Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Frugal Foodie: Using Leftovers in Non-Sucky Meals

Sick of Stir-Fries? One more mystery casserole or Shepherd's Pie and you'll gag? 

Here are 7 Super Suppers from the bits and pieces lurking in your fridge and pantry!

Hello hello! It's been awhile!

Grad school and life-in-general has adversely affected the frequency of my posts this year. I have many in the works that are nearly ready to go, but they're all whoppers and these things take time (much more time than I had initially anticipated! Whoops!).

So if you're like me, scrambling your way in the door late in the evening each weeknight, too poor for take-outs (or you're feeling too fat - it's that time of year, isn't it?!), lacking enough brain-power and blood sugar to come up with a decent dinner idea . . . well, this post is for you!

First up:

Not only is "okonomiyaki" extremely fun to say, it's also decidedly delicious. This savoury Japanese omelette-pancake hybrid is probably one of the few Japanese dishes that DOESN'T look pretty. In fact, it's downright ugly! The only place in town I know of to order okonomiyaki is The Clubhouse restaurant on West 2nd (a few blocks east of Cambie at Alberta). The Clubhouse is a fantastic find, incidentally - go with a group of friends and order some sake. My Japanese friends love it there (and so do I).

Apparently "Okonomi" translates as "As You Like It". Hmm. Perhaps thespians would be into this?

I bought okonomi sauce on sale from H-Mart (Robson and Seymour), and I just followed the recipe on the back of the bottle wrapper. It seemed really odd to mix the flour and water together first, and then stir in the eggs and vegetables (and meat and seafood, if that's your thing), but it did come together in the end . . . and it was fantastic. I chucked in cabbage (the stump leftover from 2 or 3 other recipes - cabbage is so economical and good for you!), spinach and some simulated bacon-bits (I was desperate; this was not a well-planned dinner).

With the proper Otafuku brand okonomi sauce, it tasted just like the 'real thing' ordered from The Clubhouse. My husband loved it too. We've decided that this is a much better option than the typical stir-fry to use up nearly expired and orphaned vegetables in the fridge or freezer.

from the Otafuku wrapper (worked great!)

In a pinch, you need: Flour, Water, Eggs, Vegetables (and/or meat/seafood) and Okonomi Sauce.

You could probably get by without the okonomi sauce, but I wouldn't personally recommend it. Find yourself a bottle and pop it in your fridge.

A word to the wise (this applies to every recipe here!):
Condiments and spices are non-negotiables; if you don't have a HUGE repertoire of seasonings at hand, it'll be extraordinarily difficult to make something tasty out of leftover vegetables, etc. Think of the runny yellow 'curry' your mom used to splat onto white sticky rice. Now think of Vij's curry. What's the difference? There's a dozen different tasty spices and seasonings in the latter, and the former was reconstituted yellow powder from a can bought from Safeway. 
So get out there, dig around, and amass a spice and condiment collection that'll frighten your mother! (This might only apply to white-people's mothers. My friends and I joke about this all the time. A great example of this phenomenon is Marge Simpson, mystified by "Oregano", which she mispronounces). If you are a child of a Caucasian Canadian mother, do not lose hope! Your recovery can start today! Try EVERYTHING you were put off of as a child once more - chances are the real thing tastes nothing like the horrible dish you recall. Especially "curry"!


This is one of my husband's favourite "cleaning out the fridge" recipes. I will say that for me it can be a little hit-or-miss, so do take care to consider what flavours clash with others. Or follow a basic recipe and customize carefully! (I don't particularly like the taste of 'minestrone' soup, and almost invariably this one ends up tasting that way if you don't use a little foresight. But I'm weird!). I also think tabasco sauce tastes great with everything, so if I end up with 'minestrone', I just kick up the heat!

Need a hint? See "variations" in lower left panel.

My husband's mother referred to this 'all-the-vegetables-you-can-possibly-pack-in soup' as "Power Soup" to encourage the kiddies to take in all those essential nutrients. But I've also heard it called "Zero Soup", as it is in Moosewood's New Classics cookbook, referring to "zero points" on the Weight-Watchers points system.

