Change the Way You Cook

Let Your Pantry Guide You to Mealtime Happiness

February 14, 2018

We’re changing the way we cook over here at Food52—with articles and recipes and eight weeks of newsletters. Follow along at #f52cooking—and let us know how you're changing the game.

I work as a private chef, which means that I go to the grocery store at least three times a week, sometimes four—and that’s before I’ve even made my own grocery list. What that means is that sometimes I get home from work feeling like I'd much rather eat popcorn and chocolate for dinner than set foot in another grocery store ever, ever again.

Because of this, I had a vague sense of a pantry plan before I read this week’s Change the Way You Cook newsletter about unleashing the power of my pantry. My plan mostly included chickpeas and pasta and a few half-finished boxes of variously ancient dry goods. But I decided to heed the newsletter's advice and spend a few days cooking as much as I could from my pantry, without leaning on new groceries or my freezer stockpile too much.

First up: Get the thing organized. My pantry is skinny and tall, with shelves just deep enough for a couple of cans or a box of pasta. (There is, as the newsletter warns, a lot of hoping that the contents won’t leap out me when I open the door.) I pulled everything out and tossed, among other things, some spiced nuts that had hardened into a geode since the holidays, some matzo I’d bought for Passover last year (stale city), and some prunes that had at some point gone moldy (who even knew dried fruit did that?!). Empty jars awaiting refills of bulk goods were shifted over to the sink to be cleaned. Cans were lined up like soldiers. I consolidated two containers or baking powder and topped off my salt cellar, which meant I could finally get rid of the cereal box-sized container of Diamond Crystal. There was so much newfound space I felt I could practically move in.

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In all of this digging, I found a slightly banged-up box of rice noodles, bought ages ago for a recipe and promptly forgotten about. I put a pot of water on so I could cook them while I finished culling and organizing. I was going to need some lunch anyway: I like to make a batch of something lunchy to get me through the first days of the week, but I often forget about the second half, and here I was, hungry and lunchless but for a box of scraggly noodles and some canned beans.

Luckily, I’d had the newsletter’s advice in mind the last time I was at the store and had stocked up on most of my staples: tofu, peanut butter, some kind of grains, eggs, kale, chickpeas, apples, milk. And some of those things became my lunch alongside the rice noodles. I smeared a quick spicy peanut sauce—peanut butter, sriracha, toasted sesame oil, soy sauce, and rice vinegar—in the bottom of a bowl, then topped it with the rice noodles, some cubed tofu, and a handful of chopped kale blanched in the water the rice noodles had cooked in. I drizzled it all with a little more sesame oil and chopped scallions, too. Resourceful pantry lunch? I'd say so.

That night I was having friends over for dinner, and I wanted to make something cozy and comforting for them. I’d remembered, in my pantry cleanout, a big can of tomatoes and a bag of cornmeal, so I set about making one of my all-time favorite meals (which happens to be very low-budget, involve very few ingredients, and win the hearts and minds of whoever eats it): polenta and tomato sauce. I baked the polenta in the oven until creamy and gave it a kick with a pinch of chile flakes and some olive oil. While that was cooking, I made the Patron Saint of Pantry Dinners, Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce, which calls for three lone ingredients: a 28-ounce can of tomatoes, an onion, and some olive oil. You simmer them together until it becomes a sauce, which takes about the same amount of time it takes polenta to bake—45 minutes. We topped our bowls with heaps of grated pecorino and ate them with kale, this time sautéed with garlic and olive oil and chile flakes until tender and spicy.

The next day, for lunch, I turned to my “emergency dinner” from college: a can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed, tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roasted until crispy and golden. I would eat them with a spoon and a cold beer while slogging through John Donne. It’s not much, it’s not fancy, and I wouldn’t make it for company, but it’s still one of my favorite things to eat, so I always have chickpeas on hand—and that was lunch (though I skipped the beer this time around). Plus, once I have a can of chickpeas, I can make hummus—since I almost always have some garlic, lemon, and a jar of tahini. And because I like hummus so much, I often make a bunch of flatbreads on a lazy Saturday and stick them in the freezer, so I can thaw one at any moment and have my own personal mezze spread on a whim. I thought about doing that for dinner the second night, but was already feeling pretty full of chickpeas, and besides, I had leftover rice noodles in the fridge. But what to do with them?

I started keeping cans of full-fat coconut milk around when I became addicted to Julia Turshen’s curried coconut lentils from her great cookbook Small Victories. Talk about a pantry meal—that one’s just some minced shallot and garlic, a flurry of spices, a cup of red lentils, and a can of coconut milk, and it’s so good you can barely believe the rabbit came out of that hat. But for this dinner, I used the coconut milk for something else: I sautéed a shallot and some grated ginger in olive oil, then added the coconut milk, a can’s worth of water, and a split green chile. That simmered for about 15 minutes, and then I ladled it over a tangle of rice noodles and leftover garlicky kale. I topped it with more chopped scallions and some cilantro. Quick and easy pantry dinner? Done.

At the end of my pantry experiment, I’d used just six workhorse dry goods—rice noodles, coconut milk, canned chickpeas, peanut butter, canned tomatoes, cornmeal—plus a handful of other sturdy staples (kale, shallots, onions, garlic, ginger, chiles, herbs, and cheese) and gotten four really different meals out of them, without once having to trek back to the store. Has my pantry always been a resource? Yes, but this was a good exercise in really knowing its true value—and my true creativity.

What are your emergency pantry dinners? Share them in the comments!

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Writing and cooking in Brooklyn.

1 Comment

Candice February 17, 2018
Like you, I keep cans of chickpeas and coconut milk on hand for making spontaneous meals. I also keep a variety of grains (brown rice for when I have time to soak/basmati when I don't; quinoa, polenta, barley) as well as beans (dried chickpeas, lentils, kidney beans, pinto beans) and then fill my fridge with plenty of fresh veggies (so that I stay healthy) and herbs (so I can feel fancy!). As long as I have eggs, tofu or tempeh on hand, I have no real desire for meat! Great article; thanks for sharing your ideas.