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Cooking Off the Cuff: Leftover Salad? Get Out Your Skillet

Part of the fun with this mixed-salad fried rice was that, even though shriveled in the heat, each of the greens retained its own flavor. Running into a leaf of arugula made us smile; a sorrel leaf provoked an ear-to-ear grin.
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Jackie and I don't often eat salad in the commonly understood sense of raw greens dressed with oil and vinegar, but sometimes it imposes itself on a meal: What else, for instance, could follow a plate of lamb tortelli with a rich lamb-braising sauce (apart from a second plate of the same, which we did indeed have)?

Since I'm so unused to buying the green makings of a salad, I often bring home too much of the stuff: even a few ounces of various "baby" greens plus a modest selection of more mature lettuces seem to fill a gunny sack. So there's always leftover salad - "always" meaning the few times a year when this arises. (To my credit, I'm better at buying the tiny quantities of greens needed to support, say, a piece of fish: This I can visualize.)

Last week we served those tortelli, made from leftover braised breast of lamb, and, sure enough, an armload of salad (washed but not dressed) went uneaten and lay in the fridge wrapped in a towel inserted into a plastic bag. One of our favorite "step-down" meals after a dinner party is fried rice cooked in a more or less Chinese way. Our favorite versions typically include a handful of lettuce strips added toward the end of cooking so they wilt but remain moist and (sometimes) a little crunchy, adding a contrasting texture and a mild but distinctive flavor to the dish.

But usually, given our shopping habits, there isn't any lettuce in the house. Occasionally, I'll go down to the supermarket and buy a single head of Belgian endive, whose bitterness makes it one of the best options for this (try it, please), but our fried rice ingredients are normally limited to scallions/shallots/onions, ginger and eggs, supplemented if possible by something in the cured pork line - by no means a shabby dinner.

This time, knowing that tender greens shrink when exposed to heat, I thought I'd use all the remaining salad in a batch of fried rice. A few hours in advance, I repeatedly rinsed 1-1/2 cups of Thai jasmine rice then cooked it as usual - no fat, no salt; just the washed rice and a little more than the same volume of water over low heat in a covered pot. When it had mostly cooled, I transferred it to a broad bowl (which would later be the serving dish), broke it up and left it alone, covered with a cloth to let some of the moisture evaporate.

Shortly before dinner, in the 12-inch (30-cm) non-stick skillet that would later hold the rice and using peanut oil, I loosely - very loosely - scrambled a couple of eggs seasoned with salt, white pepper and half a teaspoon of toasted-sesame oil. I slid these into a bowl and set them aside. In the same pan and still using peanut oil, I cooked the white part of three chubby spring onions (if you have skinny scallions, use half a dozen), thinly sliced, and a walnut-sized chunk of fresh ginger peeled and cut into fine shreds. These should not brown deeply, but need not remain completely uncolored. To this I added a small handful of smoked duck breast cut into matchsticks. Duck breast? Well, I had some in the fridge from a farmers' market visit the week before. Ideally, I'd have used smoked ham or even lightly smoked bacon, but the duck was a perfectly good alternative - as leftover roast or braised meat would be so long as you don't overdo it: this is about rice, eggs and greens, not meat.

While all this was happening, I'd roughly chopped the salad - which was a mixture of lettuces and more flavorful leaves including arugula and sorrel, all greenhouse-grown at this time of year. (Do not cut it into fine julienne: it would then lose all its integrity when heated through.) The yield was more than a quart (liter) of greens, though quantities don't matter much here.

When the aromatics in the skillet were cooked and, er, aromatic, I added the rice to the pan and, using a wooden paddle, broke up the clumps and folded/tossed the rice with the shallot-duck mixture, all over medium or medium-high heat. This is a good time to add salt and white pepper, tasting as you go. When the rice was hot and was just beginning to smell toasty, I dumped the chopped greens into the pan. They formed an impressive mound of salad, but as I folded/tossed them in they contracted in the heat and were soon nothing more than veins of green running through the off-white rice. To finish, I broke up and folded in the eggs and some of the spring onion tops, sliced thin, and drizzled the rice with a couple of teaspoons of soy sauce and a teaspoon or so of sesame oil before giving it a final toss to distribute everything fairly evenly. The soy sauce is optional; I suppose the sesame oil is too, but I wouldn't like to forgo it because of the alluring aroma it adds.

Turn the rice back into that big serving bowl. Eat it with a spoon; it's really too friable for chopsticks. Plus, only a spoon can carry the generous pile of rice that makes a satisfying mouthful.

Part of the fun with this mixed-salad fried rice was that, even though shriveled in the heat, each of the greens retained its own flavor. Running into a leaf of arugula made us smile; a sorrel leaf provoked an ear-to-ear grin.

Leftover Rice? Get Out Your Skillet