Still one of my all-time favourite cookbooks!
If you add a grilled cheese sandwich (or a canned salmon melt), it won't be a "zero points" option. But I highly recommend it on a chilly February night!

Remember that a great way to make a soup like this is to buy the about-to-expire vegetables from New Apple Farm Market (my post on that here) and use those to supplement whatever else you have kicking around (half a cauliflower head, for example). Squashes and cabbages are pound-for-pound very thrifty and healthy options - don't overlook them in the vegetable aisle!

At a glance, for "Power Soup", you'll need Broth or Bouillion for stock, a significant amount of Vegetables and some common Spices.


No, my inclusion of "pasta" is NOT a cop-out! This is "pasta when you don't have a can of tomato paste or crushed tomatoes or a jar of prepared pasta sauce". It can be done! And it's a delightful digression from the typical spaghetti with tomato sauce us children of Caucasian Canadian mothers were forced to choke down weekly. It's time to love pasta again!

One of the best books for atypical, quick & easy pasta dishes is the Canadian Living "Vegetarian Collection" cookbook. This book was a Christmas gift (thank you, Krista!), and I use it more and more each week, more than the Moosewood books recently (and that's saying something!).

This one was what convinced me to share my discovery that dried pasta + pantry items = something other than spaghetti with tomato sauce or fettucine alfredo:

Mmm! The toasted bread crumbs, the ricotta cheese (which I had leftover from another recipe - no, I didn't make it from scratch), and the fresh basil was rich and satisfying (and fairly fattening. You can't win 'em all if you don't plan ahead!). Tonight I'm making "Spinach Pesto Fusilli with Ricotta", also from The Vegetarian Collection cookbook with some of the mountain of fusilli pasta I bought as a case-pack from Costco (if it doesn't go bad and it's easy to store, stock up!).

The joys of blogging - I had to stop to make dinner, so the photo makes it to press!

Note that a bunch of parsley, fresh basil, lemon and Parmesan cheese usually find their way into these recipes. Luckily, these ingredients are few and are easy to find - and easy to text as a last-minute shopping list to your commuting partner!


THIS is my all-time favourite home-cooked meal! We both love it - it's fast, it's healthy, and the flavour is to die for! If you're that poor kid recovering from "white-person curry" that your mom used to make, this could be the recipe that will turn your world on its head!

Unfortunately, I have recently depleted my stock-pile of Toor Dhal (yellow lentils), and I haven't been able to find them anywhere nearby (including No Frills, Save-On, various independent grocers. There's a No Frills coming to the eastern end of Kits-West 4th soon! I saw the signs for it at Cypress in the new condo building on the corner).

Kokum is the other hard-to-find spice here that absolutely cannot be skipped over (Asafoetida/Hing is another rare one, but it's listed as 'optional', though I never skip it). It's the tastiest stuff ever, and it's worth driving all the way out to SW Marine Drive to the Sabzi Mandi, or riding the bus to Main and 49th.

There are probably a million different recipes for "sambar", which varies widely, but the recipe in Vij's at Home - Relax, Honey is hands-down the best I've ever tasted! You can chuck in all sorts of veggies, and the basic recipe calls for cauliflower and green beans (one is cheap, the other I grow on my balcony!). It's a fast meal, and I cannot recommend it enough. There isn't a bad recipe in the whole of this cookbook, and this one in particular I have made on too many occasions to recall. I've almost memorized it.


If you've never had a Vietnamese rice-vermicelli noodle 'roll' with peanut or chilli sauce, you're missing out! Fortunately, you can very easily make your own version at home with just a few specialty ingredients that keep well (namely, rice paper wrappers and  rice vermicelli noodles, both of which are cheap and will keep indefinitely in pantry storage). Thai sweet chilli sauce is another condiment that you should keep in the fridge, and it's quite cheap at places like New Apple Market at 4th and Vine.

