Like many of us, Kathy Gunst grew up in a home where leftovers either ended up in the trash can or came back to life hiding under a gloppy sauce.
Leftovers were true to their name -- food that was unwanted, second best and, frankly, not worth eating.
But a trip to France taught a then twentysomething Kathy Gunst that well-off Europeans were skilled at making great food out of scraps in ways that only Americans who lived through the Great Depression seemed to understand.
The peels from carrots or leeks went into the soup pot, not the garbage disposal. French bread that became petrified the day after purchase was transformed into bread crumbs or a soup thickener. And leftover pieces of cooked fish teamed with fresh vegetables and garlic in a warming stew.
Kathy Gunst matured, married, had a family and began writing about food in major magazines. She even wrote a cookbook, "Condiments," and "The Great New England Food Guide" without thinking too much about her French lesson.
Ironically, these days Gunst-the-skeptic has become th maven of how to turn leftover food into heartwarming yet innovative meals for the 1990s with publication of her new book, "Leftovers" (HarperCollins, $25). She now looks at a stale piece of bread, onions and garlic and sees a thick, rich onion soup. Leftover broiled tuna becomes Oriental fish with green bean salad. And leftover pork becomes medallions of pork with braised fennel and apple-mustard wine sauce.
Her timing couldn't have been better. The last time we saw a spate of cookbooks with "leftovers" in the title was during the last recession in the early 1980s. But now, the new recession is forcing us to rethink how we spend on food. Leftovers are back. You could call them the latest recycling project to hit the environmentally conscious home.
"In the last 10 years, we have explored fancy wines and ethnic foods and gone to restaurants," Ms. Gunst said in a telephone interview from her home in Maine. "Statistics show we are no longer going to restaurants and no longer spending money on expensive foods. We don't really want to let go of these things, but we don't want to spend money.
"Leftovers can incorporate everything we want. All we have to do is open up our refrigerators and learn to use the things that we have overlooked for years."
Ms. Gunst jokes that her book was merely good timing, not economic forecasting. She owes the inspiration to her editor, Susan Friedland, who had to talk her into doing a topic that seemed unappealing at first.
Skeptical and facing about 10 pounds of leftover turkey meat, she started developing recipes the day after Thanksgiving three years ago. Soon she and her family learned that her French friends were right: With a little imagination, leftovers can be meals that your family will actually look forward to eating.
In fact, these days when she starts roasting a chicken, her 3-year-old puts in a request for her favorite leftover -- Chinese chicken soup with watercress and bok choy. She now roasts a 6- to 9-pound leg of lamb for her family of four just so she can make lamb curry one night and Middle Eastern lamb sandwiches the next.
By her deadline, she had developed 350 recipes for all kinds of leftovers. Her biggest concern was paring them down to the most interesting and most unusual.
The format is as interesting as her recipes. Even a novice can start with her 50 master recipes and learn how to transform them into 150 second-time-around meals.
But this isn't just another rerun of a 1950s casserole book. The word "casserole" never appears and she has designed these recipes taking into consideration our new tastes -- from spinach linguine with lamb, leeks and roasted red peppers to Japanese-style beef rolls with scallions and duck burritos.
"Leftovers are part of almost every other culture," Ms. Gunst said. "But it has been a part of the American way to always have something new. We have lived with the philosophy that in America everything has to be bigger and better. We never had to reuse anything. We are starting to learn culturally, environmentally and culinarily that we are going to have to change."
Now, she said, your view of leftovers is about to change. It begins by how you look at what's in your refrigerator. You have to start seeing connections between foods rather than separate bowls of leftovers covered with aluminum foil or plastic wrap.
"Before I wrote the book I would look into a full refrigerator and see nothing to eat," she said. "I would see half a roast chicken, cooked green beans, four eggs and a hunk of stale cheese and I would make myself a chicken sandwich and throw the rest out. Now I see a frittata.
"Think it through. If you see a combination of foods that appeal to your mind, it will probably appeal to your mouth. Granted there may be some disasters, but usually they work. Leftovers are the ultimate test for a cook. Anyone can learn to cook a recipe. Anyone can learn to cook French or Chinese. The real test is what you can do with all those bits and pieces in your refrigerator."
$ Spinach linguine with lamb and red peppers Makes 2 to 4 servings.
1 large red bell pepper
1 large leek or 2 small ones
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
L 1/2 to 3/4 cup cubed cooked lamb (or ham, pork, sausage or duck)
3 tablespoons chopped sun-dried tomatoes
3 tablespoons drained capers
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or 1 teaspoon crumbled dried rosemary
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 pound spinach linguine, preferably fresh
freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the broiler. Set a large pot of lightly salted water on to boil.
Place the pepper on a piece of aluminum foil and broil about 3 minutes on each side, until the pepper is completely charred. Remove from the broiler and wrap pepper in foil for about 3 minutes. Take off the foil and with a small, sharp knife peel the charred skin off the pepper. Cut in half, remove the seeds and core, cut in thick slices and set aside.
