I mentioned them in my Thanksgiving dinner column and, with the day now past, I am ready to revisit the subject.
There are times the use of left-over foods produces wonders, with the remains of one meal transitioning into something special, something better than the original.
Other times, leftovers are merely leftovers, sad things — like a prom dress hung in the back of a closet after the date never knocked at the door, when the corsage went undelivered.
With Thanksgiving off the radar, we are scooting out of a major leftover zone, but we will soon have cause to consider leftovers again, with other opportunities to affect the transformation of one menu item into another.
When I think of leftovers, many things come to mind. At first, the memories are fine: foods scrounged cold from the refrigerator by a short, “stocky,” myopic and gap-toothed lad and spirited to the bedroom, there to be devoured, the feast illuminated by the fuzzy light emitted by the massive cathode-ray tube in a vintage Motorola black and white. (“Stocky,” incidentally, can still be used as a somewhat gentle synonym for “fat” as long as you don’t use it to describe a young woman.)
That refrigerator of my youth held delectable holiday goodies — slabs of stuffing, wads of cold, mashed potatoes, hunks of flesh — as well as favorite everyday residue such as monster blocks of lasagna (nothing beats a lasagna sandwich, with cheap white bread and mayo), interlocked diamonds of fatty kibbeh (gotta take care the pine nuts don’t fall on the bed), potato cakes once crisp and gone soggy, bricks of sour cream chocolate cake, et al.
Later in life, leftovers took on a different character.
The dark side of leftovers was revealed a long time ago, in a far away place …
Actually, it was 1967, in Manhattan.
My signal, post-youth and nasty leftover experience was provided by Bob and his indefatigable but dense companion, Teensy. They firmly established the pole opposite the lasagna sandwich on the leftover scale.
I was in residence at the time in a rundown dump on East Third Street, in the East Village, close to the music school, fairly near Moscow High School. I lived in a four-story tenement building, in a one-room “apartment” (no toilet, no kitchen, no closet) on the third floor. I lived there during the spring and summer, thankfully, since there was little or no heat in the building during the winter. The mid-summer atmosphere inside the building was oppressive, but the danger that accompanied winter made the discomfort desirable. That danger was manifest in one of the “apartments” on the fourth floor, its entry sealed, soot streaks still visible on the wall above the doorway, evidence of a homemade winter heating scheme gone bad.
Bob and Teensy lived on the second floor. This dynamic duo did not live in the conventional “apartment.” They were holed up — literally — in a storage space beneath the stairs.
Why Bob was called “Bob” I don’t know, since his name was Louis. He looked like a bedraggled d’Artagnan, complete with lace-front musketeer shirt, and was a prep school dropout from a wealthy family in Westchester County. His indefatigable but dense companion, Teensy, an Iowa farm girl, earned her moniker for obvious reasons: though she was a good 5’11”, her feet were abnormally tiny. Sideshow small.
Bob and Teensy had moved into the space beneath the stairs a year or so before and the landlord didn’t seem to care. Bob had tapped into the juice via a wire run to the light fixture in the hallway and had installed a small lamp in the crowded storage space — their “pad.” The space was approximately ten feet long; one entered the “pad” through two hinged plywood doors. The ceiling of the “pad” sloped with the stairs. Bob and Teensy put their “bedroom” at the end of the space with the lowest ceiling. Their “living room” occupied the end of the space with maximum headroom”— four feet at the most.
It was cozy.
Especially when you were invited in for dinner.
I heard a knock at my door. It was four in the afternoon and I was sleeping. I worked at a club down on St. Mark’s Place, starting at 10 p.m., and my hours were a bit off the norm.
I opened the door and there stood Teensy, clad in a long dress she had fashioned out of cheap Kashmiri tablecloths. Her tiny feet were dirty (she walked the streets of the East Village barefoot) and she reeked of patchouli oil (a potent deodorant if one lacked bathing facilities).
“Come to dinner.”
“Come to dinner. At our house.”
“We’re havin’ leftovers.”
