My Perfect Pantry
The biggest obstacle most people seem to encounter, though, is not having ingredients on hand when the desire to cook strikes. But keeping the fridge stocked with fresh ingredients is not realistic, since work schedules are often such that most of the groceries go bad before the opportunity to cook presents itself. And so, the vicious cycle endures, and most meals continue to be take-out.
My own solution to this same problem has been to curate a well-stocked pantry of healthy but sturdy foods that aligns well with a dozen or so standby recipes that I practically know by heart (or are forgiving enough to be adapted based on availability of ingredients).
When I say “sturdy,” I refer to items that will last at least 2 solid weeks if properly stored. So this includes shelf-stable/dry goods, but also frozen foods and some more enduring fresh foods, like onions, garlic, eggs, etc..
While it may take some time to find the combination of pantry items and recipes that suit your individual tastes, it’s a worthwhile exercise. Grocery shopping becomes less overwhelming and more routine, and eating at least 2 meals per day prepared from home becomes a breeze. Of course, when you have the hankering for something different or seasonal that involves a fresh vegetable or piece of meat, you can always pick up a fresh item or two on the way home from work to supplement your stocks. But if it were blizzarding outside and you were stuck home with no access to fresh anything, a good pantry should be able to provide a few meals that are flavorful and way healthier than some processed, just-add-water meal kit.
Solution Part A: My Well-Stocked Pantry
I will warn you in advance that my pantry staples would horrify Mark Bittman, whose shuns many of the convenience items (like canned beans, storebought stock, bottled lemon juice) that I rely on in his personal pantry. But Mark Bittman is not pregnant with twins, and if he has the time and inclination to simmer homemade stock after a long day at work or the foresight to soak beans a day in advance, then I hope to live next-door to him one day so that he can share the wealth.
So without further ado… here’s what you’ll find in my kitchen at any given moment:
- Canned diced tomatoes (no salt added)
- Canned artichokes
- Canned beans (preferably no salt added): a variety. I always have black, kidney, garbanzo and cannelini on hand. Pintos or gigantes on occasion.
- One can of Light Coconut Milk
- Canned Light Tongol Tuna in Water
- Dry lentils/split peas: a variety. I always have plain (brown lentils), French lentils and green and/or yellow split peas. In the winter, I like to have red lentils on hand for soups, and if I come across Beluga lentils, I always grab a bag. All of these cook up fast–within 30 minutes– and make for an excellent, filling protein ingredient when you haven’t had the chance to buy fresh fish or meat.
- 1 lb bag of pasta: (I’m partial to the shorter cuts of gluten-free brown rice pastas from Tinkyada, but if you can eat gluten, just keep whatever you like on hand.)
- Whole grains: I always have a bag of quinoa and millet on hand (both cook up in about the same amount of time as white rice), as well as a bag of (gluten-free) Rolled Oats for breakfast. I do also keep a variety of whole grain rices (brown, black) on hand, but these tend not work as well for quickie weekday dishes, as they take longer to cook. Back in my gluten-eating days, a jar of Whole Wheat couscous was a huge time-saver… it cooks up in 5 minutes. (If this idea appeals to you but you’re gluten-free, Lundberg offers a great Brown Rice “Couscous” that cooks up in just 15 minutes.)
- Other grains: I keep polenta on hand as well, since its gluten-free, fast to prepare and tasty.
- Garbanzo bean flour: sounds random, but when mixed with water, it can be easily transformed into a fast, high protein/high fiber falafel patty or hummus dip.
- Alliums: Onions, garlic and one shallot.
- Vegetable or Chicken Broth, preferably low-sodium. I like to keep a few quarts on hand, but bouillon cubes are another good option. They’re way more economical, take up less space–and have saved my dinner on more than one occasion.
- Dried herbs/spices: Again, these will vary depending on what your favorite cuisines are, but I rely most heavily on: Cumin, Coriander, Ginger, Cinnamon, Thyme, Oregano, Cayenne pepper and/or Red Pepper Flakes.
