10 Ways to Make Leftovers Incredible

By Brooke Parkhurst, REDBOOK

As a mom and professional cook, leftovers are my hall pass to a stress-free night that's more about relaxation than dirty pots and dish-pan hands. But while I'm a cook and a concerned mommy who just wants her 3-year-old to eat well-and a lady who wants a relaxing glass of wine at 6 o'clock!-I'm also a wife who wants to 'wow' her four-star chef husband. And trust me, that last part is a tall order.

What do I do? How do I dress up last night's meal, recreating it into something totally new and exciting? Over the past three years, I've developed a few tricks and shortcuts that make my kitchen life much easier. Here's my shortlist for ensuring incredible meals all week long. I promise you'll never eat the same thing twice!

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The Base

If I know that it's going to be a busy week, I plan for leftovers ahead of time. (Sounds a little backward, but it works!) The real pros, like my husband James, have taught me to KISS in the kitchen-"Keep It Simple, Stupid." Simply-prepared proteins on Monday and Tuesday translate into interesting, flavor-packed meals the rest of the week. My go-to proteins:

1. Bone-in, Skin-on Chicken Breasts & Thighs
2. Skirt or Flank Steak
3. Pork Tenderloin

Once these are cooked and in the refrigerator, I'm ready for a week's worth of incredible dinners.

1. Don't Call It A Casserole

My husband and his line cooks don't call it a casserole-they call it a gratin. And you know what? The French name makes it taste better-even if it's the same thing!

To make your first gratin in a square or oblong, oven-proof container, thinly slice 2 potatoes, grate 1 cup Gruyere or Swiss cheese, chop up a few cloves of garlic, sprinkle a few teaspoons of fresh thyme and be prepared to drizzle a tablespoon of cream for an incredible "Dinner #2." Working in thirds, arrange a layer of seasoned potato rounds on the bottom of the dish, sprinkle with chopped garlic, add thinly-sliced skirt steak or pork, sprinkle cheese and repeat. Finish with touch of cream. Your meat and potatoes never had it so good!

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2. Pasta, Parm, and "Ghost Garlic"

Cooking with garlic is like cooking with gas. But for leftovers, smooth and mellow flavors are sometimes the best. I love "ghost garlic"-skin-on, whole cloves of garlic (about three) that have simmered over medium heat in a few tablespoons of olive oil and then been removed. The wonderful, almost silky garlic flavor lingers while there are no bothersome, burned bits to contend with. Toss the garlic with cooked penne, grated parmesan, and chunks of chicken.

3. Keep It Saucy

Even well-covered meat can dry-out after a day or two in the refrigerator. Learning a few basic sauces-marinara, white wine-butter, romesco (a red pepper and almond sauce that hails from Catalonia, Spain and is the favorite from my cookbook!)-pumps up the flavor of stored meats.

4. South of the Border

Anything griddled between two soft, warm tortillas is going to be a hit. Why fight it?

Shred cooked chicken breast, mix with a cup of black beans, 1/2 teaspoon cumin, 1/4 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika, pinch cayenne pepper, salt & pepper, a handful of monterrey jack and stir. Spoon on a flour tortilla, top with second tortilla and heat through on the stove top. Serve with salsa (from the refrigerated section of the grocery store), freshly chopped cilantro and sour cream.

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5. Pucker And Kick It Up a Notch

Acid-in the form of freshly squeezed citrus juices and vinegars-will brighten the flavors of any dish.

Toss your chicken, pork or steak with pre-cooked veggies (asparagus, carrots, corn), fresh lettuces and a 3-ingredient homemade dressing for a delicious chopped salad. My favorite one-minute dressing: 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar, 1/4th cup extra virgin olive oil, pinch kosher salt, and freshly ground black pepper.

6. Go Green

Keeping an emergency jar of pesto in the refrigerator for last-minute panini and pasta salads prevents me from grabbing that stack of take-out menus. The only problem is that pesto-whether it's made from basil or arugula leaves-will oxidize and turn brown after only a few days in the refrigerator. To reinvigorate my favorite wannabe green puree, I spoon it back into the food processor along with several handfuls of fresh baby spinach. The finished pesto is greener-and healthier-than before.

7. Old-Fashioned Mayo and Sriracha Sauce

There's no "hotter" condiment (in every way) than the bright red, smoked chile Thai hot sauce, Sriracha. The one thing my husband and I agree on: Sriracha makes everything better.

When we want an easy dipping sauce or sandwich spread, we mix 1 teaspoon Sriracha with 1/3 cup mayonnaise. A pinch of smoked paprika and kosher salt round out the ultimate next-day spread. Spoon it onto a sliced ciabatta roll topped with sliced skirt steak, a pile of arugula, and slices of Monterey Jack. Order up!

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8. Salt Saves the Day

A good jar of homemade tomato sauce in the refrigerator-like the "15-Minute Marinara" in my cookbook-can be a late-night dinner savior. To add a little "oomph" to the sweet tomato base, I add a salty component like capers, anchovies and olives. To chunk it up, I sautee eggplant in a little "ghost garlic" olive oil. It's the perfect Meatless Monday (or Tuesday or Wednesday...) dinner.

9. Pizza! Pizza!

Nothing will ever please tots (or adults, for that matter) like a pizza. More importantly, a thin layer of dough is the perfect vehicle for getting good veggies, greens, cheeses, and proteins into little ones' mouths. Make your own dough like we do or nab a ball of the pre-made stuff at the store. Roll it out thinly (thick dough will just prevent the kids from piling on the good stuff) and top with rounds of pork tenderloin or chicken "pepperoni," homemade "15-Minute Marinara" or slow-roasted grape tomatoes, mozzarella, parm and lots of arugula or sautéed spinach.

10. Potato Hash... And An Egg

I love making hashes with cubed potatoes, sautéed green peppers and onions, jalapenos, and chunks of salty-almost crunchy-leftover steak. The only ingredient that can make a hash even better is a poached or sunnyside-up egg the next morning. Really, I think an egg can make anything better. As my 3-year-old says, "The yellow is the best part."

BONUS: When In Doubt

My last bit of advice-If you're experiencing the ultimate dinner debacle, just pull out the eggs and scramble.

Get more recipes from Brooke!

Check out Brooke's cookbook, Just Married and Cooking: 200 Recipes for Living, Eating, and Entertaining Together, for more delicious dishes to freshen up your dinner routine.

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