cucina bene; mangia bene (what’s in your pantry?)
Here’s the scenario: you arrive home after a long day at work. You are hungry; your family is hungry and they are looking to you to provide them with nourishment really soon. You open the cupboards; there are all kinds of things in there, but you can’t really think straight because you are hungry. You then move to the refrigerator and find it pretty empty, so you give up and grab one of the to go menu’s you’ve collected for times such as these and you call for take out. It will be ready in 30 minutes; problem solved……….for tonight. Sound familiar? Yes!
It’s always easier to order take out instead of making a meal out of the odds and ends that comprise most of our pantries. We saw that recipe for quinoa salad in a cooking magazine and it sounded good, but all we could find was 5 lbs. of quinoa and we only used a cup for that recipe. It was good, but not that good, so now we have all this quinoa that we don’t know what else to do with. And we have many other items in our cupboards that have similar stories: Szechuan peppercorns, star anise, bulgur wheat, bean thread noodles……….and the list goes on and on.
Well, it’s easier to whip up a tasty home cooked meal from your pantry inventory than you might think. Let’s go back up to the earlier scenario: you open the cupboards and find a can of beans (doesn’t matter what kind really). You open the refrigerator and find an onion and a bunch of kale that you bought at the farmers’ market a few weeks ago. You find a few cloves of garlic, and a package of penne pasta. Oh, and there’s a few slices of bacon leftover from breakfast over the weekend.
You get out a sauté pan and sauté the onion and garlic in a little olive oil (or whatever oil you have on hand for cooking), you add the kale (that you’ve washed and chopped into bite sized pieces), and add a little water to help it cook down. You boil the penne pasta, drain it (retaining some of the pasta water), and toss it with the kale, onion, and garlic. You add the beans and the bacon, season with salt and pepper and WOW, you just made you and your family a delicious healthy dinner in less than an hour with the food you had on hand. You saved money, time, and gas and you made space in your cupboards and refrigerator for new ingredients….
There isn’t an art to pantry cooking; it’s more of a way of thinking of how to combine foods without using a recipe. Recipes are great guidelines and references, but they can also get us in trouble when we buy ingredients (that we normally wouldn’t buy) to make a dish we saw on a cooking show or read about in a magazine. Recipes don’t always tell us what else we can do with the special ingredients once we’ve used it for that dish. So we stuff the bag of quinoa in the cupboard and forget about it. We all lead busy lives and most of us don’t have time to take inventory of our pantries on a regular basis. We find that quinoa again when we are hungry and short on choices.
I love to pantry cook. For me it’s a challenge, like those shows on TV where the chef gets a basket of weird ingredients and has to come up with something delicious in order not to get kicked off the show. I’m not one to cook with jelly beans or gummy bears, nor do I keep them in my pantry. I do, however, keep lots of different kinds of rice, grains, beans, and pastas. I will often take a protein out of my freezer (chicken, pork, beef, lamb, fish) and determine what it will become when it’s time to cook based on what I have available in my pantry. For example: last night I cooked up some leftover lamb steaks and a lonely piece of beef on the BBQ. I seasoned the meat with a spice blend that we received as a gift. There was some leftover rice in the refrigerator, so I cooked a small amount of green lentils and mixed them with the rice. I caramelized an onion to go with the lentils and rice to make the classic Egyptian dish: kushari. We didn’t have any lettuce for a salad, but we had a bunch of parsley and cilantro. I picked off all the leaves and made a salad with the herbs, some leftover condiments from dinner the night before, lemon juice, walnut oil and sesame seeds. I had dinner on the table in under an hour, I didn’t use any recipes, and the meal was delicious.
You might say, ‘but you are a chef, Pati, so you know how to create meals from your pantry’. I argue that anyone can do what I did if they know what is in their pantry and have basic cooking skills. OK, you may not know that the combination of lentils and rice with caramelized onion is one of Egypt’s national dishes, but you do know that beans and rice are staples most of us have on hand and can be combined and seasoned in countless ways. With pantry cooking, you will spend less money, save time, and eat better. Sure there are days when Bruce & I grab the takeout menus too, but they don’t happen too often. I’m sure that if we really tried, we could eat for an entire week just from the items in our pantry; I believe most people can do the same thing.
So go root around in your pantry and find something to make for dinner…..tonight….tomorrow night….next week…..soon. Let me know what you made via a comment on this post. I’d love to hear what you came up with. I’ve got to go now….time to do some rooting of my own. A presto!