Food: Use up leftovers for a cheap and nutritious meal

AFTER last month's financial excesses, January surely provides the year's longest wait for a pay cheque. With most people having spent double their monthly budget over December, there won't be much money for culinary luxuries going around at the moment.

No-one will be aware of this more than the city's restaurateurs for whom January's slim pickings usually mean a profitless month. You'll see closed signs up at many restaurants as they cut their losses and take the opportunity to shut for painting, cleaning or a well-earned break after the previous month's office party madness.

So while restaurant chefs are heading for warmer climes or swapping their kitchen whites for painter's overalls, those of you in charge of the household cooking are probably counting the pennies. Once the last of the Christmas pudding has finally been used up and all that frozen turkey has been turned into curry or sandwich fillings, you may be hunting around for other ways to stretch the food budget until the credit card bill is paid off.

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Using up leftovers may not rank at the exciting end of the gastronomic spectrum but if you treat it as a challenge you can produce some surprisingly good results. So, just as leftover mince can form the next day's chilli or shepherd's pie and the surplus from a Sunday roast can be turned into stovies, broth or bubble and squeak, any remains from the previous evening's fish and potatoes can easily be turned into fishcakes for an inexpensive and tasty lunch.

Of course, you don't have to wait for the leftovers. Freshly made fishcakes have become a popular mainstay of bistro menus either as a starter or a main, and many types of fish lend themselves well to being flaked through mashed potato and fried or grilled. Salmon, haddock, trout and cod are some of the most popular versions, but shellfish such as crab and prawns can also work well. Smoked fish like mackerel is also ideal, though you need to be careful to remove any small bones. And if you are making fishcakes from scratch, ask your fishmonger for any off-cuts or broken pieces and he should be happy to let you have them fairly cheap.

As there's nothing worse than a soggy fishcake, one of the main secrets to success is to ensure that your mix is relatively dry. Potatoes contain a lot of moisture and they should be thoroughly drained before mashing and likewise any juices should be sieved from the fish before you combine the two. Other flavourings, such as Thai spices or chopped herbs like dill or tarragon, can liven up your fishcakes. Homemade tartare sauce is an ideal accompaniment, along with leafy salads or green vegetables.

Either for culinary, health or budgeting reasons, fishcakes are always a good menu option. And even if you are lucky enough to have money to spend during this thrifty month you can still feel virtuous by making the most of your leftovers.

Andy McGregor is chef/proprietor at Blonde Restaurant, 75 St Leonard's Street, 0131-668 2917