Ever looked at the contents of your pantry and wondered:
"What am I going to do with all this?"
I am here to help.
The list below consists of things everyone should have in their pantry. With a few of these, you can make a decent meal on a budget. The first four items were usually part of the rations the food bank I worked at distributed to its clients.
While recipes will come in a later edition, after every few ingredients I will give an you an idea of what can be made with them.
My hope is that after a while you'll be able to see the possibilities on your own.
Please note that for the next list, anything you are allergic to, really don't like, or can't eat for religious reasons should be omitted.
As before, I have included a brief explanation where the listed item comes in many varieties, and an occasional image, in cases where you might not be sure what these items are.
There are a lot of varieties of canned tuna out there, some packed in water, some packed in broth, and others packed in soybean or olive oil. It also varies depending on the type of fish: skipjack, yellowfin, white, and even the way it is inside the can i.e. chunk, flake, whole filet. You can even get them in different flavors such as Thai chili or sundried tomato. It can get pretty confusing, but for the recipes I use, the plain chunk or flaked light tuna in water will do just fine.
Canned Diced or Crushed Tomatoes or Passata
Passata is that plain tomato sauce in bottles you sometimes find in the pasta section of the grocery store.
Pasta - I try to keep one long variety i.e. spaghetti or linguini, one short i.e. penne or macaroni, and one box of lasagna noodles, ideally the ones marked OVEN READY, in my pantry. When using the anything marked "oven ready" be sure to read and follow the directions on the box! Failure to do so will result in undercooked pasta!
With these three items, plus a lemon, some garlic, a little oil, and some hot sauce, and capers (if you have 'em) you have a meal. Simply cook the garlic in some oil (ideally Olive oil) until it's soft and shiny, dump in the chopped up outer skin of a lemon (called the zest), and then your drained tuna, cook for another 30 seconds each, and dump in your tomatoes and hot sauce. Toss with your cooked and drained pasta, and some of the water you cooked the pasta in (to help the sauce stick) et voila!
You've got a meal that's cheap and easy!
This is a type of pasta made by rolling semolina paste (the same stuff other pasta is made of) into little balls. It is a great ingredient if you want a starch with your meal and are strapped for time, or just feeling really lazy. All you need to do to prep it is put 1 cup of couscous in a bowl with the same amount of boiling water, and a little and butter (if desired), cover it with plastic wrap or a plate and walk away for 5 minutes or so. When you return, you'll have carbs you can eat as is, or mixed, underneath, or beside other foods.
Rice - There are tons of varieties out there with varying shapes and sizes, fiber content, and starch levels. There are even instant varieties. NEVER EVER BUY INSTANT RICE! INSTANT RICE IS FOR LOSERS! THIS STUFF HAS HAD ALL THE NUTRIENTS PARBOILED OUT OF IT AND HAS THE TASTE AND TEXTURE OF RUBBER WHEN READY! My go-to variety is the white jasmine scented stuff that usually comes in a straw bag, but you can use just about any variety for the recipes I will provide you with. The only thing that will change depending on the type of rice you use will be the amount of liquid and time you use to cook it. Brown rice will need more liquid than white because of the bran, and will probably require a little more time. Unless you are making risotto (an Italian rice porridge - usually savory), the standard ratio for making rice is 1 to 1 and a 1/2 cups of liquid (water or broth) to 1 cup of rice. The rice is ready when it is tender but not mushy.
While rice is a great side dish, it can also be made into a meal by stir frying it in a little oil with garlic, a couple of eggs, some cooked veggies, and your protein of choice. Add soya sauce and/or hot sauce for colour and flavor and presto! You have fried rice!
Another option is to cook it in a pot with a little butter, and then dump in a bunch of stock (chicken or beef) and cooking wine, stirring constantly until it's mushy but still holding its shape. Once its reached that point, add a little parmesan cheese, and a protein or vegetable you've cooked in a little butter, and you've got risotto!
Tomato Paste - any variety will do - this stuff is great for making tomato sauce for pizza or pasta in a pinch, or thickening up a pasta sauce.
This is good for salad dressings, for roasting things, poaching seafood and fish in, as a vegetable oil or butter substitute in strongly flavored cakes, or just to dip bread in if you want something rich without the unhealthy aspects of butter. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO DEEP FRY ANYTHING IN THIS OIL! Olive oil, while healthy and delicious, has a low smoking point, and will thus BURN anything you try to fry in it!
Canola Oil - This is also often called "Salad Oil" as it can be used in salad dressings. Unlike Olive Oil, it is relatively flavorless, and unlike Olive Oil it has a high smoking point and therefore can be used to deep fry if you wish. You can also use Vegetable Oil, Crisco, safflower oil, or even peanut oil. Due to its lack of flavour, I wouldn't recommend dipping bread in it.
Chicken or Vegetable Broth or Stock
This is an ingredient you can make yourself with time and patience... but if you're like me and don't have any, these are great, and interchangeable in any recipe for soups or sauces, or as a cooking liquid for rice or vegetables. Though they come in liquid form in cans or cartons, you can also buy stock "cubes" or powder, which consist of compressed or dried stock flavorings, and dissolve them in the desired amount of water. If you have a carrot allergy, read the label carefully, as ready-made broths often contain carrots. Can't have salt? No problem! A lot of brands now come in sodium- reduced varieties.
Beef Broth or Stock
Like Chicken and Veggie broth, this is an ingredient you can make yourself with time and patience. The base for it is usually beef bones, roasted for a bit, and then boiled in a ton of water. It's a great base for soups, gravies, and pasta sauces, and works well as a cooking liquid. The flavor is a bit stronger and richer than chicken or vegetable broth, which is why beef broth is not interchangeable with them. Like the other two broths, you can get it in cartons or cans, or in powdered or cube form. You can even buy liquid concentrate.
Vinegar - Vinegars come in a myriad of types i.e. White, Red Wine, White Wine, Cider, Balsamic, Aged Balsamic etc. That being said, plain white vinegar will usually do the job in most recipes, as it's an acidic blank canvas that can be easily flavored. If you want fancy and slightly less acidic, try balsamic vinegar, which is great for sweet and savory things, but it can be quite expensive and not as versatile as the plain stuff. Please note that if you have stomach trouble, skip the vinegar altogether, as the acid can worsen your condition.
Flour - All purpose will do. If you want to make something a notch healthier, you can always use a little whole wheat flour, but NEVER SUBSTITUTE ALL WHOLE WHEAT FOR ALL ALL-PURPOSE as that will make the finished product tough, hard and chewy. According to Chef Bailey, if you're using whole wheat flour, the ideal ratio is 60% white flour to 40% whole wheat.
Soy sauce - If you're salt-sensitive, a lot of companies make a low sodium variety you can find in the Asian sauces section of the grocery store.
I like Sriracha, a Thai chili sauce or Sambal Oelek, a Thai chili garlic paste, but Tabasco, Frank's Red Hot, or a local variety will do fine. Even if you don't like or can't eat spicy food, a tiny bit adds a world of flavor due to its other ingredients, and it's a good thing to have for guests.
Pricey but versatile, this is an ingredient you can make at home if you have time, money, and a food processor. Making your own is a good idea if you have a nut or dairy allergy as most of the varieties in store have one, the other, or both. I will include a recipe later on. If you buy ready-made, the ones in the produce section of the grocery store are the best. These varieties need to be kept in the fridge, but pesto is in this section because a jarred, room temperature variety will do. Be sure to transfer to the fridge once the jar is open, and remember: a little goes a long way.
Add pesto to scrambled eggs while they're cooking and you've got green eggs! Put some pork on the side and you've got green and eggs and ham! Hell, add some of that nasty canned meat, and you've got green eggs and spam!
Coat some chicken in some pesto and either grill, roast, or cook in a pan, and you've got something tasty to go over salad, or pasta, or on a plate with a tasty side.
Salsa - There are tons of varieties out there with varying levels of heat, flavor, chunkiness, base ingredients i.e. red tomato, green tomato or salsa verde, mango, pineapple etc., and even method of preparation i.e. roasted ingredients vs. stewed or chopped. Salsa is an ingredient and dip you can make yourself with time and a little patience. However not all of us have time and patience, so a jarred or bottled variety is fine, just try to avoid a brand that's too watery. You may need to taste-test a few until you find one you like. Once the jar is opened, you need to switch it to the fridge or it will get moldy.
Toss some salsa with some eggs while they're cooking and you instantly have huevos rancheros (Mexican style eggs).
Coat some chicken in it, top with some cheese, corn chips, and more salsa and cheese, and put in the oven, and in about an hour or so you have something tasty even kids will eat!
Mustard - Another ingredient that comes in tons of varieties, the type or types you keep depends on what you plan to make. For BBQ sauces, and even savory pies, the bright yellow stuff works fine. For fancy things like salad dressings, gourmet burgers, and marinades, you'll want something with a bit of bite and/or texture, like grainy or Dijon mustard. This is another ingredient you can make yourself if you're bored. All it takes is mustard powder or seeds, and a vinegar, along with a mortar and pestle or food processor.
Ketchup or Chili Sauce
The latter is not to be mistaken for hot sauce. It's actually sweet in flavor. Mix either with some cooked ground beef, an onion and bell pepper fried in oil, and a little hot sauce, chili powder (optional), salt and pepper and you have sloppy joe meat.
Salt - Regular table salt will do the job despite the fact that many cookbooks call for Kosher or sea salt.
Pepper - Fresh peppercorns ground in a pepper mill (that doohickey you put peppercorns in and then turn the top to produce pepper - see the previous entry) produces the best results, but you can use the powdered stuff if necessary.
Sugar, Honey, or Sweetener of Choice - Beware of amounts when using one of these ingredients, as some, like sugar substitutes like Splenda, are sweeter than others. You may need to increase or reduce the amount in a recipe, depending on what sweetener you decide to use.
Dried Basil or Oregano - I know they're different herbs, but either one will do the job in many recipes.
This is a spice blend that consists of stuff like cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper, and garlic powder. It adds great flavour to chillies, sloppy joes, salsas, southwestern style soups and stews, homemade BBQ sauce, and even things like home fries and grilled or roasted veggies.
This is also a spice blend. It usually comes in either mild or hot varieties, and imparts South Asian i.e. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and/or Caribbean flavors to just about anything.
Cinnamon - A spice that adds a perfumed sweetness to anything, be it sweet or savory.
These are extremely versatile. You can use them as the base for stuffing, to bread meats with the help of an egg and some flour, or to add some starch and substance to meatballs and meatloaf. Breadcrumbs come in three varieties: plain, flavored, and panko, the Japanese variety made famous for its lightness and crispiness when baked or deep fried. I generally like the Italian flavored one, but it does contain cheese, so if you're Kosher or lactose intolerant, you may get more mileage out of a plain variety.
Peanut Butter - Any smooth variety will do the job, but bear in mind that they vary in thickness, chunkiness, sweetness, and saltiness. You may need to adjust your recipe accordingly. Peanut butter is great in sweet and savory dishes, as a frosting for cupcakes, or as a base for an Asian style dipping sauces and marinades. It should go without saying that if you're allergic, don't keep it in your kitchen!
But not necessary
Potatoes - These are healthy and delicious, but they don't keep as long as other starches, and therefore are not necessary.
Corn Starch - Good for thickening things, and sealing in the juice and marinade for meats before stir frying.
Apple Sauce - Can be used as a thickener, a sauce, a butter substitute in cakes, brownies, and muffins, and as the filling for apple pies and crumbles in a pinch. This needs to be switched to the fridge after it is opened.
Jam - For marinades, salad dressings, and desserts. Raspberry, apricot, and citrus marmalades are popular choices.
Paprika - Made from dried, ground bell peppers, it adds colour and flavor to almost anything. It is very popular on chicken and potato things, devilled eggs, and in chilis. Simply toss some washed taters in some oil, salt, pepper, and this stuff and pop 'em in the oven for between 15 and 40 minutes, depending on how thinly you cut 'em, and you've got a tasty snack or side dish.
I use this stuff as part of the liquid base, along with canned tomatoes, for curries, as well as for making Chinese steamed buns. I imagine it is also good for making desserts. If you have no interest in making any of these things, you don`t need the coconut milk.
Vanilla Extract - This is useful for sweet and savory things, but it's most commonly used to perfume pancakes, cakes, cookies, and other baked goodies. You should only keep this if you plan to do any baking.
Baking Powder and Baking Soda
These are useful if you plan to bake cakes, muffins, or cookies, or make pancakes from scratch. I have also known people to add it to potato pancakes to make them fluffier, and things like bean dishes to reduce the flatulence resulting from consumption... But where's the fun in that? If you don't plan to make any of these things, and like re-enacting the campfire scene from Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles every once in a while, you don't need the baking powder or baking soda.
Chocolate - This a great ingredient and while it's typically used in sweet dishes, I've heard it does ok in savoury ones, too. Great on its own, you can use this in almost any sweets, baked or otherwise, as a main ingredient, topping, or dip. There are tons of varieties out there with varying levels of cocoa or darkness, sweetness, and what it is supposed to be used for i.e. baking, melting, modeling, regular. Baking varieties are often inedible as is, and thus, I like to use the stuff you can eat on its own. The darkness of the chocolate is entirely up to you, but snobs prefer dark and will often be able to name a cocoa percentage as their favored type. I will say that using dark chocolate makes a dish seem classier. Milk chocolate is kids stuff...
But I like it just the same.
This a Chinese sauce you used to only be able to find in Asian markets and restaurants, but is becoming more common, and can now be found in most of the Asian foods sections of major grocery stores. It has a sweet, sticky, spicy-without-being-hot flavor to it, and it's great as a marinade, in soups, stir fries or as a stewing sauce, and as an additive to other marinades. I swear by this stuff as a key ingredient in my marinades and sauces. If you decide to keep this stuff but are put off by the sweetness, you can always cut it with a little soya sauce or water.
Red Cooking Wine - This is good for adding colour and a rich flavour to steak sauces, pasta sauces, and in risotto. It is also good as a liquid for stewing and braising tough cuts of meat, like stewing beef or brisket. If you're not sure what constitutes cooking wine, just remember that any cheap red will do the job.
White Cooking Wine - This is good for adding wine's rich flavor to things like creamy pasta sauces, risotto, and seafood. Like red cooking wine, any cheap variety will do.
Cake or Brownie Mixes - Now I know some pros will balk at this suggestion, but if you want fresh dessert fast, and without much measuring, these boxed mixes are your friend. While they are loaded with artificial ingredients and are probably not the best for you, they have been tested by the food techies in factories, so they will always come out OK if you follow the directions on the box. If you want to make 'em look fancy, a later edition of this blog will coach you on how to do just that, so be sure to stay tuned!
Last but not least...
Before you go out and buy any of these items, check your pantry, you may already have them.
Next time I'll be tackling your fridge and freezer!
-Samantha R. Gold
Questions? Comments? Requests?
Bring it on!
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