When the time arrived, I put on my best T-shirt (the one painted like a dress shirt, complete with tie) went downstairs and knocked on the “door” of the “house.” It opened, the bottom of the plywood scraping the old floorboards in the hallway. Bob’s head poked out. “Welcome, my friend. Please, come on in.”
I got down on my knees and scooted into the “house.”
Into the “living room.”
Bob and Teensy cooked on a small camp stove — a single ring affair. Meals were, by necessity, a melange: everything was cooked in a small, tin pot and served in mess kits shoplifted from an Army surplus store. The meal had to come together quickly; stove time was limited due to the carbon monoxide problem — though a dose of CO would not have put a dent in Teensy.
We engaged in some idle chitchat as whatever was in the pot bubbled away. Bob and Teensy wanted to know how my career in the music business was going. I lied and told them everything was swell.
I asked Bob and Teensy about their hopes and dreams.
Turns out, travel was on the agenda.
“Actually,” said Bob, “this is just our summer home. When the weather turns, we’ll head to Miami. I mean, autumn in New York is beautiful, but it sure is easier to live in Florida during the winter. You can hitchhike down there, then set up shop outdoors. And, there are plenty of leftovers at the hotels.”
“Yep. We always eat leftovers.”
“How can you always eat leftovers if you don’t cook something to be left over?”
“Oh, heck, that’s easy. They’re someone else’s leftovers. That’s what we’re havin’ tonight. Leftovers. Teensy found ‘em today, so they’re fresh.”
Turns out, leftovers were items scavenged from the garbage at restaurants and delis on Second Avenue.
“We’re havin’ pastrami and macaroni salad soup. The other day, we had meatloaf and kugel soup. We have soup every meal.”
It was a delightful evening.
We wolfed down the soup, Teensy scurried down the hall to the communal bathroom to do the dishes and I felt the first rumblings of some nasty business taking place in Gastroville.
Things came to full flower at about midnight, while I was at work, playing the drums at The Balloon Farm.
It was not pretty.
But now, with elements of the recent Thanksgiving meal at hand, the leftover situation has veered back to the bright side of the spectrum.
I had family in town during the week and they are game for anything. They all drink.
So, as predicted, the first meal after Thanksgiving was turkey molé. I whipped up a pot of mole with extra chile, and my brother made a cooling slaw. I mixed up some masa cakes (two parts masa to one part flour — sautéed corn kernels, onion and garlic, a bit of Espanola red, cumin, oregano, salt, pepper, water to the proper consistency). I crisped the cakes in olive oil over medium high heat, pressing down on the cakes after they were turned and, when done, draining them on paper towel and keeping them warm in a 200-degree oven. I drained and rinsed a couple can’s worth of pinto beans then warmed the beans in a pan with some chicken stock, a bit of crushed, fire-roasted tomato, a smidge of the Espanola red, cumin and oregano, until they started to tighten up.
The production: Down goes a cake. On goes a mess o’molé. On top of the molé, some grated Asadero, a glob of sour cream, a flutter of chopped cilantro. On the side, a pile of beans and a pile of slaw.
A bit of a strain on the arteries, but well worth it.
The next day, for breakfast, leftovers, part deux: down goes a warmed masa cake, on goes some warmed molé, a mat of Asadero is applied and a couple fried eggs, sunny side up, crown the creation. Oh, and some sour cream, for good measure.
Eat this too often and the next words you hear are “Code Blue in the ER. We need the crash cart, stat.”
For the remainder of the remainders of the Thanksgiving feast: stuffing cakes with leftover turkey gravy.
The leftover stuffing needed to be pulverized. I made mine pretty darned chunky this year, and there were hunks of hot Italian sausage in the mix as well. So, I broke up the hunks of bread and sausage and moistened everything with a bit of chicken stock — just enough to allow for a patty that held together. Just for fun, I chopped up several hot, Hatch green chiles and tossed them in.
I formed patties from the stuffing mix and browned them in a mix of half olive oil, half butter. When the crispy patties were drained, they were covered with a molten flow of the gravy. On the side, greens and tomatoes, with a lemon vinaigrette.
Now, if I can just work up the nerve to put leftover kugel and meatloaf in a blender, and …