Give Your Leftovers an Upgrade

As often as we can, my husband and I eat supper together at the table. It's our time to unwind, laugh and reconnect at the end of the day. But, with irregular and often opposing work schedules, it's not uncommon that my dining companion is the cat (who's only engaging if the bottom of his food bowl is visible).

This might be for one night, or it might be for a more prolonged period. While not preferable, it's something we're accustomed to. My top tip: Make extras of key ingredients that happily make repeat appearances. It might not be sexy, but the beauty of leftovers is that there is pre-prepped food left over. For instance, a whole roast chicken from the weekend provided meat for two suppers and three quick lunches, plus nearly three quarts of rich, flavorful bone stock.

When I'm in for a stretch of solo suppers, a stocked refrigerator and freezer ensure there is good food to fill my belly. This meal is a mash-up of leftovers: barley (from a breakfast batch made earlier in the week), pieces of the weekend's leftover roast chicken and figs frozen from the summer harvest, brightened up with an aged balsamic vinaigrette and a scattering of fresh mint leaves from the garden.

I've written the recipe to make two servings. If you only need one, pack what remains in a jar or container for tomorrow's lunch. Give it a shake and dig straight in — it's good both cold or warmed. And, don't get thrown if you don't have mint or figs — use any tender herbs or greens you have on hand, and play around with other fruits. I can imagine slices of blood orange, tangerine or kumquat and a handful of peppery arugula or winter spinach standing up well to the bold flavor of aged balsamic.

Nutrition Notes

Barley, a nutty, chewy, fiber-rich whole grain, makes this plate satisfying, good for the heart and will help stabilize blood sugars. Barley also provides antioxidant protection with its high levels of manganese and selenium.

The chicken is a great source of high-quality lean protein (but can easily be replaced with your favorite plant-based protein), as well as B vitamins and phosphorous for energy and to maintain healthy teeth, bones and nails.

Figs add an abundance of nutritional goodness as well. They're a non-dairy source of calcium, contain vitamins K and B6, heart-healthy potassium and a variety of antioxidants. They also are loaded with fiber, keeping your digestive system happy.

If all that weren't enough, the organic compound menthol, responsible for the characteristic flavor of mint does more than banish bad breath. It helps relax smooth muscle, which can calm stomach aches, nausea, vomiting and morning sickness, and may relieve some symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, such as gas and bloating.

There's no reason a supper of leftovers can't be healthy, nourishing and leave you wanting more. While you're at it, go ahead and set the table, light a candle, put on some music and enjoy a special solo meal.

Pearl Barley with Roast Chicken, Figs and Aged Balsamic

Recipe by Heather Goesch, MPH, RDN, LDN


  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, plus more to finish
  • 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
  • ½ teaspoon kosher flake salt
  • Fresh ground black pepper


  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 cup cooked pearl barley
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • ½ small garlic clove, thinly sliced
  • Pinch of red chili flakes (use to your discretion and heat preference)
  • 6 ounces (about ½ cup) leftover roasted chicken, shredded or chopped into small pieces
  • 2 small scallions, sliced thin on a diagonal
  • 5 ounces (about 4 to 5 small, or ½ to ¾ cup) fresh figs, quartered
  • Small handful of fresh mint leaves


  1. In a small bowl, whisk together aged balsamic, 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, salt and a few cracks of black pepper. Taste, and adjust flavors as necessary. Set aside.
  2. Place cooked barley in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with 2 tablespoons water or stock. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, 5 to 8 minutes or until heated through. Season very lightly with a pinch of salt. Set aside, covered, to keep warm.
  3. Meanwhile, heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a small nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add garlic and chili flakes, and cook 1 minute until fragrant. Be careful not to let the garlic burn. Quickly add the chicken, toss to coat and cook 1 to 2 minutes more to just warm through. Turn off the heat and stir in the balsamic vinaigrette and chopped scallions.
  4. Divide the warm barley between two plates. Top with the warm glazed chicken, making sure to get every bit of the vinaigrette out of the pan on onto the plate. Scatter figs and fresh mint leaves over the plate. Finish with another light drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar. Serve warm. Serves 2.

Cooking Notes

  • To cook a 3-cup batch of pearl barley: Place 1 cup pearl barley in a bowl and add enough water to cover by about 1 inch. Set aside on the counter to soak at least 1 hour, up to overnight. Drain and rinse the barley. When ready to cook, add barley and 3 cups water to a medium saucepan and bring to a boil, uncovered, over high heat. It likes to "foam up," so keep an eye on the pot to make sure it doesn't boil over. Give it a quick stir or remove it briefly from the heat if it gets out of control. Once boiling, reduce heat to low, cover and keep at a gentle simmer 35 to 45 minutes, adding more water if the pan dries. The barley is cooked when it is tender yet chewy and has tripled in volume. After finished cooking, turn off heat, fluff the barley with a fork, re-cover and set aside to cool (or use after 5 minutes of resting). Once barley is completely cool, portion into several airtight containers to store in the refrigerator up to 1 week, or in the freezer for up to 6 months.
  • If you're running short on time, substitute quick-cooking barley for the pearl barley. It is a perfectly fine substitute and is ready in about 15 minutes.


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Heather Goesch
Heather A. Goesch, MPH, RDN, LDN, is a registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer and recipe developer currently living in the south of France. Read her blog for healthy, seasonal recipe inspiration, and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest or Twitter.