Remember how in A Little Math, Please I advise only to plan for three meals a week? That’s because a fourth meal should always be — wait for it — something from nothing.
This is not as difficult as it sounds. Check that takeout container languishing in your fridge. Mine had refried beans and rice. There was a bit more rice in my partner’s Chinese take out as well. All that rice became the basis for stuffed cabbage leaves. I also had a sausage and a half leftover from our weekly dinner with spaghetti and meatballs and ground those up in the food processor before mixing with the rice. To this, I added a big fistful of sautéed ground beef and some finely diced onion that I keep handy (love that veggie chopper). After the mixture cooled down, I threw in an egg as binder and some salt and pepper to season. Filling complete. I then took the half of cabbage that had been STARING AT ME in the vegetable crisper and peeled off the tough, outer leaves and boiled them for a few minutes to soften them. Easy. I stuffed the leaves, poured a can of tomato soup (mixed with a tablespoon of tomato paste) over top and another meal was complete and all from basically nothing that I had in my fridge.
I strive to do this at least once a week but often end up making this happen twice as often. The strategy is to start with your vegetable bin, where there is usually a treasure strove of ideas in there. The goal is to not let anything go to waste so always start with the produce that’s on its last leg. I am currently eyeing some mushrooms that have seen better days and thinking I need to use them up. Since we usually do spaghetti and meatballs once a week I know I can sauté them up in a little butter and rosemary and toss them into my usual pasta sauce to add more depth and flavor. I will dice up the rest of the more mature sweet peppers and use them in a cold orzo pasta salad that I’ve been thinking about. I have more chicken broth than usual these days so I will use some to cook the orzo and after draining, I will toss the orzo with the rest of the diced onion (I had extra the cabbage roll meal) along with some feta that I bought on an optimistic shopping trip where the cheese beckoned along with a half a can of olives. Mixed with a simple herby lemon-olive oil dressing, this will form the basis of lunch for the next few days. Easy. And the best part is, everything came from my fridge and pantry. Nothing goes to waste.
As part of living a more frugal life, make it a habit to cull through your crisper drawers and the contents of your fridge often. As you pull out ingredients to prepare a meal, be sure and take out the produce that is on its last leg. Let it stare you down, challenge you to use it up. More often than not, you will be able to find a way to integrate it into your meal or a side dish for another meal.
Some other ideas in making something from nothing:
- Eggs. These are your go-to for creating something from nothing. From tossing bits of cheese and veggies into scrambled eggs to creating a simple frittata with leftover protein, eggs provide a easy neutral base for a fast easy meal. And don’t discount the simple at of topping a simple protein with a perfectly fried egg.
- Pasta. Often the unsung hero of leftovers, pasta can be repurposed into many delicious meals from a last minute addition to soup to a surprisingly delicious baked pasta casserole, don’t overlook leftover pasta as the foundation of a good something from nothing meal.
- Take out. Never let the contents of your take out cartons go to waste. There are no end of ways to repurpose the leftovers from take out. Easy rule of thumb is to use up take out within 48 hours so it does not go bad out of neglect. My favorite way to use up veggies from our local Chinese restaurant is to mince them finely and roll them up in spring roll wrappers. I put them in the air fryer instead of hot oil to keep calories down. I also like adding them to a rice bowl for lunch.
- Protein. This is an expensive leftover as leftovers go. Never let this go to waste. I have been known to freeze leftover pork, beef, chicken, etc., to make sure it gets used up at a later date. Two quick ways to use up protein is in Shepard pies or enchiladas. For the latter, just dice up, mix with cheese and roll up in flour or corn tortillas. Top with enchilada sauce and bake for 350-deg-F for 20 minutes. Recipe for Shepard pie is below.
- Fruit. Fruit is often a huge waste in the average budget. I am as guilty as anyone of buying lush, ripe fruit with the best of intentions and then forgetting about it. For stone fruit, the solution is very simple; dice up the fruit, add a splash of ketchup, soy and a quarter cup of brown sugar. Cook until thickened and use as a sauce for ribs or chicken. Best for slow cooker recipes. Freeze bananas and berries.
Something From Nothing Shepard Pie
Leftover pork, chicken or beef, at least 2 cups, diced
Cup or so of something from nothing chicken broth (conveniently stored in the frugal cook’s freezer)
Two cups of minced vegetables (hopefully from your take out cartons)
Half cup minced onion and a tablespoon of minced garlic
Tablespoon of corn starch and one third cup very cold water, mixed
Tablespoon of tomato paste
Leftover mashed potatoes, at least a cup
Cheese, leftover is best, slightly stale is even better (cheddar works well)
Premade pie crust
Salt and pepper
Method: Heat over to 350-deg-F. Unroll pie crust into standard pie tin or cut into individual pie crusts. I prefer the individual pie crusts and use ramakins. Par bake at 350-deg-F for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven (keep the oven on) and cool briefly.
Sauté the vegetables in a bit of olive oil with the onion and garlic until softened. Mix in the leftover protein and a tablespoon of tomato paste. Cook well before adding left over chicken broth and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Make a slurry with the cornstarch and cold water and add slowly to the vegetables and protein until a gravy forms and mixture thickens. Cool to room temperature. Mixture should be thick.
Ladle mixture into pie shells and top with mashed potatoes. It may be easier to briefly reheat the potatoes in the microwave first so they spread easier. Sprinkle with leftover cheese and bake for 20 minutes at 350-deg-F.