Cucumbers, carrot strips, red peppers and mangos with roasted peanuts are what the basic recipe calls for (also found in The Vegetarian Collection! Get that book!), but you can conceivably put in anything that will go with cold rice noodles. Pea shoots would be delicious, iceberg lettuce would give it a good crunch . . . heck, I'd put in spinach (though it would taste quite strongly). Great tip for cutting nice thin strips of carrot (without an awesome food processor) is to use a peeler, cut thick strips with it, then slice those strips into long thin pieces. If you use Atafulo mangoes, you don't even need to peel the fruit first!


Ah, the national dish of Costa Rica! Here's a photo of the best casado I had while in Costa Rica (that post is up-coming . . . it's taking forever to write!):

Mmmm! Lunch at the LavaRocks cafe in La Fortuna after a morning's hike.

Casado, so I was told, means "married (man)". It always consists of black beans and white rice (supposedly representative of a tuxedo), and another starchy component (mashed potatoes, friend plantains or yuca), vegetables or salad, and meat or fish (pescado). Occasionally there was a vegetarian option available, but most of the time I just had it with a filet of white fish.
We miss Costa Rica so much, and we decided to have a go at a casado ourselves this Valentine's day. It wasn't very authentic, but the deep-fried plantains and the Lizano sauce on the black beans were what made it taste reminiscent of the real thing. Because we were hurried, my husband bought some frozen fish sticks to fill in for a filet. It wasn't the most glamourous meal, but then again casado is "tipical" food and is really nothing fancy in itself (no, that's not misspelled - I can't find an explanatory link though I have read it somewhere once. I figured it was a misspelling, and perhaps it is/once was, but even our tour guide insisted that "tipical" with the extra "i" implies the Tico usual, like the sort of authentic food you'd find at a Soda). I've contacted Erin at De La Pura Vida Costa Rica - if she doesn't know, perhaps no one does and it really should read "typical" after all..

Lizano salsa is, quite frankly, the shizz-nit. I've heard rumours that it can be found outside of CR in specialty stores, but I stocked up just in case I couldn't! Plantains, on the other hand, should be easy to find, right?

Plantains - hard to find in Vancouver (but I know where now!)

Wrong! I spent ages online, reading pointless forums like Chowhound on "where to buy plantains in Vancouver", but no one had any answers. And then I stumbled across them in the most convenient location imaginable - the little "A & L" grocer next to the Cambie and Broadway CanadaLine station! I even found taro root there, which I intended to make enyucados with (oh my goodness - they're so good!). Note that the enyucados I ate were not 'con carne' as the linked recipe is. A & L had all sorts of goodies from around the world at better prices than H-Mart certainly, and in some cases it matched or beat T&T's prices - make a stop here if you're taking the CanadaLine.

Casado is essentially a mixed-plate of rice, beans, veggies and meat. There's a few recipes and sites that can help you construct a recreation of this very "tipical" Tico meal . . . but I'd highly recommend visiting Costa Rica and trying a few different sodas' casado yourself!


and finally,

Stew is something far more exotic and interesting when you cook it in a tagine! (Don't have a tagine? Don't worry - I don't either, and you can get by without it). Mint and chickpeas are almost always in the recipe, and the vegetables vary widely, which makes this the perfect sort of meal to use up that 1/4 head of cauliflower sulking at the back of your fridge, or that last 1/2 cup of frozen peas which you just can't stomach as-is.

from the Vegetarian Collection (Canadian Living) cookbook

I've got a whole jar of cheap dried chickpeas whenever I need them. The sad thing is that in order to eat the darn things, they have to be soaked overnight (or 8 hours), rinsed, then boiled for 40 minutes BEFORE you add them to a recipe. So for a last-minute emergency meal, I always resort to canned chickpeas (another great staple to stock-up on when they're on sale!).

Every kitchen should have at least one can of chickpeas in it!

