To-go box revival: How to turn restaurant leftovers into new meals

OUTSIDE THE BOX: With a little creativity, unfinished restaurant meals can be completely reinvented. AUX Bar chef Steven Goff met Xpress’ theoretical to-go box challenge with the strategy of turning a leftover Mamacita’s burrito into a plate of crispy nachos. Photo by Cindy Kunst

We all know the feeling: You’re stuck in standstill traffic on the drive home and you are starting to get hangry, that unique feeling of anger caused by a hungry stomach. And the thought of cooking from scratch or finishing off that 3-day-old pad Thai in your fridge fills you with even more white-hot rage.

To make it worse, your kid is whining that he doesn’t want to eat the rest of the oversized burger he ordered last night, and who can blame him? You aren’t exactly inspired at the thought of a dried-out burger and soggy fries.

But throwing that food away isn’t a sustainable choice. The 2012 N.C. Food Waste Generation Study found that the average Buncombe County resident tosses out about 5 pounds of food per week, which adds up to over 27,800 tons of food wasted annually. That’s a lot of doggy bags that could have been transformed into totally new meals with just a small amount of effort.

In this new series, Xpress looks to local culinary professionals for inspiration on using everyday pantry items to revamp unfinished meals into fresh cuisine. Chefs are presented with theoretical restaurant leftovers and asked to invent ways to turn them into completely different dishes.

Caribbean spice

Sommer Collier is the brains behind A Spicy Perspective, an Asheville-based online recipe database for home cooks that focuses on preparation of simple yet artful dishes. So who better to mastermind the transformation of the contents of a 3-day-old to-go container from Nine Mile into something new and exciting? The dish in question: the restaurant’s signature menu item, the Nine Mile, which consists of grilled jerk chicken with fresh ginger, fire-roasted tomatoes, jalapeño peppers, squash, zucchini and spring onions, all sautéed in white wine and butter and served over linguini.

We specified that most of the chicken and pasta had been eaten in the make-believe box, but that didn’t deter Collier, who confessed, “I think I’ve actually used these leftovers before to make a great pot of Caribbean curry soup.”

To make the soup, she drew from her home pantry:

32 ounces chicken broth
1 can unsweetened coconut milk
1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped
1 onion, peeled and chopped
Three to four garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon butter or coconut oil
Curry powder

Her process:

Sauté the chopped onion and garlic in a tablespoon of butter or oil. Once softened, add the chopped sweet potatoes and a pinch or two of curry powder. (“Don’t overdo the curry powder,” she warns. “Maybe a half teaspoon or less.”)

Add the sweet potatoes and sauté for a couple of minutes, then pour in the broth. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer for about 10 minutes. Add the contents of the leftover box and simmer for an additional three to five minutes, until the sweet potatoes are cooked through and the chicken and pasta are warmed. Finally, stir in the coconut milk and season with salt and pepper to taste.

“The chicken, ginger and veggies should round out the soup base and create a lovely island flavor the whole family can enjoy from half a container of leftovers,” she says, noting that the sweet potato acts as a filler to make up for the shortage of noodles. If there’s only a little left in the box, she advises, reduce the additional ingredients by half to make a smaller portion.

Nachos libres

Chef Steven Goff, formerly of Zambra and King James Public House, recently returned to the Asheville culinary scene after a couple of years working in the Raleigh area and launching his food truck, Brinehaus. He also recently opened AUX Bar in the former Crepe Bourée and Vincent’s Ear spaces on Lexington Avenue with Blind Pig Supper Club founder Mike Moore.

Goff was issued the challenge of reinventing the leftover three-quarters of a two-day-old Veggie Mama burrito from Mamacita’s. The ingredients included sweet potato, kale and black beans, pico de gallo, some wilted and forlorn lettuce, cilantro, onions and cheese with a ton of soggy chips and some ramekins of salsa. From that uninspiring offering, Goff whipped up something he calls “Snachos.”

From his pantry:

Pickled jalapeños
Shredded cheese (any kind will do in a pinch)
Plain yogurt

His process:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lay out the chips evenly on sheet tray and toast them until crunchy. From there, he says, “dig the soggy lettuce out of the burrito corpse as best as possible and reserve the rest.” Heat a cast iron skillet to smoking, and sear all the burrito fillings but the lettuce. Sprinkle some cheese on top of the chips and melt in the oven. Finally, he instructs, “dump the hot, stir-fried burrito guts evenly over the chips,” then garnish with the jalapeños and yogurt to taste and serve with the leftover salsas.

He adds that he typically keeps chicken, ground beef and sweet potatoes in his pantry as well and would use cubed, roasted sweet potatoes and either grilled chicken or ground beef to the mix to bulk it up. Fermented and pickled veggies are another good addition, he notes, for those with well-stocked kitchens. “But for the Asheville hospitality employee fridge, which would likely not have those three ingredients, I left them out,” he says.

In a moment of further inspiration, Goff opted to pull another to-go box from the imaginary fridge — this one filled with Copper Crown’s fried chicken and mashed potatoes with kilt, or wilted, cabbage. “Cut the chicken into cubes and sear it as the protein for your nachos,” he says. “The kilt cabbage could take a nice cast-iron char and vinegar douse and be added to the pickled topping of the nachos.”

And those who have milk on hand can take it to the next level. By mixing some milk and a bit of cheese into the mashed potatoes, he says, one can create potatoes aligote, which can be used as a rich dip for the nachos.


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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of Follow me @jonathanammons

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One thought on “To-go box revival: How to turn restaurant leftovers into new meals

  1. Big Al

    So funny to see Stephen Goff celebrated for his skill at making meals from leftovers. When he was interviewed during his tenure at King James Public House, he had a well-publicized adolescent tantrum over the many requests for his then-signature dish: a hamburger made from recycled scraps of upscale beef. But now that recycled food is the hip, trending thing, he happily jumps on the bandwagon.

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