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Chefs are pros at turning scraps into a stunning second act

SandrHoll owner Floriole Cafe   Bakery 1220 W Webster uses leftover bread for Winter PanzanellSalad.  | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Sandra Holl, owner of Floriole Cafe & Bakery, 1220 W Webster, uses leftover bread for a Winter Panzanella Salad.  | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 26, 2012 8:01AM



In most households, “leftovers” is a dirty word. But to professional chefs, it’s anything but.

“I could talk all day about using up scraps,” says Rob Levitt, who’s referring not only to how he uses remaining bits of meat at his butcher shop the Butcher & Larder (1026 N. Milwaukee), but also at home with his wife, Allie, and their newborn daughter. “We pretty much survive on leftovers. We’re often impressed on how creative we can get.”

Charlie Trotter is well-known for his aversion to waste in the kitchen, so it’s no surprise it’s also a pet peeve of Matthias Merges, who put in 15-plus years at Trotter’s restaurant before opening up Yusho, 2853 N. Kedzie.

“Creativity lies in the ability to use scraps and elevate them into something delicious and interesting,” says Merges, who finds ways to use everything from chicken cartilage and salmon skin to roots of herb plants and even the rinse water from rice at his Avondale restaurant. “It helps in the cost of running a business and it’s respect for the product,” he says. “That speaks louder than just the food.”

But even if you’re not ordering cases of produce or butchering whole pigs and sides of beef, there still are plenty of ways you can take advantage of the waste-not mentality of chefs.

One of the easiest things you can do is to buy whole chickens instead of parts, says Melissa Trimmer, pastry chef at C-House,166 E. Superior. “I freeze the bones and eventually I’ll make a big vat of chicken stock,” says Trimmer, who bought a small chest freezer to store her leftover ingredients. “I’m a parent as well as a chef, so I try to use everything at home too.”

An extensive artisanal cheese program is part of the charm of Vera, 1023 W. Lake. As for those inevitable odd pieces of cheese, chef Mark Mendez doesn’t let them go to waste. He soaks them in white wine and then purees them with a few garlic cloves and, if he’s dealing with a mild cheese, butter and herbs. The mixture is spread on toasted bread slices, stuck under the broiler and — voila! — Fromage Fort, a changing special at the West Loop restaurant.

Over at Bar Toma, 110 E. Pearson, chef Tony Mantuano combines leftover Parmesan pieces with olive oil and herbs to create the spread that’s paired with raw vegetables in his Pinzimonio bar plate. He’s just as passionate about the rind of the cheese. “That is a magical ingredient,” he says, great for adding another level of flavor to soups (Whole Foods seem to think so too, with Parmesan rinds available for purchase).

Leftover rice can be made into arancini balls, which can be stuffed with nubby ends of prosciutto, adds Mantuano. As for pasta, he fondly recalls a dish his grandmother used to make that combined leftover spaghetti with olive oil and beaten eggs for a noodle-based frittata.

Pasta gets a second life at the home of Hearty Restaurant, 3819 N. Broadway, say owners Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh, whose son is fan of plain noodles (“It kills me,” confesses chef Smith). Rather than throw out the extra pasta, it gets mixed with vegetables on the verge of going bad, cheese ends, cream custard and an egg and then it’s baked. “It makes a great casual main dish that also helps clean out your refrigerator,” says Smith.

“Italians are the kings of thrift in the kitchen,” says chef Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia, 123 N. Jefferson, who uses that mentality in his kitchen. Leftover short rib trimmings get mixed with braising liquid, Parmesan and fresh herbs and ground together for ravioli filling. Or, if you don’t want to go that far, says Zimmerman, loosen the mixture with chicken stock and turn it into a sauce for pasta.

A good rule of thumb, says Shaw’s Crab House ( 21 E. Hubbard) chef Steve Lahaie, is to buy things that have bones or shells, which gives the product a dual purpose. At the restaurant lobster meat goes into the lobster roll, while the shells gets used to flavor the broth for bisque, and water left over from steaming clams becomes the base for clam chowder.

Meat bones can serve the same purpose, says C-House chef Nicole Pederson, who suggests using a leftover leg of lamb bone to make a stew with beans, kale, leeks and baby tomatoes.

Day-old bread is another ingredient that can be easily transformed. At Floriole Cafe & Bakery, 1220 W. Webster, chef Sandra Holl combines it with roasted carrots, parsnips and kale for panzanella salad. At 312 Chicago, 136 N. La Salle, chef Luca Corazzina uses it to make strozzapretti, a dish similar to gnocchi, and the restaurant’s chocolate chip banana bread pudding has leftover croissants to thank for its indulgent factor.

Got some spent vanilla pods or citrus leaves lying around? Don’t throw those away, says, Trimmer. Instead, wash them and place in a container of sugar and sprinkle on your morning oatmeal or cookies, or add to salt — vanilla fleur de sel, anyone?

To get the most out of your leftovers, keep them in their simplest form, suggests Merges, leaving elaborate sauces on the side. Thinking ahead while you’re shopping helps, says Levitt, as does not expecting your leftovers to be the same as the original dish. “Thinking of fun ways to transform them is more rewarding,” he says.

When it comes to storage, Cafe des Architectes (20 E. Chestnut) chef Greg Biggers is a big believer in labeling, including the date and description of the item. He uses Glad containers at home —“It’s good to keep thing as separate as much as you can since things deteriorate at different levels,” he says — and recommends vacuum sealers as an inexpensive way to prolong leftovers’ shelf life. But, Biggers adds, “It’s amazing what a little plastic wrap can do.”

Lisa Shames is a local free lance writer.



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