Elastic recipes: Using leftovers to unclutter a fridge

I love a good meatloaf. On cold days, my thoughts uncontrollably zero in on a hot slice of that home-cooked, belly-warming classic, brimming with juicy flavor, and served up next to some fluffy mashed potatoes.

What I dig about meatloaf is how easily it lends itself to such varied ingredients. Sometimes, I throw in some frozen peas or an onion soup mix packet if I have one handy. Pre-made sauces really work well, too. Do you like Teriyaki sauce? I do, and sometimes I’ll add a half cup, which gives my meatloaf a nice sweet tang. I think meatloaf is a truly adaptable meal. It’s almost elastic, wouldn’t you say?

That elasticity got me thinking. Since meatloaf allows so many substitutions, couldn’t I break down the recipe into components and create new versions on the fly, like a template?

To me, the basic formula for putting together a meatloaf looks like this:

Elastic recipe: Meatloaf

  • 3 parts meat (ground beef, poultry, pork, lamb, and Italian/breakfast sausage are all contenders)
  • 1 part absorbent starch (packaged breadcrumbs or cubed white, wheat, rye, pumpernickel, cornbread, or oatmeal)
  • binder and liquids (eggs, sauces, oils, milk, and/or canned soup)
  • flavorful optional component (veggies, cheeses, spices, soup mix)

Your oven should be preheated to 325º F. Mix the ingredients well (feel welcome to use your clean hands and squish everything together) and bake it in a lightly greased or parchment paper-lined 10″ loaf pan. You’ll want to cook the meatloaf until the internal temperature is at least 160º F for red meats or 165º F for poultry.

By Simplifying a recipe down to its basic components, you can change it into something super adaptable. Making a formula instead of a precise recipe helps you utilize whatever leftovers or ingredients you have available.

Of course, part of using an elastic recipe is knowing how the ingredients interact. To help you make sure the results are delicious, I will add a paragraph or two in future elastic recipes explaining some food theory pointers to show why things work the way they do.

I find that some meals lend themselves well to become an elastic recipe better than others. Stew, hash, and stir fried rice are some of the best dishes that use up leftovers because they are so adaptable. This kind of problem solving helps me clean out a fridge full of misfit ingredients and create something delicious by mealtime.

In the end, it may not taste exactly like your mother’s Sunday night meatloaf, but you could very well turn out something your stomach loves. Look for more elastic recipes from me in the future.

18 comments posted

  1. Posted by Gigi - 01/05/2011

    Thanks, I love the elasticity idea. I live in a rather small apartment and my goal this year is to make everything count. Minimize the wasteage and save by cooking at home. I hope you talk about minimizing in regards to pots and pans, and utensils. I wish you the best in your new endeavour.

  2. Posted by susan - 01/05/2011

    Have you heard of Mark Bittman’s the minimalist? He lives in a very small Manhattan apartment and does something pretty similar in the NYTimes.

  3. Posted by ColleenwithMurals&More - 01/05/2011

    Congrats on this new site! I’m a subscriber to The Unclutterer and use many of your tips on my feng shui blog. Now this! I’m thinking it’ll offer a lot to my newbie foodie readers! Looking forward to it!

  4. Posted by Erin Doland - 01/05/2011

    @susan — You mean to say that Mark Bittman SOMETIMES lives in a tiny New York apartment. He has a nice-sized home in the suburbs where he lives a good portion of the time.

  5. Posted by rhondanna - 01/05/2011

    Okay, this is a little too simple for me. How many parts these various binders and liquids?

  6. Posted by Matt Fetissoff - 01/05/2011

    rhondanna: A good rule of thumb I use is for every pound of meat I use one egg and one half cup of liquids (milk is a good choice because it is neutral and adds some richness).

  7. Posted by Keter - 01/05/2011

    I have used this kind of approach to cooking for years and now can throw together a good meal almost reflexively. It is a fundamental cooking skill I recommend everyone learn.

    Another key idea is “cascading” your meals so that your leftovers become ingredients in subsequent meals. For example, any leftovers from the meatloaf could be cubed up and (depending on spicing) go in a soup or stew, be fried with some eggs, go into a stir-fry and put over rice, be rebaked as a shepherd’s pie, or even substitute for meatballs in a spaghetti sauce.

  8. Posted by Matt Fetissoff - 01/05/2011

    Keter: You don’t happen to have a mind reading machine, do you?

  9. Posted by Robin - 01/05/2011

    I love my salmon loaf recipe. Easy schmeezy and a good excuse for some Hollandaise sauce.

  10. Posted by Kim - 01/05/2011

    One of our best food discoveries in a while is cooking meatloaf in the crockpot. I was skeptical about this method but the slow cooker does a great job with meatloaf. Just form it into a loaf to correspond with the shape of the crock.