Cut the few top inches of green off the leek and discard. Cut the leek in quarters lengthwise and rinse thoroughly. Cut into 2- to 3-inch pieces.
In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil over moderately low heat. Add the leeks and garlic and saute gently for about 20 minutes, or until the leeks have softened. Add the reserved peppers, lamb, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, rosemary and pepper; saute for about 30 seconds. Raise the heat, add the wine, and let simmer until the wine is reduced by about half. Keep warm over very low heat until the pasta is ready.
Meanwhile, add the spinach linguine to the boiling water. Cook just a few minutes if fresh and about 8 to 10 minutes if dried, or until al dente. Drain and toss with the lamb sauce. Serve grated Parmesan cheese on the side.
* Ms. Gunst says this recipe for onion soup will make it a pleasure for the French bread to go stale.
Bread and five-onion soup Makes 4 to 6 servings.
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 large leeks, cleaned and chopped (about 3 cups)
1 large onion chopped (about 2 cups)
1/4 cup chopped shallots
2 scallions, chopped
5 garlic cloves, chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme or 3 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 cups stale, cubed French or Italian bread, crust removed
4 cups water
2 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
freshly ground black pepper
-- Tabasco or other liquid hot pepper sauce (optional)
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives or parsley
In a large soup pot, heat the butter and oil over moderately low heat. Add the leeks, onion, shallots, scallions, garlic and 1 teaspoon of thyme; saute about 15 minutes, or until softened, stirring frequently.
Scald the milk, 1/4 cup of the cream, and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of thyme.
Crumble the bread into a large bowl. Add the scalded milk/cream mixture and mash the bread to form a puree. (The mixture may still be somewhat chunky, which is fine). Mix in 4 cups water and the chicken stock and add the mixture to the sauteed onions. Raise the heat to high and bring the soup to a boil. Reduce the heat and let the soup simmer partially covered for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Transfer the soup to a blender or a food processor and blend until smooth. Return the soup to the pot and add the remaining 1/2 cup cream. Season to taste with salt, pepper and optional hot sauce. Sprinkle with the chives or parsley right before serving.
* This next dish will only work with roast beef that is rare to medium-rare. The beef rolls can be served as an hors d'oeuvre or a first course.
Japanese-style beef rolls with scallions Makes 12 bite-sized pieces.
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons soy sauce
4 tablespoons sake, Chinese rice wine or dry sherry
1 1/2 tablespoons sesame oil
6 very thinly sliced pieces of cooked rare steak or roast beef
Cut the scallions into 2-inch long pieces.
Heat the oil in a medium skillet over moderately low heat. Add the scallions and garlic and saute for about 2 minutes. Add half the soy sauce, half the sake and 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil, cover the skillet and braise the scallions and garlic for 3 to 4 minutes, or until softened.
Transfer the scallion mixture to a plate and divide it into sixths. Place 1/6th of the mixture in the center of a piece of meat and roll tightly, securing with a toothpick or a small piece of string. Place the beef rolls in an ovenproof skillet and sprinkle with the remaining soy, sake and sesame oil. (This dish can be made several hours ahead up to this point, leaving the cooking until the last minute.)
Preheat the broiler and broil for 2 1/2 to 3 minutes. or until the beef is hot and the sauce is bubbling. Place the beef on a serving plate, remove the toothpick or string, cut each roll in half crosswise and drizzle the sauce from the skillet on top.
It doesn't take the culinary skill of an Escoffier to throw bunch of leftover food into a casserole, top it with canned mushroom soup and heat the mishmash in the oven.
But, ah, to make a masterpiece out of old food. That's talent.
"Cooking with leftovers is the true test for a cook," according to Ken Hom, noted cookbook author and cooking teacher, who is quoted in Kathy Gunst's new book, "Leftovers." "It jars your thinking, because it is not a prescribed method of cooking. It forces you to use your instincts and that's what cooking is all about."
Here are some ideas to get you started from Ms. Gunst's book:
*Put leftover beef, topped with brie, on crusty bread and place under the broiler until the cheese melts. Top with chopped walnuts or almonds.
*The rind from a hunk of Parmesan cheese makes a great flavoring for minestrone, vegetable or meat-based soup.
*Leftover French fries can become an omelet. Cut the fries into strips and reheat under the broiler. Make an omelet and place the fries inside, cook until set and fold in half. Serve with ketchup and green salad.
*Chinese leftovers can be better the second time around. Heat a wok with a tablespoon of peanut oil, add a clove of minced garlic and a teaspoon of minced fresh ginger.
Add leftover rice and stir to break it up; then stir in the main course. Add 1 teaspoon or more of the following -- soy sauce, sesame oil, Chinese rice vinegar, lemon or lime juice or 1/2 to 1 teaspoon black bean paste, chile oil or chile paste.