A colleague was remembering his days working in a Chicago restaurant, and the first thing the chef would say each day: “Let’s look in the refrigerator and see what we’re going to cook today.”
It’s a creative culinary challenge regularly faced in some restaurants and trotted out on cooking shows. Chefs get a mystery basket and must transform the foodstuffs inside into a memorable meal.
It’s the same thing you face when you return home each night, right? Except for many of us, the contents of our refrigerator — a few eggs, some leftover rotisserie chicken and bottled condiments — are not always inspiring.
In the hands of culinary pros, though, they become intriguing dishes, ranging from soups to pastas. Which is just what happened when we challenged culinary pros to create a dish using a few kitchen staples and the following ingredients:
• 6 eggs
• A jar of mayonnaise
• A jar of mustard
• A bottle of hot sauce
• A chunk of butter
• Half a yellow onion
• Leftover rotisserie chicken
• Leftover hunk of bread
Now it’s your turn. Go ahead. Let these ideas from the pros inspire you, give your creativity free rein and make delicious meals.
Tanya Steel, Epicurious editor-in-chief: “This is how I cook many nights a week — I come home, peer into the fridge and make an impromptu recipe with whatever I have on hand. I always have frozen veggies, all manner of pasta and noodles, and cans of tomato puree, beans, tuna and chickpeas on hand.
“With these ingredients, plus the mystery basket items, the Italian stracciatella soup came to mind. This classic recipe is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink bowl of goodness. Besides being the perfect canvas to add almost anything you have in your pantry, it can be very healthy, inexpensive, and improves if you make it ahead.”
1. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large saucepan. Add half a yellow onion, chopped; 2 carrots, chopped; 2 cloves garlic, minced; saute until lightly golden. Add 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth, 2 cups cold water, 4 cups shredded cooked chicken and 1 bay leaf. Heat to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, 10 minutes.
2. In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup each mayonnaise and mustard. Spread on thin bread slices. Place on a baking sheet; bake at 350 degrees until lightly golden brown, about 8 minutes.
3. Whisk together 3 eggs and 1/4 cup grated Parmesan. Slowly add to simmering broth, whisking constantly, until the eggs have formed cooked threads throughout. Ladle into bowls, season to taste with hot sauce, and serve with the bread.
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
Leftover-chicken bread pudding
Ina Pinkney, aka “The Breakfast Queen,” Chicago restaurateur and cookbook author, cooked up a savory bread pudding.
1. Heat oven to 200 degrees. Spread 2 cups bread cubes (in 1/2-inch cubes) on a cookie sheet; bake 20 minutes until bread dries out but doesn’t brown. Let bread cool.
2. Put 1 tablespoon olive oil, 2 teaspoons butter and half a yellow onion, chopped, in a skillet; cook over moderate heat until soft and golden, about 5 minutes. Season lightly with salt and white pepper; allow to cool.
3. Place 1 tablespoon each mayonnaise and mustard and a dash hot sauce in a medium bowl; whisk to combine. Add 2 large egg yolks, 1 large egg, 1 cup milk or half-and-half, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper and dash ground nutmeg; whisk lightly.
4. In a large bowl, combine bread cubes, 1 1/2 cups cooked chicken, coarsely chopped, onion mixture and 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh tarragon. Toss to combine. Pour egg mixture over chicken mixture; toss gently but thoroughly. Refrigerate mixture to allow bread to soak up egg mixture, 30-60 minutes.
5. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Pour bread mixture into a 1-quart casserole coated with nonstick spray. Cover with foil. Place casserole into a larger ovenproof pan; fill larger pan with hot water to reach about halfway up the side of the smaller pan. Bake 30 minutes. Remove foil; bake until golden brown and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean, 15-20 minutes. Cool 10 minutes. Serve garnished with chopped tarragon.
Makes: 2 to 3 servings
Crisped deviled egg salad with chicken crackling
Lynne Rossetto Kasper, host of “The Splendid Table” (and its “Stump the Cook” segment) on American Public Media, offered a salad: “You want more than chicken-egg salad sandwiches from this mashup. I say go for something out of the ordinary. … Brown halved hard-cooked eggs for big, almost meaty flavors, especially if you’ve stuffed them first. … Wait until you taste what shards of crisp chicken skin can do for a salad.”
1. In a medium bowl, combine 1 tablespoon minced onion, 1 teaspoon lemon juice and 2-4 dashes hot sauce. Let mellow, 15 minutes. Hard boil, cool and shell 6 eggs. Slice eggs in half top to bottom; add yolks to the bowl. Mash in 2 to 3 teaspoons mayonnaise, 1/2 teaspoon mustard and 3 whole almonds, crushed. Stuff whites, leveling them off. Reserve extra filling.
2. For cracklings, lightly film a large skillet with olive oil; set over medium heat. Once hot, carefully spread chicken skin pieces (from a rotisserie chicken) fat side down in skillet. Cook until most of the fat melts away from the skin. Gently turn pieces; crisp the second side. Drain on paper towels.
3. Drop chunks of bread into a running food processor to make coarse crumbs. Re-warm the skillet over medium heat. Swirl in 1 tablespoon butter; once it’s hot, but not burning, drop in breadcrumbs, 1 large clove garlic, minced, and a little salt and pepper. Stir until crumbs are golden and crisp. Turn out onto a paper towel.
4. Wipe out skillet. Film bottom of the skillet with olive oil; heat over medium-high. Cook the eggs flat side down until speckled with brown, 3 minutes. Arrange salad greens on plates. Arrange eggs on the greens; sprinkle lightly with olive oil and lemon or vinegar, salt and pepper, and any leftover filling. Dust with breadcrumbs; tuck broken shards of the chicken crackling here and there.
