Secrets of Second-Day Suppers

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In some households, “leftovers” is a dirty word, but not mine. In fact, my people prefer some of my dishes on the second or even third day. That’s because I’ve mastered the art of second-day suppers.

Quick backstory: I grew up in a family of six, and my dad insisted on having family meals together whenever possible. So I learned how to cook in really large quantities. Fast forward to 2003 when I’m a new bride, and I still think I’m cooking for a big family, even though it’s just my husband, stepson, and me. We had a lot of leftovers during those early years before I realized recipes could be cut in half. That’s when I got good at reheating things, and my husband noted the difference in certain second-day suppers that tasted better after the flavors and spices had time to meld together. I can’t tell you why this happened, and I doubt there’s any science behind it. But good food speaks for itself.

Food safety: Of course, I need to emphasize the commonsense practices of basic food handling. We aren’t talking about fine wines and cheeses that need to be aged! The Mayo Clinic recommends keeping leftovers in your refrigerator for no more than three or four days; pop the dish in your freezer if you aren’t going to finish it before then. And of course, if your food ever looks or smells suspicious, throw it out and eat something else rather than risk getting food poisoning!

Second-day soups: Probably the most notable dishes that taste better on the second day are my soups. If I do say so myself, I make a mean chicken noodle, chicken dumpling, Italian tortellini, and taco soup, and my younger daughter asks for my chili year-round. One trick is to put together a big pot of soup on a Sunday afternoon, maybe while waiting for the Packer game to start. (Fall just feels like soup season, am I right?) Let it simmer for half an hour or so, then turn off the heat source and let it cool for about 10 minutes. Then put half in a resealable dish for the freezer and put the other half directly into your fridge. When your family is starving and ready to eat after a hectic Monday, pull out the pot and warm up your delicious second-day soup right on the stove. If your recipe calls for noodles, such as in your chili or that tortellini soup, I would put those in right before serving, as they tend to get mushy when frozen and/or reheated.

Second-day sauces: Even though I married into an Italian family, I have yet to master the art of the homemade spaghetti sauce. Thank goodness for Ragu to the rescue! The same trick for the second-day soups also works for sauces. I like to brown a blend of ground beef and Italian sausage with diced onion, then add a jar or two of sauce plus extra garlic, basil, and oregano. Let it simmer slowly until heated through. You might want to cool this for a bit also before shoving it in your fridge or freezer. The neighbor kids always seem to want to eat at our house when I reheat my spaghetti sauce!

Second-day entrees: When I’m really on my A-game, I will make a meal plan for a month and cook once, eat twice, sometimes multiple times per week. A great way to accomplish this is by doubling the recipe for, say, your lasagna or Swedish meatballs, any kind of hot dish or casserole, rice or Mexican dish, or Crock-Pot meal. Put the half you aren’t going to serve right away in the freezer, and save it for a busy weeknight when you don’t have time to cook. Another tip, when dividing up leftovers after a big meal, put them in individual-sized storage containers that can quickly be reheated, or that you or your spouse can grab on the go if you are taking your lunch to work.

The recipe below is probably my family’s all-time favorite weeknight dinner. It can be prepared in advance and rewarmed in the oven or microwave, or frozen for up to three months. Serve with salad and garlic bread, and you have super easy second-day suppers!

White Chicken Lasagna

  • One pound chicken breast, diced
  • One Tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • Garlic powder
  • Half-box of lasagna noodles (I like Creamette or Barilla)
  • Two 12 ounce cans of evaporated milk (NOT fat-free!)
  • One envelope (1 ounce) Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing mix
  • 1-2 cups each shredded mozzarella and Colby jack cheeses (or whatever shredded cheese you have)

Warm up the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. At the same time, start your water boiling to cook your lasagna noodles. Sautee the chicken pieces until browned; season with garlic powder, if you wish. Reduce heat to medium-low. Shake, then slowly add both cans of evaporated milk to the chicken, and stir in the ranch packet until well blended. Stir, stir, stir to keep from burning/sticking to the bottom of the pan. Cook your noodles in the meantime and let the chicken mixture simmer for about 15-20 minutes, stirring very frequently.

Either grease a 9×13-inch baking pan or pour a little of the evaporated milk mixture into the bottom of the dish. Line the pan with half the noodles, then add half the chicken mixture. Top with a layer of cheeses—more is more decadent, less cheese obviously a bit healthier. Then repeat with the rest of the noodles, the rest of the chicken, and another layer of the cheeses. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until lasagna is hot and bubbly and cheese is browning on top. Remove from oven and let cool five to 10 minutes before cutting and serving. Refrigerate leftovers promptly; enjoy!

What’s your family’s favorite reheated meal, and why does it taste so much better the second day? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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