For the next few weeks, we’re going to talk about some smart strategies for using leftover staple foods – things like rice, beans, pasta, and so on. Here’s what you do when you cook a bit too much and don’t know what to do with the rest!
It’s tricky to cook the right amount of pasta for a meal. Because you want to make sure that you have enough pasta, it’s very, very easy to cook too much pasta, often leaving you with excess pasta.
Sometimes, we add sauce to all of the pasta, locking it into being used as a straightforward leftover meal. We put the sauced pasta in a container and pop it in the fridge to be used later on.
At other times, though, we make a much wiser choice. We don’t sauce the pasta at all and leave it plain, often keeping it from sticking together by mixing in just a tiny bit of olive oil. On those occasions, we find ourselves with some cooked but unused pasta in a container in the fridge.
On those occasions, we have a leftover food item with a lot of possibilities.
Here are ten ways to use a container of leftover pasta. Most of these ideas are frameworks rather than strict recipes – play around with the ingredient proportions yourself to see what delicious creations you might make!
Strategy #1: Make a casserole.
Perhaps my favorite use of leftover pasta is to turn it into a casserole by layering the pasta in a casserole dish with sauce and leftover vegetables and seasonings and cheese, then baking the whole thing in the oven until it transforms into a delicious casserole that can easily be served in slices.
Just cover the insides of a casserole dish with a bit of olive oil, add a bit of pasta sauce or tomato sauce to the bottom of the pan, then add perhaps a third of your pasta on top of it, then add some vegetables, then add some cheese. Repeat this three times, then top it with a layer of your remaining cheese. Cover and bake at 350 F for thirty minutes, then remove the foil on top and put it under the broiler for a minute or two to gently brown the cheese on top.
This is such an amazing dish and it’s so flexible! It works with almost any kind of sauce you have available, whether it’s just a mix of tomato sauce and diced tomatoes or some kind of crazy vodka sauce or anything else. It works with practically any kind of pasta and almost any kind of cheese as well.
Strategy #2: Transform the pasta into a frittata.
I sometimes eat leftover pasta for breakfast. There, I said it.
All I do is essentially make scrambled eggs with some of the leftover pasta broken up in it, along with a bunch of leftover vegetables mixed in. Just take a dozen or so eggs, scramble them, toss in your vegetables and a few seasonings that seem tasty, then melt a tablespoon or so of butter in a skillet over medium heat and then pour this mix over the top and cook it over medium heat. Once the bottom layer is solidly cooked, I usually lift it up to get some of the uncooked egg underneath it – sometimes, if I’m feeling adept and the bottom layer is well done, I’ll flip the whole thing.
Once all of the egg is cooked, add some shredded cheese on top and serve it. I usually cut it up into wedges and serve it with some fruit on the side. It makes for a really filling breakfast and can work for other meals, too. The pasta really adds some weight to the meal, making something fairly light into something fairly filling.
Strategy #3: Fry them for some delicious stir-fried noodles.
Almost all pasta can be used to make a stir fry meal. All you really need to do is add some oil to a pan or skillet and turn up the heat, cook some vegetables that you like in that oil for a minute or two, then add in the noodles. Keep tossing the whole mix together until everything is nice and hot. Add a sauce of your choosing – I often use straight soy sauce, or I might mix some soy sauce with peanut butter – and enjoy!
This is a great way to use leftover vegetables, too, as almost any vegetable that might work well in a stir fry – onions, peppers, carrots, and so on – works well here. It just gives you an excuse to fry up some extra vegetables and pasta, add a bit of sauce at the end, and enjoy it.
Strategy #4: Make them portable by making ‘pasta muffins.’
Pasta muffins? Basically, I just mix together “good stuff” with some chopped-up pasta, a few scrambled eggs (which serve as a binder), and some cheese. What do I mean by “good stuff”? Well, I mean almost anything that tastes good. I like using mushrooms myself – leftover mushrooms in this is amazing. You can use leftover vegetables, cooked ground beef, cooked ground sausage, cooked chicken – almost anything works.
Just take your leftover pasta, mix in about half as much “other stuff” as the total amount of pasta that you have, and then for every three cups of mix that you have at this point, add a beaten egg. Then preheat the oven to 350 F, spray down a muffin tin with nonstick spray, and add some of the mix to each container, pressing it down in there so that it’s tightly packed in each muffin slot. Add a bit of cheese on top and bake for about eight minutes or so, until the egg firms up well and holds everything together.