Makes: 2 to 4 servings
Chinese-style chicken soup
Sara Moulton, chef, cookbook author and star of “Sara’s Weeknight Meals” on PBS, came up with a Chinese-inspired soup. “When you are trying to get dinner on the table every night of the week, make leftovers your best friends and rethink dinner,” Moulton said in an email. “A meal doesn’t have to consist of the traditional three elements — protein, starch, vegetable — all arranged on a plate. Why not have soup for supper? Breakfast (eggs) for dinner? Or a substantial sandwich? Leftovers are the backbone of these alternative dishes.”
Moulton added a few extras to this recipe, but added, “Don’t worry, even if you don’t augment the soup with the extras it will be plenty tasty as a bare-bones chicken and egg soup. And by the way, if you don’t have chicken broth in the house, just combine the rotisserie chicken carcass with cold water by 1 inch, bring to a simmer, simmer for 1 hour, strain the broth and use it for the soup.”
1. In a large saucepan, cook 1 to 2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger in 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat, 2 minutes. Add 4 cups chicken broth; heat to a boil.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon cornstarch and 2 tablespoons water. Add cornstarch mixture to the broth in a stream, whisking. Return to a boil; boil, 1 minute. Add 2 to 3 cups cut up or shredded meat from half a rotisserie chicken and 1 1/2 cups cooked rice; cook just until hot.
3. Meanwhile, cut a hunk of bread into 4 slices; toast bread in a toaster or oven. In a small bowl, combine 1/3 cup mayonnaise, 1/2 teaspoon hot sauce, 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic and 1/4 teaspoon toasted sesame oil. Cut toast slices in half, spread each with sesame mayonnaise.
4. Turn off heat under saucepan. While stirring the broth with a spoon in one direction, add 2 large lightly beaten eggs in a stream. The eggs should form long strands. Ladle soup into 4 soup bowls; serve each sprinkled with thinly sliced green onions and topped with 2 garlic sesame toasts.
Makes: 4 servings
Mustard tagliatelle with rotisserie chicken
Jimmy Bannos Jr., chef/partner at The Purple Pig, reached into the pantry for flour, then turned the eggs into a homemade pasta dough enriched with the mustard and mayonnaise.
1. Make a broth with the chicken: Pick chicken off the bones; set meat aside. In a large saucepan, sweat half a yellow onion, diced, in a small amount of olive oil. (Optional: Chop garlic and dice 1 carrot and 1 rib celery, then sweat all vegetables). Add 1 teaspoon tomato paste and 1/2 cup white wine. Add bones; add cold water to barely cover. Heat to a boil; allow to simmer, 1 to 2 hours. (Add thyme and bay leaf to stock, if you have them.)
2. Prepare pasta dough: Place 2 1/2 cups flour and a pinch of salt in a food processor; pulse to blend. Add 2 whole eggs and 4 egg yolks, 1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard and 2 tablespoons mayonnaise. Pulse until dough just begins to come together. Knead dough on a floured board, 5-10 minutes. (You may need up to 1/2 cup more flour). Wrap with plastic wrap. Let rest, 20 minutes. (Tip: enjoy a glass of wine while the dough rests.)
3. Roll dough with pasta roller into 1/16-inch sheets. Cut dough into 1/2-inch wide noodles. Dust with flour; set aside.
4. Chop a leftover hunk of bread into breadcrumbs. In a bowl, lightly coat with a little olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on a baking sheet; toast in a 350-degree oven until golden brown.
5. Strain stock, discarding bones and reserving vegetables. Cook the pasta in a large pot of well-salted boiling water (it should taste like seawater) until slightly al dente.
6. In a saute pan, take 1/2 to 3/4 cup of the broth and reserved vegetables; heat to a boil. Add pasta; stir in 2 tablespoons of butter cut in small cubes, a little at a time. Add reserved chicken. Cook until sauce coats back of spoon. (If you run low on liquid, add more stock.) Season with salt, pepper and hot sauce. Pasta sauce should cascade off of the pasta. Grate Parmesan on top and finish with the breadcrumbs.
Makes: 4 servings
Chicken frittata with breadcrumbs
Marcela Valladolid, Food Network star and cookbook author, suggested an easy-to-make frittata that “will taste delicious with pretty much any ingredient you put in it. Experiment with your favorite meats or cheeses. You can also add any lightly sauteed mixture like zucchini or asparagus.”
1. Process leftover hunk of bread in a food processor until it becomes breadcrumbs, about 2 minutes. Heat 1 tablespoon mayonnaise in a skillet on medium-high heat. Stir in 1/4 cup breadcrumbs. Cook until breadcrumbs are crisp and golden, about 4 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Reserve for later use. For the frittata, preheat oven to 425 degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in a large ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add half a yellow onion, chopped; cook until translucent, about 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup shredded rotisserie chicken; cook, 2 minutes. Add breadcrumbs and 1 teaspoon mustard; mix well.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, beat 6 eggs with 1 tablespoon water and 2 teaspoons hot sauce. Add eggs to the pan, season with salt and pepper. Cook lifting edges with a spatula to allow uncooked eggs to flow to the bottom. When frittata is partially cooked, 7-10 minutes, slide skillet into 425 degree oven. Bake until puffed, golden and set, 8-10 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before serving. Serve with bottled hot sauce.
Makes: 6 servings