Our 1987 Guide to Transforming Leftovers is Fascinating

By Herbert B. Livesey

Photography by Richard Izui

This article originally appeared in the April 1987 issue of playboy magazine.

So it was one of those days. Fill in the blanks. And the last thing you want to do is go home and join the designer-food grazing circuit. Yet, you have to eat, and even if you lack the time and inclination to play Julia Child, that doesn’t mean you have to settle for baloney on a bun. By all means, open a can or defrost a package. But fast and good aren’t mutually exclusive. A few extra minutes–even seconds–can transform the most pedestrian packaged food or leftovers into a meal that arouses even the weariest taste buds.

Poke through your spice cabinet. A pinch of dried hot-pepper flakes perks up spaghetti or broccoli. A few drops of Tabasco or Louisiana Hot Sauce fires up soups and stews. One innocent jalapeño pepper braces a bottled Mexican-style table salsa or a can of tuna. And curry powder does wonders in yogurt or cream poured over chicken or lamb. Paprika isn’t just a tasteless decorative garnish on deli salads. It also comes in a zesty, hot Hungarian version perfect for stews. What follows are some delectable spiced-up, speedy concoctions, none of which takes more than 30 minutes from cupboard or fridge to plate.

There’s a supermarket pizza in the freezer, right? Turn up the oven to 425°. It has to be very hot. Remove all wrappings from the pizza. Drizzle a little olive oil over it and sprinkle it with garlic powder, a few hot-pepper flakes and oregano. Add whatever else you have on hand that suits your taste: sliced onions, sweet peppers, olives, sausage, ham or anchovies. How about smoked oysters from the Christmas gift package? Or asparagus tips. Or pineapple chunks. Who’s to know? Slip the pizza into the oven, directly on the rack. If you use a cookie sheet or a baking dish, the crust won’t be as crisp. Cook according to package directions, usually about ten minutes.

Authentic this isn’t; but it doesn’t take all day, either. Heat oil in a large skillet. Add one chopped onion and one small diced bell pepper. Cook and stir until soft, then remove to a bowl and reserve. Break up a pound or so of ground beef into the skillet. Cook, stirring and chopping with the side of a spoon, until lightly browned. Pour off fat. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Return onions and peppers to skillet. Add a can of tomato sauce or of crushed tomatoes or a like amount of catsup. Sprinkle with a heaping tablespoon of chili powder (optional: one teaspoon each of ground cumin, garlic powder and/or oregano). If you have a small can of red kidney beans, drain and add them at the last minute, just to heat through. Chili is ready when most of the liquid is gone. Spoon it right from the pan.

This is a no-cook, no-blend table sauce that fires up just about any cold or broiled meat, fish or fowl. Chop up two ripe tomatoes and one small red onion. Mince about one half cup of cilantro and one to three bottled jalapeño peppers. (One pepper tangos on your tongue, two bug your eyes out and three fuse your fillings.) Toss everything in a bowl. Add salt to taste and the juice of two fresh limes. If you can’t get cilantro (a.k.a. coriander), use parsley. It’s a poor substitute but better than nothing. When you’re cutting the peppers, it’s wise to use rubber gloves. Keep the juice and seeds away from your eyes.

A little imagination can turn the contents of those dusty cans and frozen packages into a tasty dinner.

Stop at the Golden Arches or pick up some frozen chicken nuggets at the corner grocery. While they’re heating up, prepare your own dipping sauces with whatever is on hand. Possibilities: (1) Swirl horseradish or five or six drops of Tabasco in a cup of catsup. (2)Mix curry powder with plain yogurt or sour cream. (3) Stir seeded mustard into mayonnaise. (4) Combine soy sauce with a pinch of hot-pepper flakes, minced scallions or shallots and a splash of dry sherry or madeira. (5)To equal amounts of bottled relish and mayo, add a dash of Worcestershire, Tabasco and the juice of half a lemon. The sauces can be used with frozen fish sticks, too.

Heat a tablespoon of oil in a large pot. Cook a chopped onion until limp. Pour in a can of chicken broth. Bring to a boil. Add a handful of elbow macaroni or pasta shells and equal cut-up portions of any available fresh or frozen vegetables. If there is a piece of leftover cooked chicken or turkey in the fridge, cut it up and toss it in. The mixture should be almost as thick as porridge. Bring to a boil, then immediately lower heat and simmer five minutes.

Put on water for pasta. Heat a little oil in a pan and add a chopped onion and minced garlic. While they cook, chop up a fistful of pepperoni or chorizo. Add it to the pan. Throw in some sliced olives or mushrooms. Add a can of crushed tomatoes or a jar of spaghetti sauce–about two cups. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and oregano. Simmer until the pasta is ready.

Shrimp scampi is redundant, but don’t hold that against it. Heating a can of Campbell’s takes longer. Melt four pats of butter in a skillet. Add a half pound of peeled and deveined shrimps and cook for about five minutes, tossing and stirring. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Remove the shrimps to a plate. To the butter remaining in the pan, add two minced garlic cloves, a few chopped scallions and the juice of one lemon. Stir and cook no more than one minute. Pour over the shrimps. Serve with rice.

Use leftover boiled potatoes or drop frozen potatoes into boiling water and cook until tender but not mushy. Drain, rinse and cut into chunks. You need a little less than two cups. Set aside. Heat three pats of butter in a skillet until it starts to foam. Chop up one small onion, one small red bell pepper and one small green pepper. Add to the skillet, cooking until soft but not limp. Pour in the potato chunks. Sprinkle on salt and pepper and a generous amount of paprika, preferably the hot Hungarian type. Stir to coat. If you have a piece of cooked chicken, beef or pork, dice it and add it as the potatoes brown. If things start to stick, add a little oil.

Butter three large slices of rye or pumpernickel bread from edge to edge. Put them into a toaster oven or under a preheated broiler and lightly toast. In the meantime, open two cans of sardines, preferably skinless, boneless and packed in oil. Drain, then lay them on the toasted bread. In a small bowl, mix a spoonful of mustard with two spoonfuls of oil. Brush or drizzle the mixture over the sardines. Sprinkle with bread crumbs. Place the open-faced sandwiches on a cookie sheet or in a shallow pan under the broiler and cook until the bread crumbs are brown.

Empty into a bowl two seven-oz. cans of tuna packed in oil. Drain a 20-oz. can of cannellini, rinse under cold water and add to the tuna. Add a minced garlic clove, a small chopped onion, a little oregano, a tablespoon of red wine vinegar and four tablespoons of olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, a pinch of hot-pepper flakes and the juice of half a lemon. Toss gently. Minced parsley is the optional garnish. Yields three or four servings, but it keeps well in the refrigerator with a tight cover.

Frozen boil-in-bag dinners can be enlivened in many ways. To enhance or add a Chinese taste, stir a few drops of soy sauce into chicken chunks or chow mein. Oyster sauce jazzes up fish dishes. Minced hot Italian pepper can be tossed with spaghetti or noodles. Oregano, garlic powder, marjoram or all three work in tomato sauce or over lasagna.

You get the idea. These recipes are only guidelines. A little imagination and a stock of versatile spices can turn the contents of those dusty cans and frozen packages into a tasty dinner or a memorable midnight nosh. Improvise!