But the reward comes the next day, when I can relax after the rush of party prep with a lunch or supper of hors d'oeuvres. What's the point in all that effort just to see the food gone within hours of my friends' arrival? I want meals for days to come.
Partly it's the thrill of eating food I don't often make. A recent party was my fun-with-phyllo night: artichoke purses, spinach and sausage pseudo-spanikopita, a wild mushroom strudel and a summer phyllo pizza. Not hard, but hardly everyday food for most of us.
To keep things simple, we sampled all that with a rainbow of vegetables and dip: jicama and red pepper sticks, yellow and red cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, and cucumber disks for dipping into Greek yogurt liberally drizzled with olive oil and dusted with smoked paprika.
The only disappointment from the menu came in my surprise at how much we ate, leaving far less left over than anticipated.
Of course, not everyone feels so fond of leftovers. (Maybe we should take a hint from used-car salesmen and call them "previously sampled.") That's why I've been working lately on my repertoire of unidentifiable "previouslys."
Not as in the green-fuzz version of fridge unidentifiables, but leftovers that have been so transformed as to truly feel like a whole new meal. It isn't as tough as it sounds, and the work it saves will have you ever-so-humbly praising yourself.
First, plan to use your leftovers two nights after the food was first eaten, so it seems vaguely original again.
Then, start searching for your leftovers' new home. If you ate a summer vegetable stew the first night, make rice crusts or phyllo bowls two nights later, fill with stew (drained, if it's not thick), and top with a healthy sprinkling of cheese. Or hide it entirely between two tortillas and some cheese for fabulous quesadillas, one of the best uses of leftovers. (I'm not sure my family knows quesadillas can be made from first-night ingredients.)
Crusts, I think, are a leftover's best friend. Almost anything seems special when it comes to the table as a pie (especially, should you have the tins, individual pies). And think beyond standard pastry, lovely but intimidating to many cooks. Cream biscuits, store-bought puff pastry, mashed potatoes and polenta will all liven your food with ease.
I nearly always have an extra, unbaked tart shell in my freezer (following the "make one, get one free" principle, I actually make two of most everything and freeze one), along with puff pastry. On those days when it's suddenly 5 p.m. and I've given no thought to supper, I can pull out a shell, bake it and give the impression of a long-planned supper when I turn it into a roasted chicken and vegetable pie, bound with a little tomato sauce. (Though I'd be just as likely to fill it with something weirder but certain to make me happy, such as shrimp and grits--everything, I tell you, tastes better in a pie shell.)
To make a rice crust, mix 3 cups cooked rice with a lightly beaten egg and press into a 9-inch pie plate or individual tins; bake at 350 degrees just until set, about 10 minutes. You could add 1/2 cup grated cheese, such as Gruyere, Parmesan, Swiss or Cheddar. Add your filling and bake until heated through. (The idea for this comes from Off the Shelf by Donna Hay, a book I especially like for its Asian recipes.)
Polenta crusts work best in small pieces, I think, made by spreading thick polenta thinly in a pan, then cutting into individual square or round bases for some stacked leftovers.
With phyllo, it's just a matter of brushing a sheet with melted butter, topping with another sheet, and repeating once more. Cut into squares to press into muffin tins, then bake in a hot oven (400 degrees works well) until golden. This also works, with the phyllo uncut and overlapping as needed, in a pie plate or jellyroll pan.
Sauce also cheers up leftovers. Make a large batch of pesto dipping sauce for skewers of grilled vegetables and beef, using a basic basil pesto or a dried-tomato one--or both. Two nights later, take the extra sauce(s) for a spin with a heap of curly pasta, tossing in any leftover chopped veggies, and drizzle with a balsamic glaze for pizzazz. Or make a spinach dip for a party, then thin the leftovers with broth or cream and drizzle heavily over easy enchiladas filled with cooked shrimp, cheese and red pepper chunks.
I can even turn leftover sauce into dessert: How about grilled pork with cranberry applesauce--followed later by a cran-applesauce cake? As my son would say, leftovers are my life.
Cook's notes: The balsamic glaze also comes from Off the Shelf and greatly improves cheaper balsamics. Use it over grilled meats or as a salad dressing, or drizzled over tomatoes, as well as the pasta mentioned above. The artichoke purses can be prepared ahead (though not baked) and frozen. The key is to place them close together on a baking sheet, then carefully but thoroughly cover them with plastic wrap before freezing to avoid drying out. For added security, try an extra, very light brushing of the formed purses with the marinade before freezing. Your guests will begin unseemly gobbling of the artichoke purses as soon as you serve one, so consider making them smaller than called for here. (The phyllo shards will quickly blanket your carpet, so you might also choose to feed guests the moment they walk through the door, thus absolving yourself of last-minute vacuuming.)
Makes a scant cup
2/3 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup (packed) light brown sugar
1/2 cup water
In a small saucepan, whisk vinegar, brown sugar and water until smooth. Place over medium heat and bring to a gentle simmer. Simmer, whisking occasionally, for about 6 minutes, or until slightly thickened. Use immediately or chill for a dressing; store in refrigerator.
1 clove garlic
3 6-ounce jars marinated artichoke hearts
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme
10 sheets phyllo (9-by-14 inch sheets), thawed if frozen
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. With a food processor running, drop garlic down the feed tube and process until chopped. Drain artichoke hearts, reserving marinade. Add artichoke hearts, Parmesan and thyme to garlic in processor; pulse several times until artichokes are minced. Set aside.
Place 1 sheet of phyllo on a work surface, keeping remaining phyllo covered with a damp towel. Briefly whisk reserved marinade, and lightly brush phyllo sheet with marinade. Repeat with another sheet of phyllo. Cut phyllo in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise into thirds, making 6 sections. Scoop a heaping teaspoon of artichoke mixture into center of each section. Pull corners of phyllo up over filling to meet in the center and twist gently to close. Place on a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, cover with a damp towel, and repeat with remaining phyllo and filling. Bake for 14 minutes or until golden.