Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Leftover Magic

Recycling leftovers is a skill worth developing.

A few years ago, I had a problem: the house was filling up with teenagers and I had nothing to feed them. So I opened my refrigerator and took stock. There was half a pint of milk and a couple of chunks of cheese, hard and stale, but fortunately not moldy. In the vegetable bin I found a cauliflower that was rapidly approaching its use-by date, half a dozen overripe pears, and a ton of leftover mashed potatoes. In one corner nestled a couple of sad-looking onions. I stood there, puzzling it out. And then suddenly I knew what I would make: Soup!

I took a quick look around to make sure there weren't any teenagers in sight. They say laws and sausages are two things you don't want to watch people making, but in this house, soup is another. Once it's made it's perfectly tasty and wholesome, but for an optimal dining experience, it's best not to witness the creative process.

I sauteed the onions until they were brown, then popped them into a kettle of boiling water with the cauliflower. When it was tender, I peeled and cored the pears and dropped them in, then blended the whole thing together in my food processor. After adding some stock, I put in the mashed potatoes and simmered the whole lot with the milk, then grated in the cheese and added some curry powder and white pepper. Perfect: a big pot of soup and no pesky leftovers around to make me feel guilty and wasteful.

Just as I was serving up the soup, ladling it into our best bowls and swanning around the kitchen like Martha Stewart, in came my daughter's pickiest friend. This was a girl who, until she visited our house, had never heard of let alone tasted avocadoes, mangoes, papayas, kiwi fruit, or kidney beans. Who'd had no idea what a tortilla was, or that refried beans were actually tasty. Who actually turned her nose up at tomato sauce made with real tomatoes in it.

I was feeling lucky, so I served her a bowl too. With a flourish.

To my utter amazement, she loved it. Not only did she finish her soup, she wiped the bowl clean with a stale tortilla. Then she asked for seconds. A week later, she asked me for the recipe. A month after that, I ran into her mother in the store and she asked me for the recipe. I felt like an idiot telling them (leaving out certain details, of course), but I learned something from that experience: even junk is acceptable if you arrange it right. If you serve it up well, artfully packaged, with pride. If you select your leftovers with care, spice them up perfectly, and present them with confidence, they aren't junk at all.

I'm rewriting my latest work-in-progress, yet again. It's been hanging around like leftovers for ages, but for the umpteenth time, I'm trimming off bits, tweaking others, rearranging, and discarding. Who knows? Maybe I'll manage to make it so palatable my pickiest readers will lap it right up.


Travis Erwin said...

Great post and I love how you tied in writing but a meal without meat is no meal in this carnivores eyes.

Lisa Shafer said...

Nice soup story. I tend to put leftovers with rice; it helps. :)

Good luck with re-working your written leftovers. May they been as successful as your cauliflower/pear soup.

Vijaya said...

Oooh, I love soup and it's quite the compliment that the pickiest of the lot wiped it up with a stale tortilla. Was it a little sweet, a little sour? Wishing you the same magic with the revisions and picky readers.

Mirka Breen said...

Love the edible kind of leftovers. Made a note to consider the literary sort… Thanks, Mary!

Robin said...

Wow. I had no idea what you were going to do with that very eclectic mix. That's incredible. Maybe I'm hungry, but I'm drooling here.

As for the WIP - I know I'd lap it up!

angryparsnip said...

Love your soup post...
Leftover soup or a spicy fried rice is a leftover given at my home !

When my children where growing up we had chicken soup a lot... but it never came out quite the same because what was in the frig went in the soup. It was always tasty but different every time.

Hope your leftover re-write comes out as tasty as your Cauliflower/Pear soup. What cheese did you use ?

cheers, parsnip

Kit said...

Sounds like an inspired recipe creation! I wish mine would eat blended soups, I'd get away with a whole lot more in the way of veggies.

Bish Denham said...

Love this. Who would have thought cauliflower and pears would go well together? So I guess that means we can mix our metaphors and genres. :)

By the way, they are not left-overs. My mother called them "cooked aheads."

Charles Gramlich said...

Sometimes I've had leftover stories turn to magic. Sometimes. Usually more like stone soup.

Lynne said...

I love soup! I think I might have to try something like this. I could eat different soups all every day in the late fall and all winter long if my family didn't get sick of them after the second day.

Kim Ayres said...

Reminds me of a post I wrote several years back - Leftovers Soup. Maggie's always been amazing at making soup out of anything. Given your propensity to recycle anything you can, I'm not surprised by your soup skills :)

Mary Witzl said...

Travis -- If we ever meet, say at a writers' conference or something, you can have my steak if I can have your salad. Deal?

Lisa -- I usually save the rice for fried rice, but yes, it does very well in soup too.

My writing leftovers are falling out of the pantry. I'm borrowing and stealing time to turn them into palatable meals.

Vijaya -- Picky readers, it turns out, are a lot worse than picky eaters.

The soup was a bit sweet, but mainly savory. Who'd have guessed that cauliflower and pears would go so well together?