    Cook on low for 4 – 6 hours. If you are ketchup-minded, save about 1/2 cup to spread over the top 1/2 hour before serving.

  11. Posted by sara - 01/05/2011

    The casserole is a good “elastic” dish that lends itself to a formula recipe.

  12. Posted by Merikay - 01/05/2011

    Meatloaf in the crock pot! Fantastic idea!

  13. Posted by Sasa - 01/06/2011

    Love it. I wish someone had explained this to me when I was first learning to cook.

    I have an anxiety disorder and my then-boyfriend was a great cook, but complained about doing all the cooking (which is fair). However, I had no idea how to throw things together rather than follow a recipe exactly, nor how to time things. This resulted in panic about not having the right ingredients, or the potatoes being done 20 minutes before the turkey, etc, etc, as well as fights when dinner wasn’t ready on time. Cooking almost turned into something awful that I never wanted to do again.

    Luckily I later took the time to try out new recipes, one at a time, for myself on my own time, and I learned to do many of these things. “Elastic” recipes like this one would have saved me a lot of time, anxiety, and burned turkey.

    Though, for people who don’t cook (or me, who has still never cooked meatloaf) a bit more info about eggs-to-liquid-to-meat ratio like what Matt Fetissoff provided would be good to include.

    Another thing that has been a great money-saver is realizing how easy it was to cook surprising things. Homemade pizza? No problem. Cranberry sauce? Done in a jiffy. French bread? Delicious and only mildly time consuming. I had always considered those things best left to the professionals, but a bit of experimentation proved them doable.

  14. Posted by sandie - 01/06/2011

    Love the new site, this is going to be fun.
    Cascading! So there is a name for my style of preparing meals. Todays roast dinner is tomorrows cold meat and salad. Todays hummus dip (with salad or veg) is tomorrows steak sauce. Casserole or meat loaf can be served the next night with a different starch. Meals are a continous flow thru and no leftovers in the back of the fridge. I do have a weekly menu plan, makes shopping easy and no one wanders around plaintively asking “whats for dinner” Good luck with Simplifried.

  15. Posted by Jo@simplybeingmum - 01/06/2011

    I leave Friday free – I meal plan 6 days a week and always have done. Friday is my ‘No Waste Tastes Great’ challenge day, whereby after my Friday routine (fridge clean, on-line shop etc) I make a decision what I am going to cook that evening to ensure zero waste. Elastic ingredients are key, and understanding how they go together is critical. For me confidence and experimentation is also key! I have had some huge successes – my slow cooked veggie lasagne, and some disasters – celery gratin (awful!). I strongly believe that more should be taught both at school and in the home so that children can understand the technology behind food – ultimately cooking is chemistry (but more fun!). I make sure my kids get involved, as kids that can cook turn into adults that can also. Every week I post my Simple Meal Plan, and my NWTG challenge – it keeps me focused and hopefully inspires others – Jo simplybeingmum – family life simply done ps I have a beautiful and small fridge – very uncluttered and clean – it brings a tear to my eye

  16. Posted by Seamus - 01/06/2011

    I also use the “cascading” approach to cooking with the “leftover” day. Usually, leftovers can be made into omelettes or something. Recently added leftover baked salmon to cream cheese, added chives, smoke seasoning, etc. and had a wonderful spread for bagels! I am not a great cook; however, the day to day is easier for me…

    Seasoned bread stuffing cubes (Stove Top) are great to throw into meatloaf, too.

    Looking forward to your recipes and ideas – I’m already realizing how I can expand my meatloaf ideas!

  17. Posted by Lindsey - 01/18/2011

    Wow. This is exactly how I cook, how I’ve cooked for years, but I’ve never put a label on it. I have formulas for meatloaf, casseroles of various types, fried rice, pasta/rice toppings, salads, soup, and crockpot stews. When someone asks me a recipe, I’m never quite sure what to tell them, because I cooked with whatever I had.

    Every single day at work I take soup for lunch. It’s always based on one can healthy soup, whatever’s on sale (usually healthy choice or progresso light), a handful of frozen mixed vegetables, and whatever leftovers are in the fridge- meat, rice, quinoa, whatever. And hot sauce. It’s always different, generally pretty healthy, and a good way to use stuff up without actually eating leftovers. It’s like my elastic lunch.

  18. Posted by Lilli - 01/29/2011

    Elastic Recipes would make a great theme for a regular column! This too is how I cook — all formulas, while my husband handles all of the recipes. My favorite cooking challenge is to create a fantastic meal with seemingly few ingredients left in the fridge.

    Other great elastic cooking topics: soups, salads, omelets, roasted vegetables, pizzas, smoothies, salad dressings …

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