I am somewhat obsessed with leftovers. I hate to throw away perfectly good food. Mostly, I cook for myself and, slightly neurotically, I go to lengths not to waste anything that I spent money on and on which I invested time in preparation. Here’s a recent example. 

A little while back, I made a yummy Thai red curry butternut squash soup. The squash had been hanging around for a while and needed to be used. The recipe called for coconut milk and it said to save a little for a garnish. I did what they told me, but I forgot to add the remaining milk. So, I had this tiny bit – about one-half cup – in my refrigerator. Many people would probably have tossed it, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I mulled for a day or so and decided to make coconut rice that I could have as an accompaniment to some entrée. Simple: the milk, water, salt, and jasmine rice. Voila – coconut rice. I served it with a chicken dish that involved half a package of old, frozen artichoke hearts. This ended up being two dinners. 

Problem: I had enough rice for three dinners. Another leftover. My solution was to make one of my favorite fast dishes – Korean Gyeran Bap eggs. Fry up a couple of eggs in browned butter, add a little soy sauce and sesame oil. Heat up the remaining rice and pour everything over it. Top with crumbled dried seaweed. Tasty! With it, I ate a few of the maturing cherry tomatoes that were sitting on my counter.

All of this may sound obsessive, but I am motivated by a few factors. First, I love the challenge of figuring out how to use up odds and ends. Of course, I buy the ingredients for recipes I like or want to try. (There is usually a surplus – what potential!) But the creative search for using up what I happen to have on hand is a stimulating pursuit. I am pleased with myself when the result is good, but I do occasionally bomb out. However, I am never deterred from trying again.

A second factor is that I grew up as a post-depression child. My parents worked hard for every penny and whatever was available, we ate it. I really liked the sandwiches made from the previous night’s meals for my school-time lunches. Don’t say “ugh,” but my favorite was next-day broiled calves’ liver on rye with a little ketchup. I grew up being comfortable with and respecting leftovers. I remember my mother tightly wrapping unusable stuff – egg shells, corn husks, beet stems – in newspaper and placing the packet out for collection. No edibles were included in these bundles.

Finally, I like to imagine that, in my infinitesimal, encapsulated way, I am contributing to slowing climate change. In the city where I live, forty percent of all the refuse that goes to the dump is food waste. As this decomposes, it creates methane a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Also, if this meal detritus gets mixed in with paper and cardboard, it makes those valuable recyclables unusable. 

So, I love leftovers because they allow me to be creative in my cooking, they remind me of a time when food waste almost didn’t exist, and it helps me feel I am being proactive fighting against climate change in whatever miniscule way I can.