Tamar Adler resurrects leftovers from the depths of the refrigerator

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Making a correlation to writing and cooking a meal from square one, chef and writer Tamar Adler says, “the hardest thing is starting.” Photo by Aaron Stern.

With nearly 40 percent of the food bought in the U.S. getting tossed, Tamar Adler finds delicious destinies for leftovers in her book The Everlasting Meal Cookbook.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Evan Kleiman: I get a sense that you really enjoy the process of transformation, turning something into something else.

Tamar Adler: I think that's true. I far prefer that to starting from square one. But I think it's actually an impulse that a lot of us share. I think about how hard it is, when you're looking at a blank sheet of paper, how much harder that is than when you have something to edit. The hardest thing is starting. Once you're going, momentum is so helpful and you can see where you want to make changes. I know that about myself as a writer. I just have to get something on screen or on the page. I feel it as a cook, too. I do. It's so much more pleasurable and, honestly, easier to start with, "Okay, I have this batch of leftover rice. I have those herbs. I have a few peanuts left in here." Constraints breed creativity, I think.

Are there some basic staples that it's always good to have on hand if we start to cook in this style of transformation, rather than starting from scratch?

Yes, definitely. But even within what I think is really important to have, there's so much room for variation. I am an olive oil devotee. If I'm going to have one oil, it's olive oil. Having one good, flavored finishing oil is really important because it literally can transform yesterday's leftover vegetables or even a piece of toast, which is just stale bread, into something that really makes you stop and notice. You need acid. That can be anything. That can be red wine vinegar or lemon. It could also be plain distilled white vinegar, anything that lends acidity to food. You know how it wakes you up, when you have something acidic? I feel like it does the same to the food. It's like a little clap telling you to wake up. 

Salt is essential. And I think texture is really important. But again, there's a really wide range. Herbs are wonderful — really basic herbs like parsley, cilantro, mint, dill. If you don't have herbs, it could be chopped toasted nuts or it could just be bread crumbs. It's just something to add a dimension to a food that wasn't there before. I think spice works similarly to both texture and acid and in the "wake up" capacity. So I really love all of the world's various chili oils and spicy pickles and stuff like that.

I'm just going to call out some leftover bits for which you have a solution. Often I find that I have a head of cauliflower that's gotten a bit old.

First of all, I want to say when some things get old, cook it. You know which direction it's headed, right? It's headed south. Pare off anything that's scary looking. Cut it up and roast. I say roast instead of boil not because it's better but because when you roast something, it gets caramelized and then you won't see any slightly tannish bits. But take off anything that's liquefied and immediately cook it. That's a great step one.

After you roast it, then what would you do?

After you roast it, you could certainly eat it just like that. Another thing I love to do with anything that's getting old and faded is add a lot of good fat to it because it needs it. I think brand new beautiful cauliflower doesn't need a rich cheesy sauce, although it could certainly have one. But cauliflower that's in need of assistance is a great place to make a combination of cream and cheese. You could add a little flour if you want and then bake it into a gratin. Or you could make it just to toss with vinaigrette and  some parsley or another herb. Just give it what it's lacking intrinsically, richness and life.

All of us have the experience of having greens wilt before we get to them. So often that green is arugula. What can we do with wilted arugula?

I really, really like arugula pesto. And once it's pesto-fied, you don't know that it's been wilted. You can use a basil pesto recipe and substitute arugula or you can do a combination of arugula and basil. Another really great thing to do is start thinking of it as an herb once you cut something across its grain, across the fibers that go up and down. It stops being quite so wilty. Then, immediately use it as an herb. If you're making a pasta sauce, put it in. If you're making a frittata, put it in. If you're making scrambled eggs, put it in. As soon as you notice that it doesn't look the way you had planned for it to look, use it. Prioritize it. Don't shove it to the back.

Let's talk about avocados. Sometimes we'll get an avocado and we have great hopes for it but we open it up and it just is not good or it's overripe.

I was worried about this one because until I was working on this book, I had not found anything that I could make with those gross, brown, overripe avocados. Then I remembered that when I was traveling in Vietnam, 20 years ago, there was a breakfast shake that I used to get in Hanoi that was sweetened condensed milk, avocado, and ice. Maybe they also put in milk. So I tried making that with overripe avocado, and it totally works. You put it in a blender so that weird fiber-ish-ness disappears. You put the avocado in the bottom, then it's sweetened condensed milk, which makes everything delicious, and ice. It makes the most or the second most delicious breakfast shake. I think the most delicious one is in Hanoi, but I loved that I found this use and now I get to have this amazing shake whenever I have an overripe avocado.

Let's talk a bit about takeaway things that we get and we bring home and maybe we don't finish, like French fries. It seems weird that you wouldn't finish fries, but that does happen. 

Oh, my god, it really is so sad, the difference between a fresh French fry and an overnight refrigerated French fry. It's such a huge distance to fall. I have found two things to do with these. They usually exist in my house because my son doesn't finish his French fries, and I've eaten mine and what I wanted of his but I won't let them get thrown out. So I bring them home. Cal Peternell has a really great French fry frittata in his most recent book. But mashing them with a lot of cream and cooked garlic, produces a super delicious, creamy mash. I was able to actually get rid of that weird refrigerator smell. It's the smell and the texture that's so awful about leftover French fries. I was paying very close attention to see if any whiff of that was left and it completely disappears.

When I was traveling in Italy, a couple years ago, I had this amazing onion parmigiana. When I came home, I got a takeaway hamburger and some onion rings, and I had so many rings that I couldn't finish them. I ended up using them for a parmigiana. How do you use yours?

They do reheat to crisp, and they don't get weird. They're not like potatoes. They don’t get weird smells. You can just reheat them and they'll end up pretty crisp. I love them in miso soup.


Do not be discouraged by the refrigerator smell of leftover fries. Try:



  • 3 cups French fries
  • 1 clove garlic (peeled)
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • salt


  1. In a small pot, combine the fries, 1 cup water, and the garlic, and cook over medium heat, at a simmer, until the water is evaporated and absorbed and the fries are very soft and smashable. Smash well, including the garlic if it’s soft enough, then add the cream over low heat, continuing to smash. Smash and smash until the cream is absorbed and the potatoes are hot and beginning to balloon up. Taste for salt and eat, in astonishment.
  2. This is very good with a tadka (see p. 208) spooned over the top, too.



  • 6 eggs
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 1-2 cups French fries
  • 4 scallions (thinly sliced)


  1. Heat the oven to 375°F. In a bowl, whisk the eggs, salt, and 1 tbsp of the olive oil. Heat the remaining 2 tbsp olive oil in an ovenproof pan over medium, then add the fries to crisp slightly, then the scallions. Cook until it all starts to crisp and sizzle, 2-3 min. Add the eggs, moving and smoothing them a few times, then cook over medium-low heat until the bottom is set, another 1-2 min. Place the pan in the oven and cook until the eggs are just set, 8-12 min. Let cool and eat. (Adapted from Burnt Toast and Other Disasters by Cal Peternell)

“The Everlasting Meal Cookbook” embraces leftovers with everything from broken candy canes to stale doughnuts. Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster.