Meatless Monday: Leftovers, Encores, It's All Good

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Ellen Kanner Author and syndicated columnist, the Edgy Veggie

Caribbean pigeon peas and rice, green beans with jalapeno and garlic, these are nothing the Pilgrims had on their table or even had in their minds at their Thanksgiving, but these dishes made up a happy part of our Thanksgiving weekend's feast of encores.

Some think of leftovers as a dirty word, so I prefer the term encores, as culinary author Roy Andries de Groot did. Call them leftovers, call them encores (complete with applause and maybe even standing ovation), for me, using every bit of food is a thrill because I am by nature both cheap and creative and love a challenge besides. I also have a horror of waste, and of wasted food in particular. Others are not so picky.

In fact, American consumers waste billions of pounds of food a year, up at 14 percent of what we buy. And that's on top of the colossal waste that comes from bringing food from the farm to your table. A study from the United National Environment Program estimates as much as half of the food produced globally gets tossed.

In his new book Waste, Brit author Tristram Stuart outs companies who routinely discard food people desperately need. A proud freegan and adept dumpster diver, Stuart writes "By the time I left school, I had learnt that I could live off the food being thrown away by supermarkets and other retailers." We're not talking slop, either. Stuart's recent haul from his local market's dumpster included organic carrots and leeks, bread, containers of prepared lasagne, unopened cartons of yogurt and a chocolate cake.

"We need to ensure that the food and grocery industries get food to us before it ends up in a landfill," says Ron Fraser of Feeding America, the food bank network supplying food to more than 25 million Americans each year. In rare bit of good news, Fraser says American companies "have made giant strides in this regard."

Way to go. We consumers need to pick up the slack. When wasted food decomposes, it produces methane, the same greenhouse gas coming from the rear end of cows, considered a bigger contributor to global warming than carbon dioxide. That's not just wasteful, it's inexcusable at a time when 49 million Americans go hungry and we're seeing the extent of the toll methane takes on the environment.

Love Food Hate Waste, a website by our friends across the pond provides food-saving tips, but many of them you already know. Shop wisely so you don't buy more than you need, plan meals in advance, and make the most of leftovers, by freezing them or enjoying them over several days. Recycle. Compost. Use whole produce rather than bits of it. What's often sold as bags of baby carrots aren't infants at all but what's left after nice, normal full-sized carrots get whittled to nubs. What happens to the rest of the carrots? They become waste, same as the rest of broccoli does when you choose to buy prepackaged florets. These choice bits are marketed to seem cosmetically appealing and save a little effort, but you're spending than you need to and contributing to waste. That's more money or guilt than I care to spend. Produce needn't come in pieces or even be porn star perfect in order to morph into a fabulous meal. Or work its way into an encore.

Encore of Green Beans with Jalapeno and Garlic

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, sliced thin
1 onion, sliced thin
1 tomato, diced
1 jalapeno minced
4 cups cooked green beans
1/4 cup vegetable broth
juice of 1 lime
sea salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add sliced garlic and onion. Cook until just golden, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the diced tomato and jalapeno. Stir to combine. Add green beans and vegetable broth, tossing gently until beans are coated and heated through, but still bright green -- about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and squeeze lime juice over all.

Caribbean Pigeon Peas and Rice

This great recipe spices up leftover cooked rice and beans and becomes dinner in minutes. Cute, round pigeon peas, also known as gungo peas or gandules, are a staple in markets with big Latin and Caribbean communities. If you can't find them, no worries, use red beans, no harm will be done.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 green or red pepper, chopped
1 to 2 jalapenos, seeded and chopped, depending on how hot you like it
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 tomato, chopped (or 1 cup canned diced tomatoes, drained)
2 cups pigeon peas or black beans, cooked and cooled (or 1 15-ounce can prepared beans)
2-1/2 cups leftover rice, cooked and cooled
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 small handful fresh thyme leaves, or 1/4 teaspoon dried
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped
sea salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic, and saute until vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes. Add pepper, jalapeno and celery and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for another 5 minutes. Stir in diced tomato and season with allspice and cumin.

Add cooked pigeon peas and rice, stirring until mixture is well combined. Reduce heat to medium and continue cooking, stirring occasionally until the moisture from the vegetables is absorbed, about 10 minutes. Add thyme and cilantro, salt and pepper and enjoy.

Pigeon peas and rice keeps well for several days, flavor improves over time. For crowds, recipe doubles like a dream.

Serves 4.