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November 6, 2013

What's left over looks pretty good to me

On a recent morning, I woke up in the worst way, and by that I mean hungry as a bear yet indecisive about what to eat.

I opened the refrigerator to look for inspiration. Eggs. Milk. Plastic tubs filled with "what was that?" Then I came across a couple of smoked jalapenos from the fajitas I'd made a few days earlier. There was a charred avocado half, intended for guacamole but set aside when I changed the menu. In a small bowl were some scorched teardrop tomatoes left over from skewers of grilled Caprese salad appetizers.

A cartoon light bulb lit up above my head.

I sliced the smoky pepper, chopped the blackened avocado and cut up the grilled tomatoes. I poured a whisked mixture of eggs and milk into a pan, distributed the vegetables in it and cooked it on the stove top briefly before giving the thing a turn under the broiler. Owing to its smoky fragrance, I dubbed the creation Frittata Fume. With its greens and reds against the puffed, browned egg canvas, it looked like it could be on a magazine cover. One bite, and the morning turned around.

In the modern lexicon, a problem is not a problem. It is an opportunity. And so it is with grilled and smoked leftovers. You can eat the same thing over and over again: grilled chicken breasts, say. Or you can repurpose them into a taco, a soup or - my favorite - a chicken salad sandwich.

It seems that every time I grill, I have leftovers. I don't consider myself an unimaginative guy, but for years it didn't occur to me to reinvent those leftovers into something other than what they were when they came off the fire. About the only creativity I brought was turning sliced brisket sandwiches into chopped brisket sandwiches. Alas, even that was not my idea. I got it from scores of pitmen, who served it up at their barbecue joints.

I am loath to admit this, but when something went on the grill or smoker with a specific intent (say, a link of sausage), I'd eat leftovers of that thing as that thing (a link of sausage). So, let's say I had a barbecue for 12 people and, because there was so much other food, I had six links left over. I would be eating sausage links, as is, for a week.

Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that a thing could be something else. Soon, I became the Steve Jobs of barbecue reinvention, taking one basic product and tricking it out.

A single link's worth of smoked sausage is now added to black beans, sauteed onion, garlic, tomatoes and hot peppers for a Southwestern chili, or sliced with tasso and chicken into jambalaya. Grilled zucchini is combined with grilled corn kernels scraped from the cob for a new version of succotash. Grilled cantaloupe, originally served with ice cream for dessert, is blended into a cold soup.

As a result, at grill time I purposefully put on more ingredients than I intend to use. That way, I can play around for days after. I almost never have a preconceived idea of what I am going to do with that extra smoked cauliflower or pork chop.

That's the point.

The freewheeling approach allows me to return to a world liberated from precise measuring. It lets me do what a lot of home cooks like to do: experiment.

 Any time you use a grill is a good time to throw on something that you might not immediately eat, but this month is particularly timely because all that great summer produce is on the wane. Smoking extends its life and creates versatility for future dishes.

One of my favorite stratagems is using smoked pork for tacos. Eschew the barbecue sauce and hamburger bun, and think salsa and tortilla instead. Use whatever you have around that seems as if it would go well with pork. I have made it with a Hatch chili salsa, but for something more exotic I like a grilled orange salsa. Citrus and pork make a great combination. With shredded red cabbage, the taco makes for an easy weekday meal.

My go-to dish is charred-tomato salsa. I replace the basic tomatoes and whatever else with smoked and grilled versions. I say "whatever else" because it depends on what's around. It could be jalapeno one week, habanero the next. It might or might not have tomatillo.

But where I just might like that salsa the most is on eggs. The smokiness adds dimension to creamy scrambled eggs and cheesy omelets. Oh, and if you've got enough grilled leftovers around to play around some weekend morning, it just happens to go great on a Frittata Fume.

            

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