinegary, yes, but it’s also packed with oil. Deeply fatty flavors imbue every piece of carrot, celery, and pepper. This giardiniera is domineering, and I’m staring at giant, oil-drum-like barrels of it in dry storage. The chef and I put our overworked brains together, and we decide to work the oily pickled veg into baked ziti with sausage all week—a sort of sausage-and-peppers arrabbiata. Customers loved it, and it became a hit with the staff. Hell, I still crave a little giardiniera in my pasta every once in a while, all because our backs were against the wall and we had to make it work.
This is something that happens frequently in restaurants. Start with a problem: Too much dairy. Stale bread. The fish won’t be good tomorrow. The vegetables are going to lose their quality soon. Oh, hey, and we’ve got bills to pay. This is an ecosystem that gives rise to some wonderful invention, my friends. Some great tricks and tips and money-savers. This is, I’m sorry to say, about polishing a turd.
I always called these “blowout dishes.” Things you make when you have to. The meals you dream up when the chef screams, “Palumbo! Blow out these peppers or you won’t have a job tomorrow.” The type of decisions that end up saving a restaurant. I talked to some of my chef friends to get their thoughts on their best Frankenstein meals. Here’s what we talked about.
Samuel Oh, owner of Ham Hung in Koreatown, Los Angeles
Ham Hung is a go-to spot for me because of the restaurant’s North Korean lean and the owner’s dedication to traditional dishes in the face of an ever changing landscape. Ham Hung stands out in a city rife with Korean BBQ spots. Sam’s been in the restaurant business since the ’80s, so I asked him what he finds himself re-purposing more than anything. His answer? Rice.
“We also make toast rice with old leftover rice. [The] Chinese call it sizzling toast rice,” Sam said. “We take the leftover rice and place it in a skillet, then literally toast the rice until it comes out like cookies. Hard and toasty. Then, we can either boil in water to make soup, or sometimes we just sprinkle some sugar on it, like a Rice Krispie but a harder texture.”
I believe the sizzling rice Sam refers to is called guoba, although lots of different cultures have their version of scorched rice. Guoba has got so many possibilities. The crispy texture works crumbled on top of a softer noodle dish or in a soup for added texture, like a crouton. “Far East Asian countries like Japan, Korea, Manchuria—they use short to medium grain rice,” Sam adds. “This rice has higher gluten so it works great to make burnt rice.”
White rice is almost always mediocre or downright disappointing when you reheat it the next day; it’s smart to invigorate it with new flavor and texture. The same concept applies to fried rice, which is a great way to marry leftover protein with vegetables lying around. Rice is limitless, and if you’re a freak who makes your own fish sauce at home, the gluten in rice is extra useful in creating a syrupy texture.
Anthony Palumbo, chef at Ely’s in Youngstown, Ohio
Nepotism! My brother currently works at a takeout vegan joint called Ely’s. It’s his first vegan foray, and Anthony’s gotten used to caring for lots of different produce at once. One thing my brother loves to do when he’s staring at a load of excess vegetables is make vegan shepherd’s pie.
“Glaze some vegetables in balsamic, lentils (or any beans), spread whipped potatoes, then throw it in the oven,” he explains. “You can make that a casserole dish. Take whatever vegetables you have, cook the [expletive] out of it, mix it with beans, then spread mashed potatoes on it and bake. Oh, and cook your vegetables in a cast iron skillet to get a charred flavor if you can.”
Despite this recommendation, Anthony doesn’t work with a traditional cast iron skillet at Ely’s. The restaurant uses a 30-to-40-year-old wok, which he tells me is indispensable when it comes to cooking veg. My brother, whom I would describe as a “sometimes meat eater,” knows the challenges of making good vegan food. “Always cook the vegetables in a lot of vinegar,” he tells me. “That unctuousness mimics meat well.” Also, if you’re wondering how to make mashed potatoes without dairy, the answer is: “Olive oil. Lots of olive oil. Pea milk is great too, because it’s so thick.”
He didn’t always cook vegan, though. A meat pie is also optimal if you’re doing roasts at home and find yourself with leftovers. “Freeze beef ends and use them for sandwiches or to make meat pie. We used to take Doreen’s cheesecake pans and layer potatoes, beef ends, and demiglace. She hated that.”
Who’s Doreen? A baker we both used to work with. I left her cheesecake pans alone, so leave me out of this.
Sarah Bessade, owner of Loupiotte in Los Feliz, Los Angeles
Sarah shared with me her enthusiasm for leftover bread. “We started using leftover croissants to make bread pudding, and it’s delicious. People loved our pain au chocolat so much, but we didn’t really make any money off it. So, we start to take the old ones, then use them to make pain au chocolat bread pudding.”
Day-old croissants are loaded with potential, and bread pudding is a decadent application. Moreover, using leftover bread is just practical and economical. Sometimes, before I even have a dish in mind, I use it to make croutons or breadcrumbs, then work backwards from there. Old loaves are the mother of invention. As Sarah reminds me, “That’s how French toast was created.”
We also got to talking about quiche and compote. Quiche is a great way to use leftover vegetables, and hell, if you’ve got pasta on hand, make a spaghetti pie. Just about anything will make sense in a baked quiche. If you have a lot of really bad fruit, meanwhile, you make a compote. Sugar, water, fruit, reduce. That’s all you need to make a compote. Take your eleventh-hour produce and your stale bread, and baby, you’ve got a jamming French toast made from things you would have tossed in the can.