- Olive and Organic Canola oils
- Nuts: Sliced almonds, cashews and/or peanuts (a perfect protein-rich addition to veggie stir-fries)
- Frozen peas (and/or if you eat soy, I’d add frozen organic shelled edamame to the list)
- Frozen spinach
- Frozen shrimp (of domestic or Canadian origin)
- Lemon juice
- Parmesan cheese
- Reduced sodium soy sauce (For gluten-free, I use Reduced Sodium Wheat-Free Tamari)
Solution Part B: My Go-To, Lazy-day Healthy Pantry Recipes
Now, here is a partial list of recipes on my speed dial when I’m too tired to be creative with dinner or my access to fresh ingredients is limited to whatever they sell at the bodega on my way home from the subway.
- Yellow Lentils with Spinach and Ginger. If you can, pick up some fresh cilantro and/or sesame seeds for a flavorful garnish.
- Mulligatawny (spicy Indian lentil soup). Note: Requires a deeper bench in your spice cabinet than the bare essentials listed above.
- Artichoke, Onion & Thyme Frittata. In a large (10″), oven-safe skillet, saute sliced onion in olive oil and season with dried thyme. Add 1 can of drained and chopped artichoke. Beat 8 eggs in separate bowl and add 1/3 to 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, salt & pepper. Pour egg mixture into saucepan. Bake in 400 degree oven for 15 minutes (or until set). (If you happen to have fresh mushrooms, you can slice them up and add to the pan after finishing onion but before adding the artichoke… they make a lovely addition.)
- Pasta with White Beans, Tuna and Artichoke. Cook 1 lb pasta per package directions, drain well and return to cooking pot. Separately, heat olive oil in a saute pan and saute a few cloves of minced fresh garlic, 1 can drained Cannelini (white) beans, and 1 can drained and chopped artichoke. Add sauted vegetable/bean mixture to the pasta along with 1 can drained tuna and 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese. (If you have some fresh baby spinach, you can toss the leaves in to steaming hot drained pasta, cover, and let spinach wilt before adding the other ingredients. If you have some fresh mushrooms, slice them and add to the saute pan with the veggies.) Salt to taste.
- Shrimp & Vegetable Fried Brown Rice. Cook 1/2 cup brown rice according to package directions (or use leftover brown rice from last night’s takeout) and set aside. Dice a half of an onion and measure out 1/2 cup frozen peas or edamame. If you have a carrot lying around (baby carrots work, too) dice it as well, as would any ol’ veggies you have on hand (string beans cut into 1″ pieces, 1/2 cup shredded cabbage, some sliced mushrooms…) Heat 1 TBSP canola oil in a wok or large saute pan. Scramble 2 eggs in the oil. Add 3 oz frozen shrimp and continue sauteing until shrimp are cooked/pink. Add diced veggies and frozen peas and continue sauteing until veggies soften. Toss in 1 cup cooked brown rice and stir until well blended. Season with soy sauce/Tamari sauce to taste. Serve. (Try it with a hot chili sauce like Sriracha.)
Moroccan-style Chick Pea “Tagine.” You will need a butternut squash or 2 large sweet potatoes for this recipe in addition to the pantry staples. Get a pot of whole wheat couscous, brown rice “couscous,” millet or quinoa cooking on the stove before you start. Then, just add one 15-oz can of chick peas to this easy recipe for Steamed Butternut Squash with Chili Sauce and you will have a super-fast, healthy Moroccan-style tagine to serve over the cooked grain. (Hint: go ahead and use 1 TBSP of oil to saute the onion… no need to use the broth method suggested in the recipe. A little smidge of fat will help you absorb the squash’s Vitamin A.)
- Indian-style bean stew. Get a pot of your favorite whole grain cooking before you start. Saute a thinly sliced onion in canola oil until soft. Add: cumin, coriander, ginger, salt and a touch of cayenne pepper and mix until onion is coated. Add 1 can diced tomatoes, 1 can kidney beans and 1 can garbanzo beans. Stir until ingredients well-blended, taste and adjust seasonings to your liking. Let simmer until flavors blend and excess liquid cooks off, about 7-10 minutes, and serve atop cooked grain. If you have fresh cilantro, that makes a nice garnish.
- Shakshouka. You will need 2 large bell peppers for this recipe in addition to pantry staples. Serve it atop pita bread, crusty bread or the toast of your choice if you wish. If you have hummus in the fridge, smear some on the bread before topping with Shakshouka.