To-go box revival redux: Resuscitating restaurant leftovers with Ashley English and Nate Allen

ENGLISH BREAKFAST: Cookbook author Ashley English puts an Italian spin on leftover pork loin and cabbage by making a breakfast frittata.
ENGLISH BREAKFAST: Cookbook author Ashley English puts an Italian spin on leftover pork loin and cabbage by making a breakfast frittata. Photo by Cindy Kunst

It’s a busy weeknight at a downtown restaurant with full tables all around as an all-too-familiar scene unfolds. “Would you like to take your leftovers with you?” asks the server. “No, thanks,” replies the guest. Then, turning to his friend, he adds, “I just hate eating the same thing two days in a row.”

In a community that places increasing value on local food systems and sustainability, food waste is a major dilemma, but one that everybody can do something about. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one-third of all food grown in the United States is wasted, giving our nation the highest ranking in the world when it comes to trashed eats. And full-service restaurants in North Carolina waste close to 180,000 tons of food per year, according to the state’s 2012 Food Waste Generation Study — and that’s before the meals even make it to the consumer.

It’s understandable that the two-day-old chicken sandwich in the back of the fridge looks a lot less appetizing as the lettuce begins to brown, but what if it could be made into something entirely different? For this second installment in our ongoing series about reinventing leftovers, Xpress reached out to chef Nate Allen and cookbook author Ashley English to get ideas for fun ways to reuse the half-eaten meals in our restaurant doggy bags.

Allen and English were assigned fictional to-go boxes containing mostly eaten entrées from local establishments. Using basic ingredients from their home pantries, they were asked to build entirely new meals from the contents.

Pork loin frittata

English’s writing covers a wide range of subjects, from raising chickens and keeping bees to canning and preserving. She’s also penned a slew of cookbooks, including the brand-new Southern from Scratch, which debuts this month. She and her husband and co-conspirator, Glenn, were asked to come up with a way to reinvent a three-day-old box of leftovers from The Admiral — a half-eaten pork loin, braised red cabbage and a little bit of spaetzle drizzled in a now mostly dried-up stout glaze. They decided to put an Italian spin on the German fare.

“In our house, we would most likely use up the leftover pork loin, cabbage, and spaetzle in the Italian tradition of using up last night’s protein, veg and pasta in the next morning’s — especially on the weekend — frittata, but in this case, with the twist of a Germanic flavor profile,” says Ashley.

From the pantry:

One large potato, thinly sliced
Six eggs (or more, depending on the number of servings needed)
Stoneground mustard to taste
Salt and pepper to taste

With a nod to famed chef Ferrán Adriá’s renowned potato chip tortilla Española, she thinly slices potatoes with a mandolin — although hand-slicing would also suffice — before pan-frying them in a neutral oil until lightly browned. They are then set aside to drain on a paper towel.

Next, she cracks a half-dozen fresh eggs into a bowl and whisks in some coarse mustard and a pinch of salt. This mixture is then poured into the same pan she just pulled the potatoes from and placed on a burner set to medium-low. “When the eggs are halfway set, they would be topped off with the potatoes, thin slices of the pork loin that have been cut across the grain, the spaetzle and the braised cabbage,” says English.

The pan then goes into a 350-degree oven to cook for roughly five to 10 minutes until set. After pulling the pan out of the oven, let it rest for a minute, then invert the pan onto a large plate and again onto a flat, round platter so the prettier side of the dish is visible.

“We top it off with some grated Amish butter cheese and maybe some garlic scapes from the yard — they are a revelation when charred,” she suggests. “Cut it with a pizza cutter and serve it up in wedges.”

Pork and potato soup

At the end of March, Nate Allen closed Knife & Fork, his James Beard-nominated kitchen in Spruce Pine. But before he left town for new opportunities, he was kind enough to give us a useful — and entertaining — description of one way to use up the leftover half of a Foothills Meats Cuban sandwich, consisting of pulled pork, Swiss cheese, Lusty Monk mustard and deli ham on a Cuban roll with a house-made dill pickle and hand-cut tallow fries on the side. It has been in the fridge for a few days, so the bread is getting soggy and the meat is starting to dry out a bit.

So what would Allen do? He’d make a soup with croutons.

From the pantry:

One onion or several green onions
A few cloves of garlic
Bacon fat or oil
Chicken or vegetable stock
Caraway seeds
Whiskey

“Cut the roll and the tallow fries roughly into approximate cubes,” he says. “Toss with a spoonful of the bacon fat — you know you should keep it in an old coffee can somewhere in the kitchen. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper and toast at 350 until hot and crispy and revitalized.” Any oil will suffice for making these croutons if you lack the reserved bacon fat.

“Next pull whatever sad little bits of onion or limp green onion you have in the purgatory of your back left crisper drawer, and chop that up and toss in a hot pan with the meaty bits of the sandwich. If you have some form of garlic put a bit of that in there, too,” he advises. From there, give the onion, meat and garlic a few minutes to crisp in the pan “as they aromatize the kitchen with the potpourri of culinary rebirth.”

Just before the ingredients in the pan start to burn, Allen instructs us to go to the fridge for one of your “least-favorite beers, the one someone brought over but you just haven’t felt so low or thirsty that you could defend the hipster clout of Lowenbrau.” Add a bit of the beer to the pan to deglaze, then add broth (chicken, veggie or any other variety will work) to make the amount of soup desired. Taste and add salt as needed.

At that point, more seasonings may be in order. “Maybe you’ve been looking at a small container of caraway seeds in the pantry for a few years, and you think that would really tie the whole thing together? You’re right. Smash a dozen of them with the back of a spoon, and toss those in there,” he says. Then place the hot soup in a bowl, lay the reserved Swiss cheese on top and cover with the bread and potato croutons.

Finally, Allen suggests a couple of finishing touches. “Did you eat that pickle while you were making this?” he asks. “I did. If not, chop it up and sprinkle it on. Last but not least, put a jigger of whiskey in a metal ladle and hold a lighter under it until it heats up and catches fire. Pour this right on top. Now sit back and see if old man winter is just going to stay on our couch for the spring.”

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com

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