Mirka -- They say there are just so many kinds of plots floating around. I think it's a testament to human ingenuity that writers can do so much with what is available and turn out stories that people are still eager to consume.

Robin -- If we ever meet, I'll make you soup from unrecycled ingredients!

I find myself wondering if I'll ever manage to please the people guarding the gateposts -- but whatever the case, I'll keep plugging away.

AP -- Some of it was parmesan, but the other -- who knows? I think it was cheddar. Whoever had used it last did not wrap it back up in its original package, so it had dried into a block as hard as shoe leather. But it still got eaten.

Kit -- Your family won't eat blended soups? I suspect they've caught you making it -- that happened to me once and I had a lot of explaining to do. Thanks to my food processor/blender I've gotten my kids to eat aubergines, zucchini, spinach, chard, kale, peppers, cabbage, and every kind of mushroom. I'm a Luddite, but my blender is a Godsend!

Bish -- I love your mother's logic. 'Cooked aheads' -- that's a good way to recycle language.

Pears and cauliflower are marvelous together. Also, I've pulverized over-ripe kiwi fruit and added them to all sorts of savory stews. They add great texture and you would never guess they were there.

Charles -- I've spun out many stone soup stories myself. You have to have a really GOOD stone -- and an audience who will hang around while you find all the other stuff to put in.

Lynne -- I calculate how much the family can eat in one meal and freeze the rest. It always looks God-awful frozen, but tastes pretty good when it's heated up -- and everybody's desperately hungry.

Kim -- Maggie and I could swap some soup stories, I know. There's nothing as satisfying as a big bowl of hot soup -- and a nice, clean refrigerator.

Sophie Moss said...

I was raised on "leftover magic casseroles." In high school my brother and ALL his friends never failed to show up exactly at dinnertime. We never knew what was IN the casseroles, but according to my mom, if it was in the fridge, it was fair game!
Good luck on the re-write!

Marcia said...

Soup! Yes! Works every time!

Glad you were able to remember the "recipe" for all your adoring fans. :)

Uma Krishnaswami said...

It's soup tonight! Thank you for the inspiration.

Not so sure how the metaphor carries over to writing--gardening metaphors seem to fit my revising style better. Shears. Pruning. Hacking at the weeds.

But your cauliflower-pear combo reminds me how when an image doesn't work you can make it stronger by "stranging it up" (poet Julie Larios's phrase, not mine, but it fits perfectly, I think). Here's to strangeness and the inner eccentric!

Angela Ackerman said...

Pears in your soup? Dang, yo are the SOUP MASTER, Mary!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Pat said...

At first I though you were about to recycle teenagers:)
The soup has that magic ingredient - a mother is making this just for you. And the pears of course.

Kristen Lippert-Martin said...

I think your junk -- both literary and non -- must be a lot tastier than mine.

My junk, no matter how artfully I arrange it, is still junk.

Oh, and I have children who are decidedly anti-soup, no matter what's in it. I could make chocolate soup and they'd still protest.

Carole said...

Pears in soup? You are a genius. A stinking genius. You must have added a few more spices that I know about, but I am going to have to try this business of leftover soup. Maybe tomorrow, since I am inviting all the kids and their families over. Now to go get some pears.

Mary Witzl said...

Sophie -- Good for your mother, and all people who know how to recycle leftovers. I'll bet a lot of recipes in cookbooks are the result of some tired woman staring at her larder and wondering what in the world she could do with all the bits and pieces and odd scraps she had lying around. We should start calling our creative recycling efforts see-you-again-soon casseroles.

Marcia -- It's so embarrassing being asked the recipe for something you've cobbled together out of weird elements, isn't it? My husband knows how to make it all sound very plausible and elegant; just listening to him makes me blush.

Uma -- Gardening really does make for better writing metaphors than cooking. I've been doing some serious deadheading this weekend and some replanting. Tomorrow I'll weed and move rocks.

And dinner here tonight will definitely be soup...again.

Angela -- Believe me, they gave the soup an extra edge -- a little more texture and sweetness. And it was so much better than throwing them away.

Pat -- I try to spin it that way: "Look what I've got for you, my dears: tasty hot soup, and it's SO nourishing!" And it really is, but it's also an ideal way to have a good fridge sort-out.

Kristen -- There is no way that my literary junk is any better than yours. When I'm at my very best, I hope I'm neck to neck with you -- but I KNOW I'm not better.

Kids who hate soup are kids who've seen you at it. Give them a little time to forget, invite over some of their greediest, hungriest friends, and dish it up! I bet they'll change their tune.

Chocolate soup? My kids would hurt each other trying to get to it.

Carole -- Don't forget: the pears need to be slightly overripe. Make sure your cheese is really tough and hard, your potatoes need to have all the green stuff trimmed off, and your onions are as wilted as can be.

Miss Footloose | Life in the Expat Lane said...

I saw your list of left overs and thought. oh, we can do something with that: cauliflower potato cheese casserole! Soup of course is the liquid version and I'm sure it was delicious. I've also made multiple left-over type meals that have no recipe, and often turn out wonderfully well, but never to be duplicated exactly.

Good luck with your writing!