These “pasta muffins” make for a great savory snack. A couple of them can even work as a light “on the go” meal when you’re in a rush.
Strategy #5: Turn them into a brightly-flavored pasta salad.
Whenever I see leftover pasta, I find myself always thinking of a pasta salad in which I make some kind of flavorful dressing and mix on some additional tasty items such as a bit of cheese.
My favorite thing to do is to simply take whatever vegetables we have in abundance in the garden, chop them up into small pieces, then add some Italian dressing and the vegetables to some leftover pasta and mix, adding just a bit of cheese for extra kick.
This is a great way to use up excess vegetables and excess pasta very easily, which is perfect for a late summer afternoon when you can get fresh vegetables in abundance at the farmers market or out of your own garden.
Strategy #6: Make some soup.
Chicken noodle soup works wonderfully with most kinds of leftover pasta. So does a vegetable noodle soup. All you really need is some broth, some leftover vegetables and/or cooked chicken, and your remaining pasta. Just add everything together, season to taste, and heat the whole thing up.
This is our go-to solution for leftover pasta in the winter. Submerged in a rich vegetable or chicken broth, pasta transforms into the backbone of a delicious heart-warming soup.
Strategy #7: Make some amazing mac-and-cheese.
I love my simple three-ingredient mac and cheese recipe. I just take leftover pasta, add it to a sauce pan, add a tiny bit of water and a full can of evaporated milk, then heat it over medium heat until the evaporated milk is just on the verge of boiling. At that point, I just add a couple of cups of shredded cheese that melts well – cheddar is fine, as is gruyere or fontina or jack cheese – and mix the whole thing together. Boom – you have a creamy mac and cheese!
My children absolutely flip over this, and it appeals to me as well because I can use a variety of cheeses to change it up or add other leftover items if they’re on hand, such as chopped broccoli or chopped cooked chicken breast.
Strategy #8: Turn the pasta and leftover rice into a super-flexible side dish.
I’m sure you’re familiar with Rice-A-Roni. It’s basically just instant rice and tiny bits of pasta with flavoring, right? Easy enough. Well, it’s super-easy if you happen to have some leftover pasta, too.
All you need to do is chop up your leftover pasta into small pieces, then add it to a saucepan along with some leftover rice and a bit of oil. Heat this until everything is hot, then add whatever flavorings you might like, from Italian seasoning and a bit of cheese to a taco seasoning packet or some steak seasoning, and add a bit of water or milk, just enough to coat everything with the flavoring.
This is a super-cheap and tasty side dish that’s so flexible because of the seasonings. You can serve it as a side dish with almost any entree depending on how you season it.
Strategy #9: Transform the pasta into crunchy flavorful fritters.
Here, you just take leftover pasta and fry it thoroughly in disc shapes in a bit of oil to make a crispy snack, and it can be easily flavored in a variety of ways.
For every cup of leftover pasta you have, add a beaten egg and a quarter of a cup of breadcrumbs. Mix all of this together with whatever seasonings you like and a bit of cheese (perhaps a quarter of a cup of shredded cheese for every two cups of pasta you’re using). Heat up some oil in a skillet, then form this mix into small firm discs and put it in the skillet. Flip the discs regularly until they’re nice and brown and crispy but not burnt, then serve them.
Strategy #10: Make a ‘noodle cup’ in a spare jar.
This is a trick I learned from an old coworker. What she would do is bring a jar to work that featured layers of pasta and whatever ingredients she liked around the house and she’d often eat it as a cold lunch straight from the fridge.
She might simply have some leftover chopped chicken as layers between the pasta, or maybe some kimchi or some sauerkraut, or maybe some cucumbers with a bit of Italian dressing mixed with them. It was basically a clever and very convenient way to use leftovers, as it just required a jar to take them to work and it was easy to eat it out of the fridge.
I started doing this myself and I found that I loved how flavors would meld together in the jar. As with many of these recipes, the ingredients you add drastically change the flavor, so just add things you like. I’m a huge fan of kimchi, for example, so layering the pasta with the kimchi made for a flavorful and hearty salad.
Next time, we’ll look at some awesome strategies for using extra potatoes!