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!
Rice is one of those staple foods at our house that shows up in everything. We’ll fill up the rice cooker and use the contents for some arroz con huevos and arroz con pollo … and then we’ll find that we have a ton of leftover rice sitting there in a big storage container. We overestimated how much rice we’d need and now we have a ton left over.
What do we do with it? It’s an absolute waste of time and money to throw out rice, so instead we find some creative uses for it.
Strategy #1: Freeze it in a small container.
This one’s simple. Just measure out the amount of rice you need for a specific recipe that you might make in the future, then freeze that amount of rice in an appropriately labeled container. Let’s say, for example, that we’re going to have etoufee sometime soon, so I’ll dig out our usual etoufee recipe, figure out exactly how much rice will be needed, measure that into a small freezer container or freezer Ziploc bag, label that container, and pop it in the freezer.
Then, the day before or the morning before we’re going to eat that recipe, I’ll just pull the container out of the freezer and pop it in the fridge. It’s thawed by the time we’re going to eat, so then I just need to warm it up a little. It actually rebounds from freezing really well, especially if it wasn’t overcooked to begin with.
Strategy #2: Add it to a soup.
If you’re making almost any kind of soup, just add a cup or so of cooked rice to it near the end of the cooking so that the rice can absorb a little of the flavor and mix in with the soup. We’ll add rice to everything from chili to tortilla soup, from vegetable soups to chicken noodle soups, from lentil soups to broccoli cheese soups. It just bulks up that soup and adds a little flavor.
Quite often, adding a cup or two of cooked rice from the fridge to a pot of soup stretches it from enough soup to feed our family to enough soup to also have a leftover container or two for Sarah and I to use for lunch the following day. In effect, it turns leftover rice into an actual tasty leftover meal. Many of the ideas below function in a similar way – a recipe is expanded by the addition of rice, enabling us to use it as a source for a “leftover lunch,” which is a giant money saver.
Strategy #3: Use it to add bulk to a casserole – or serve as the backbone.
Many casseroles are quite delicious with the addition of a small amount of rice. I’ll add rice to things like our enchilada casserole or even to things that involve pasta sauce without even skipping a beat. Again, that addition just bulks up the recipe almost without notice.
If you have a lot of leftover rice, you can actually use the rice as the backbone for a recipe. One of our favorite family recipes for a very quick and easy meal – often lunch – is the combination of diced cooked chicken and/or mushrooms, cooked broccoli, a cup or two of cheese, and cooked rice in whatever quantities happen to be convenient. It’s delicious and incredibly easy to fix.
Strategy #4: Make rice fritters.
I use something akin to this recipe for the rice fritters, except that I use 2.5 cups of cooked rice rather than the 1 cup uncooked rice that it calls for and I just skip the rice-cooking part and just move right along to making fritters.
This is a great way to turn leftover rice into incredibly tasty finger foods, perfect for a small appetizer or as a side dish for many different meals.
Strategy #5: Or make rice cakes.
Another, very similar strategy for converting rice into finger foods is to make rice cakes with them. All you really have to do is take a bunch of leftover rice – 3 cups works well for the other ingredients here – and season it however you’d like (soy sauce is a good one, but you can use cheese or other things and even use sweet additions), then add a couple of beaten eggs as a binder, add half a teaspoon of oil, mix it up thoroughly, and spread it out until it’s about 3/4″ thick on a piece of parchment paper and cut the mix into three inch squares. Separate the squares a bit, then bake them right on the parchment paper (with a baking sheet under it) in the oven at 350 F for about 10 minutes. Boom – you have square rice cakes.
These make for great after school snacks, and it’s so flexible. You can make savory ones or sweet ones. You can do all kinds of crazy things to it. It’s an easy and convenient snack, too – all you have to do is grab one from the fridge and munch on it. It’s already seasoned and ready to go!
Strategy #6: Make a rice bowl for lunch.
If you have just a cup or so of rice left over, just put it in a bowl and top it with whatever ingredients you have on hand that seem tasty. I’ll often throw whatever leftover vegetables happen to be around on top of it. I might toss on some sauce or some cheese or even some salad dressing – almost anything works. I’ll heat it up when I’ve added everything I want to be hot, and then I might add another cold ingredient or two on top afterwards.
There is no set recipe here – the goal is to flavor that rice into something yummy for a quick lunch. If you’re doing this in the morning before work, you can just put the rice and whatever ingredients you want into a microwave container and take it to work with you. It’s just that flexible.
Strategy #7: Add it to a salad.
If I have half a cup of leftover rice, I’ll add it to almost any kind of salad to change the texture profile of that salad. Yes, anything from a traditional lettuce salad to a chopped salad to a fruit salad. Unseasoned rice is a pretty blank palate upon which you can paint any flavor, and such rice can add bulk to almost anything.
I especially like adding it to salads that contain bits of fruits and nuts bound together by something sweet. Rice seems to disappear into this, only adding a bit of texture and making the salad a bit less over-the-top sweet.
Strategy #8: Make some fried rice.
Take some diced onions and diced green peppers and even a bit of minced garlic. Toss them in a skillet with a bit of oil until it’s sizzling beautifully and the onions have just started to brown. Then, toss in just a bit of water or soy sauce – a teaspoon or two – and follow it with that fully cooked rice, stir it around thoroughly, wait until the rice is hot and coated in the onion and pepper drippings, and serve it.
This stuff is delicious on its own, but it can also be served on the side of lots of different meals. I often eat this kind of simple fried rice as a standalone lunch, to tell the truth, as it’s a great way to use a bit of leftover chopped onion and green pepper (which I always save) and a bit of leftover rice.
Strategy #9: Wrap it in a tortilla.
There are many, many different tortilla-based dishes that are wonderfully accented with plain leftover rice. We’ll take rice and use it as a taco filling or a burrito filling. We’ll add it to our enchilada mix and fill up enchiladas with it. We’ll even use leftover rice in wraps where we’re stuffing a tortilla with lots of vegetables.
Again, rice accentuates everything, so it works well in all of these contexts. My personal favorite is to mix some in with black beans to make a black bean and rice enchilada mix. That’s practically manna from heaven for me.
Strategy #10: Sweeten it and eat it for dessert.
If all else fails, you can use it when you have a sweet tooth. Just put half a cup or so of rice in a bowl, warm it up, and coat it with a teaspoon of sugar and a half-teaspoon of cinnamon. Mix it around and enjoy.
Those two simple additives turn plain leftover rice into a wonderful sweet dessert. You can season it with other flavorings as well, but for me few things beat sugar (or brown sugar) and cinnamon. It’s a great very quick warm sweet treat.
Next time, we’ll look at some slick strategies for using extra beans!