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For the Love of Leftovers

How Food Scraps Gave Life to the Masterpieces of Italian Cucina Povera

“Loving leftovers is a mindset, accessible to all with these practical basics for ‘recycled’ recipes. And eggs. And oil. And lots and lots of cheese.”

“Metti qua, nothing is thrown away!” A mantra learned from early childhood moments in the kitchen. 

Wilted vegetables become sautéed and crammed into cubes in the freezer; potato skins sublimated to soup (as chef Bruno Barbieri also teaches); stale bread made into canederli, one of the most traditional dishes of the mountains.

Especially at this moment in history, of resource awareness and thrift, we better not forget the Italian culinary legacy of leftovers. Italians are ingenious at avoiding waste in the kitchen, transforming odd bits and ends into new comfort foods that are celebrated and beloved.

Unlike other countries, where leftovers are simply served cold and are decidedly uninviting, Italy enhances and gives new life to table scraps, sublimating them into completely new preparations that are even tastier than the originals.

There must be a reason why, in a country that abounds with great restaurants and star chefs, trattorias and their peasant preparations are still so sought after.

In vogue since the courts of the great nobles and lords, when throwing away food was a sign of bad government and reckless excess, cooking from scraps is still the culinary expression of the most practical zero-waste thinking. And extreme waste consciousness in Italy, for many years, was a matter of necessity, not choice: handed down to us by our grandmothers, cucina povera is also based on this food philosophy.

Here, a manual on the Italian ways to treasure the food scraps and leftovers you would have otherwise thrown away:

STALE BREAD

The ways in which stale bread can be used are virtually endless: from the base of summer salads to breadcrumbs (made by grating the stale loaf with a microplane or box grater) in polpette (meatballs) and casseroles or sprinkled on anchovy pasta.

Although old and hard, “É peccato buttare il bene di Dio” (“It is a sin to throw away God’s good”) say the people of Lecce, masters not only of recycling bread, but of vegetables, which–when wilted–are mixed with the remains of meat or mince and turned into flavorful fillings for tasty fried calzones–the outside itself also made from leftover pizza dough.

From this absolute ban on throwing away bread came the most famous dishes of Tuscan cucina povera: Pappa col Pomodoro (stale bread torn and cooked in tomato sauce, finished with a drizzle of oil), Ribollita (where stale bread and veggies are boiled twice; double cooked, double flavored, is the saying!) and panzanella–a wonderful and quick bread-based “salad”, perfect for summer lunches.

A variation of the Tuscan panzanella is known as Acquasala in Cilento, Puglia and was the dish of choice for fishermen out on the boat, because despite the simple ingredients, the salad is filling and fresh. Rumor has it that some fishermen use to add a cup of seawater to the bread, then add it to the dressing (hence the name of the Puglian version).

How to Make Panzanella: Cut week-old bread into cubes and soak them in a bowl with water and a little vinegar (white or apple); in the short time it takes for the bread to soften, prepare a mix of halved or quartered cherry tomatoes, red onion and basil, seasoned with olive oil, salt and black pepper. If you wish, as used in the Acquasala version, add olives, capers, anchovies or mozzarella. Combine the bread and the tomato mix. Done! As easy as it is tasty.

Also excellent is the Sardinian dish zuppa gallurese. Here the stale bread is cut thinly and arranged between layers of Sardinian cheese, lasagna-style, all drowned by a warm lamb broth, made from meat scraps and bones. Enjoyable and not for the faint of heart.

We close with polpette, where the only rule is imagination and proportions of ingredients. In Abruzzo you can find them as pallotte cacio e pepe, made with bread, cheese and black pepper.

LEFTOVER PASTA AND RICE

“I have dinner already prepared.” Open any Italian refrigerator and you will find a substantial amount of airtight containers, jars and plates covered by cellophane. Jammed, stacked, piled in a tetris of leftovers, but nothing is there by accident.

And chances are that a few ounces of pasta, left over from the day before, are resting in one of those containers. 

Macaroni frittata, the undisputed queen of Neapolitan summer, epitomizes the following formulation: everything can be salvaged if amalgamated with eggs and cheese.

It originated from the figure of the Maccaronaro, a pasta seller who roamed the alleys of downtown Naples with a cart full of steaming pots of ready-made, seasoned pasta, strictly homemade. A forerunner of street food as we know it today!

But what to do with the unsold pasta after all the seller’s wandering? Frying the pasta allowed it to be resold and thus the pasta frittata was born.

It was an idea that appealed so much to the housewives of Naples, they began to replicate it at home, giving their working husbands a dish that remained tasty and fragrant until the longed-for lunchtime. And then they began to prepare it for themselves and for their children. There was no longer any risk of leftover pasta in the household–a brilliant invention!

How to Make Macaroni Frittata: In a bowl, mix the leftover pasta with whatever your imagination, fridge and belly suggest, including other leftovers–diced bacon, peas, meat sauce, vegetables. Form well-compacted scoops and … fry everything in hot oil! Now the meal is ready to be closed up in your schiscetta (lunch box).

If you want a fancier take on macaroni frittata, try the baked pasta timballo, inspired by the mandolins of medieval court musicians. In the shape of hemispheres or pyramids, the timballo was born to combine all the leftovers from set tables–pasta, meat and stewed vegetables–into a pasticcio (folk tradition name) of tasty flavors, great for emptying the fridge. It’s a dish still made throughout Italy, but most often in Emilia and Campania. 

Last, but not least: arancini (or arancine). The crunchy balls of fried rice, a symbol of Sicily, are ideal for recovering the leftover grains.

LEFTOVER CHEESE

Frico, a traditional recipe from Friuli, was born in the 15th century as a means of using strissulis, the cheese scraps leftover from the process of making cheese wheels. The two most popular variations are frico friabile–thin, crunchy cheese fried in olive oil–and frico morbido–a thick, soft pancake of gooey cheese combined with potatoes and onions.

How to Make Frico: Grate or shred leftover cheese and melt in an iron skillet, greased with butter or lard along with rounds of golden onion. Mix with mashed potatoes to form a thick omelet. Cook until golden brown and crispy on each side. 

Let’s also not forget the ultimate cheese-saving recipe: big, bubbling pots of la fonduta (or fondue), most popular in the mountainous regions that border Switzerland (it’s not to be missed in the mountain lodges of Valle D’Aosta). 

Reducing (and hopefully ending) food waste is key for a more sustainable society. Bruised fruit can become a delicious summer jam; citrus peels, candied fruit for yogurt or baking; and from old cookies, chocolate salami. As a child I was crazy for the dessert, and to this day I will never turn it down.

How to Make Chocolate Salami: To recycle those half-packs of cookies we didn’t particularly like: break them up roughly in a blender–or the old-fashioned way, directly inside their package with a meat tenderizer–and then combine in a bowl with a cascade of melted chocolate, perhaps adding chocolate chips, raisins or dried fruit. Spread the dough on foil, forming a kind of salami, and roll the paper up so that it’s tightly closed. Place in the freezer. It will keep for weeks, always ready to slice for merenda or dessert.

“Cooking leftovers” is not to be considered the obligation of a poor diet, but rather the second life of a rich table. 

There’s no need to know a million recipes or have technical kitchen skills, loving leftovers is a mindset, accessible to all with these practical basics for “recycled” recipes. And eggs. And oil. And lots and lots of cheese.