Preserved lemons are a very unique ingredient in many recipes, and I know my dear husband went all over town one year to find them (see, every year he loses the bet - the season series between the Calgary Flames and the Vancouver Canucks. I've won three in a row now.... the loser makes a deluxe multi-course meal for the victor, all whilst donning the jersey of the superior team. He looks great in Canucks' colours!). I think he finally found these at Stong's on Dunbar. They keep forever in the fridge, and I pull them out whenever I make a tagine. They taste a little like the way Pinesol smells... but in an Moroccan dish, they're that amazing 'secret' ingredient.

Don't have an awesome cookbook like mine? (Get one! Try here: TheBookDepository - Used Books). You can also find tagine recipes online here (and elsewhere - Google's a remarkable thing, isn't it?!).



So there you have it - seven atypical dishes for using up semi-shrivelled and half-forgotten veggies vegetating in your refrigerator! With a well-stocked pantry (staples like dried pasta, lentils, beans) and an even better selection of spices and various condiments (how many types of vinegar does your kitchen have at present? Mine has at least seven!), you should be able to whip up something that "does not suck", as my husband says.

A few other honourable mentions that go along with this theme:

Search Online for Recipes by Ingredients you have on hand!
I'm sure I've given these links before, but if you missed them:
Using either of these sites (the Supercook one is the preferrable format for me, but they both work well) to help you put together a meal from whatever's in your fridge and cupboard is a fantastic way to save yourself a lot of stress and strain!

Valle d'Aosta soup (Moosewood New Classics). This extremely fattening, cheesy soup is so delicious I salivate just typing about it! It's a great way to use up that baguette stump or the rest of the french bread that has become so stale it takes serious muscle and a serrated knife (or a hacksaw!) to saw through it. It also makes use of green cabbage, one of those ingredients that is cheap and versatile and which should be in your fridge! Here's a similar recipe on Rustico Cooking. Fontina cheese is delicious! This is the sort of soup to make on an absolutely frigidly cold and dark evening . . . after a day of exercise (or else you'd better resolve to do it the next morning!).

Everyone Loves Veggies (food court, City Square Mall). I have to mention this little restaurant once more, because I felt badly for bad-mouthing Shepherd's Pie at the outset of this post. Read up more on the sweeties that run it here in the Georgia Straight. Believe me when I tell you that my gluttony generally steers me straight towards the cheese, and the thought of a vegan Shepherd's Pie would not normally entice pangs of hunger from my tum. But "Everyone Loves Veggies" changed my mind on that front! Make certain that you give this counter a try when you're out near Cambie and 12th (it's a just short walk up from the CanadaLine station or from VGH!). It's delicious - not just "for vegan food", but compared to anything you can get at any food court!

Rajma Chawal (Vij's version is, of course, the best). I've mentioned rajma chawal before, but I thought it worth mentioning again here since it is possible to throw this together with pantry staples (I've substituted fresh ginger with powdered, and I always use garlic powder because of my intolerance to fresh garlic). Kidney beans, canned diced tomatoes and basmati rice - that's almost everything you need. Here's a different recipe than in my previous post (hyperlinked earlier in this paragraph) to try if you are crazy and still haven't purchased Vij's at Home - Relax, Honey.

H-Mart. It's overpriced for the most part, but I found a bag of 12 limes for $1 on their 'ugly food rack'! The thing about expensive, pretty stores like this is that most of the people who shop there wouldn't be caught dead holding a discounted fruit bag. Well I'm not most people! 12 limes for a $1 - that's like 8 cents a lime! Best excuse to make gin and tonics ever! H-Mart also had the rice paper wrappers for the Thai rice wraps I made, and that's where I saw okonomiyaki sauce on sale, something I would never have thought to try on my own (especially since I love an excuse to go to The Clubhouse!). Stores like H-Mart really do cater to the wealthy Korean foreign student (everything is pretty, neat and overpriced), and being one of the only white folks in the store can feel intimidating I suppose. It didn't stop me from getting a customer reward card, however! Try a new grocery store whenever you come across one - chances are you'll find something you can't find anywhere else, and there's always a good deal to be had.

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