We shared our thoughts on changing our habits to reduce food waste; we described our experience with composting, and listed ways to extend the life of bread in order to reduce food refuse. Today we’re sharing 10 traditional Italian recipes that use leftovers as their main ingredient.
Reusing leftover food is a practice that has always existed in Italy, and it’s at the base of many traditional recipes. Think meatballs, stale bread-based dishes, fridge-cleaning soups…
Letting food go to waste was inconceivable in a time when there was no such thing as abundance. Leftovers is a modern word. Italians have always been thrifty and conscious of using resources sparingly, and in their entirety. “Nose to tail” was never a fad that’s now come back into fashion, it was a necessity.
To live sustainably, all we have to do is look to past generations and their practical sense. At the end of the day, homemakers gathered loose pantry scraps and made them into a piatto di recupero (a recovery dish). In fact, cucina di recupero is a concept that with the pandemic has taken on new meaning and importance.
Here are 10 of my favorite traditional Italian recipes using leftovers.
Frittata di pasta
How to transform day-old spaghetti? Make frittata! I just loosen the leftover pasta from its bowl-shape and add a beaten egg for each cup of pasta. I mix to incorporate well, and season with salt and pepper. Then I transfer to a heavy-bottomed pan drizzled with olive oil, and gently heat for 5 minutes, when a delicious crust forms on the bottom. My mother’s trick is beating one more egg and pouring it on the surface, which helps set the frittata. I cook the frittata for a few minutes. To flip I use a lipless lid and good balancing skills to slide the uncooked side back into the pan. Another plus is that this dish takes about 10-12 minutes to make. So while not wasting food I’m also budgeting time.
Riso al salto
This northern Italian recipe for reusing leftover risotto works similarly to frittata di pasta. When I prepare risotto I usually make enough for two people. But there’s almost always more than a portion left, which the day after I use to make riso al salto. I add an egg for each cup of risotto and mix to incorporate well. Then I generously grease a non-stick pan with butter or olive oil. I add the risotto, spread it and flatten with a fork to form a patty. I warm it on low heat until a crisp golden crust forms on the bottom surface. Then flip it and land it on the other side. Riso al salto is served dusted with grated Parmigiano.
The southern Italian answer to salvaging leftover rice is arancini. Pear-shaped, classic Sicilian fried arancini traditionally have meat ragù, mushrooms and stewed peas in their filling. In other parts of Italy, similar flavor bombs change according to geographical area and assorted filling. In Rome they go by the name supplì. These are tomato-flavored and bullet shaped croquettes with a heart of melted mozzarella. Arancini are almost always creamy saffron risotto dome-shaped pucks, or round like oranges (the noun arancino means, ‘small orange’). Exotic new fillings in the rice mixture may include crispy pork bits, a cacio e pepe mix, and even black squid ink. We often offer arancini cooking lessons online, interested in learning how to make them? We arrange private classes, too.
Don’t call it quiche. In Italy torta rustica is a seasonal staple and a versatile preparation. It can serve as an appetizer, as a side dish, or be the main entrée. With boundless recipes and fillings, the rustic open-face pies were initially thrifty fridge-cleaners. Bits of leftover vegetables with a mix of cheese, cured meats and always an egg to bind it all together in a flaky brisé pastry shell. The most important ingredient is your imagination in using the variety of food scraps/leftovers before their expiry date.
Pallotte cacio e ova
Meatballs are fridge-cleaners par excellence. The meatless version from Abruzzo is called pallotte cacio e ova. These are delicious golfball-sized orbs of stale bread, eggs, salt, black pepper and grated pecorino cheese. The egg and cheese “meatballs” are initially pan fried with a little olive oil, then they simmer in a basic marinara-style tomato sauce. Now they’re made year round, but at one time they were made only on special holidays, like on the feast of San Martino, and on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi gras) at the end of Carnevale.
Although recently frico is a fashionable recipe, it was originally intended to utilize leftover cheese scraps. Cheese hardly remains uneaten in my home, but when it does, frico is often the answer. Many are familiar with brittle frico: a very thin cheese wafer made with mature Montasio cheese grated in a pan, and heated to a crisp. But it’s soft frico that’s actually the original and more nutritious version. Younger Montasio cheese (cubed) added to softened onions or leeks, boiled potatoes and mixed into a kind of omelette, occasionally added with crispy bits of speck (a juniper-flavored smoked ham from South Tyrol).
Frittelle di minestrone
When I make minestrone, I exceed the quantities on purpose so that I can make fritters the next day. After removing the Parmigiano Reggiano rinds used for flavoring the soup, I add ½ cup of milk, and purée everything with an immersion blender. Consider an egg per cup of soup and 4-5 tablespoons of all-purpose or chickpea flour to obtain a sticky mixture. I heat a frying pan with peanut oil 2 inches deep. When it reaches 350°F/180°C, I use a spoon to drop in the hot oil knobs of the minestrone mixture. I fry in small batches to keep the oil temperature hot. Using a slotted spoon, I lift the fritters out of the frying oil, blot on paper towels and season with salt while still hot. I serve mine with aïoli or lime mayo.
Crostini di polenta
With any leftover polenta and the abundance of cheese I always have, I like to make crostini. I start by heating a ribbed griddle/steak pan until scorching hot. Storing my polenta leftovers in a cubic container makes it easier to slice it more regularly. I like my polenta crostini thick, about ¾ of an inch. I brush the hot pan with olive oil, and grill the polenta slices until dark grill marks appear on each side. Next I melt an assortment of cheeses in a saucepan with just a splash of whole milk. I stir gently until a firm, lumpy mixture forms. The texture should not be runny or liquid. I preheat my convection oven to 350°F/180°C, place the grilled polenta on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Finally, I spoon a dollop of the cheese mixture on each slice of polenta, topping each with a slice of fresh pear. Finally I pop in the hot oven for 10 minutes or until the cheese begins to bubble. I pour the Franciacorta and serve immediately.
Pasta al forno
Baked pasta dishes are creamy, savory, warm, velvety embraces, and a key childhood sensory reminder. As an excellent fridge-cleaner, pasta al forno can also employ vegetables and cured meats on the verge of their expiry. Think assorted bits of cheese, eggs, mushrooms, and anything you may like thrown in for good measure. There are many pasta al forno recipes, but nothing beats my family classic: we make it with a simple béchamel sauce, no tomato and lots of melty Fontina cheese.
Picchiapò has a funny name. It could easily translate to “beat up just a little” but I’m guessing the etymology lies elsewhere. This is a typical Roman cucina povera dish, one that naturally involves recycling leftovers, namely bollito, specifically boiled beef muscle. Each family makes their own, so there is no official recipe. I personally sweat 2 minced golden onions with 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a wide saucepan. When translucent, 2 cups of canned tomatoes and seasonal spices/herbs go in the pan. This cooks over medium heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. I fold in 1 lb leftover boiled beef (roughly chopped) and let it simmer gently for 10 minutes. I serve my picchiapò warm, with mashed potatoes, or sauteed bitter greens.
What’s your favorite way of recycling leftovers?