By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Out with the old

Leftovers continue to rule my life, as I focus on trying to make sure they will be used up. It can be a challenge. This week, I kicked myself for not getting a container of cooked dried beans frozen or used before they went bad, but celebrated successfully turning a rock-hard demi-baguette into bread salad, also handily using up half a tomato that had been languishing in the fridge, a slightly aging small onion and the last of a bunch of parsley.

Leftover potato pancake batter became hashbrowns; leftover mashed potatoes became breakfast patties. But the remaining French toast batter is still sitting in the fridge, looking at me accusingly. It wants to be made into custard, but I haven’t gotten to it yet, mostly from a strong desire to not turn on the oven when it’s 90 degrees.

Using up bread should be one of the easier tasks. Bread crumbs, croutons, stuffing, bread pudding, gazpacho, French onion soup, Provencal soup with pistou, strata, fruit charlotte — entire cultures have devoted centuries to coming up with recipes for using up stale bread. It still eludes me sometimes. But I’m working on it, and it is especially pleasing to be able to find an edible — and appealing! — use for the petrified object that European-style bakery bread becomes after just a few days.

The secret to the rock-hard bread was soaking it in water, which didn’t sound at all appealing, but which a website on Italian cooking, The Artisan, had assured me was the correct method.

Actually, The Artisan told me to slice the bread and then soak it — but slicing it with anything less powerful than a chainsaw would have caused severe risk to finger retention, so I managed to break the thing into two pieces, soaked them for a little, and then used a combination of slicing, tearing and, when necessary, some additional soaking to reduce the bread to bite-size pieces.

At first, I thought they were going to be waterlogged, but I squeezed the bread in my hands to remove most of water, as instructed, cubed some of the non-soggy bits, and tossed it all together. In the end, things equaled out nicely; it had a surprisingly good texture, not at all the goopy paste I feared.

Come to think of it, it could have been mixed with that leftover French toast batter for bread pudding. However, it was morning on a day I had nothing else to pack for lunch, so bread salad worked out nicely. The addition of some highly non-traditional cheddar cheese cubes provided a bit of heft and protein — although having tried that version, I think I’ll go with the non-cheese type next time. Hard to believe there’s something that can’t be improved with extra-sharp Tillamook cheddar, but it’s true.

Bread crumbs are endlessly useful for providing a crisp topping for casseroles, breading vegetables such as zucchini or eggplant, standing in for crushed crackers in recipes, soaking up excess liquid in galettes and strudels, and so forth. And bread pudding is endlessly variable. You can add fruit or chocolate or caramel sauce for dessert, or make it a more substantial breakfast dish, even a savory version, for breakfast or supper.

Envisioning stale bread as an asset takes some practice, but achieving that mindset opens up all sorts of possibilities to enjoy — making sure less good food goes to waste.

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