Daddy orders too much. My kids know this. I have come to count on the sighs and protests of my two children whenever we go out to a restaurant as much as they have learned to anticipate my ravenous approach to the menu—any menu. They say to me, a slight panic quivering in their voices, “Daddy, you’re ordering too much again!” It grates on them. What I see as benevolence, they see as egregious excess. What I often say back, hoping to reassure them, is that my exorbitant ordering is really an operative strategy. I do it on purpose. I order way too much food because I intend to haul roughly a third of it home and convert it into the breakfast of the gods.
An ex with roots in Italy once taught me—and it hit me like a flash of light, this simple realization—that leftover pasta could rise like Lazarus the next morning when folded into a frittata. I believe that there are heavenly a.m. repasts to be conjured from leftover naan bread, roasted summer vegetables, Ethiopian stews, Korean barbecue.
But my favorite of all refrigerator changelings is fried rice.
As my children have witnessed, I am not beyond ordering an entirely gratuitous platter of fried rice (which had already been given a second life, since day-old rice is often recycled for the wok) in a Chinese restaurant—or biryani in an Indian restaurant, kabuli pulao in an Afghan restaurant, rice studded with kimchi and beef in a Korean restaurant—simply so that I can dump it into a cast-iron skillet a few hours later.
I have been doing something of this nature since my own childhood in San Marino, CA. When I was in school, my parents used to marvel at my animal lust for Chinese take-out from Shanghai Palace at the crack of dawn. Regarding breakfast I applied what the Buddhists refer to as “beginner’s mind.” I behaved as though no one had ever informed me that there was a separate category of “breakfast dishes.” Predetermined foodstuffs at prescribed hours? A fiction. A ruse. Nothing more than cultural conditioning—even a seven-year-old could tell you that, right?
In my formative years I would happily have pancakes before bedtime and shrimp with black-bean sauce when I awoke. I still eat this way. In fact, I can’t help but think back to the most exquisite breakfast I have ever consumed. It came about last year when I was staying with Lauren, my girlfriend, in Los Angeles. I had flown in from New York the previous evening and we had gone straight to Night + Market Song in the Silver Lake neighborhood. The chef Kris Yenbamroong’s Thai cooking was (and is) magnificently delicious in a deep-flavored, hurts-so-good way, leaving me stunned and stung. Somehow Lauren and I still had a mound of the crispy rice salad left over—well, hell, of course we did, because I had ordered too much. I can’t help myself.
Anyway, Lauren and I brought that nam khao tod home with us. When we got up the next day, some sort of jet-lagged half-conscious signal was humming in my head. Ah, yes: the crispy rice salad. I think now of Patti Smith, on the epochal album Horses, chanting ecstatically about the “sea of possibilities.” Yes! The possibilities! In the kitchen I dropped that crispy rice into a frying pan. Its spellbinding fragrance began to fill the air. Spiciness, sourness, funk, fat, fish sauce. Minimal intervention would be required. (Not even oil, really—that rice was already plenty lubricated.)
That morning I did the same thing with Kris Yenbamroong’s nam khao tod that I always do with fried rice from Chinatown or biryani from my friend Navjot Arora’s restaurant Chutney Masala in Irvington, New York. You want a recipe? Here’s a recipe. You get the stuff sizzling in the pan—nonstick freaks me out for some reason, and the rice is usually greasy enough that you can stick to cast iron or stainless steel as long as you move it around. (OK, maybe you soften it up by adding in and cooking off a splash of water if the rice seems a little too stiff, or you throw in a spoonful of soy sauce and some scallions and garlic if the fried rice seems a tad bland.) While the rice makes that lovely hissing-popping sound, you whisk two or three eggs in a bowl. You pour the eggs in with the rice and you scramble it all around with a wooden spoon for maybe a minute.
Boom. Chewy-crunchy nibbles of texture from the rice, vapor trails of flavor from whatever the rice was previously cooked with. The result plays well with hot sauce, with ketchup (hey, don’t try to get snooty with me here), even with creamier accompaniments like tzatziki and raita. It’s an anti-boring breakfast that can be yours in a matter of minutes, provided that you do one thing that might make your loved ones groan: go out for dinner tonight and order like an emperor.
Jeff Gordinier is the food & drinks editor of Esquire magazine. His first column, in the November issue, looks at a new generation of young chefs cooking Asian food in Los Angeles.