What’s for dinner? The pantry special.

You’ve heard of the blue-plate special, right? In the early half of the 20th century, restaurants and diners across the country often advertised a daily blue-plate special – a bargain-priced meal or daily selection that promised a full belly for a song. My own leaner times have compelled me to create what I’ve come to refer to as “the pantry special.” It’s all about making do with what you have on hand. Creating a pantry special goes something like this: open pantry, scan shelves, grab a few ingredients, and whip them into something edible. This resourceful kind of cooking was second nature for our penny-pinching, Depression-era grandparents or parents, but if you know the secret, delicious pantry specials are within anyone’s reach.

The trick to pulling off the pantry special, especially with any kind of regularity, is a well-stocked pantry. And by well-stocked, I don’t necessarily mean over-flowing, but rather a pantry that’s been stocked with strategy. Whether you’re trying to stretch a limited food budget, or just save time in the kitchen, a smartly stocked pantry can afford more control over your food costs and provide more choices and flexibility when you’ve got to come up with a meal in a pinch.

Working for a nonprofit program that gives low-income families a hands-on education on preparing healthy, low-cost meals (Cooking Matters) taught me some invaluable lessons, such as how to save money at the supermarket (compare unit prices to find the best deal) and how to stretch ingredients across multiple meals.  Over time, particularly during periods when I was putting in long hours at the office and finding less time to cook, I also learned how to build a pantry that allows for making healthy—and relatively low-cost—meals in a snap.

Lots of folks, myself included, struggle with the “what’s for dinner?” question. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of feeling tired or uninspired. We all have those days when cooking feels like a dreaded chore, and yet a healthy, home-cooked meal can be so much more nourishing than fast food.  For many families today, especially in these tough economic times, it’s an ongoing challenge to put an affordable, let alone healthy, meal on the table night after night.  Whatever the case, your choice of pantry staples can make the difference, especially during times when money’s feeling tight or you’re behind on your grocery shopping.

My Pantry List

This photo includes many of my favorite pantry staples, such as olive oil, canned whole tomatoes, pasta, beans, and spices.  I stock up on these ingredients, especially when I find them on sale, because they offer a lot of versatility in terms of the variety of dishes they can make, and because the non-fresh items have a reasonably long shelf life.  The list below is by no means comprehensive, but it includes enough ingredients to provide a host of cooking options using what you have on hand.

Dry or Shelf-stable Ingredients

  • Beans:  canned (cannellini, black, pinto, garbanzo) or
    dried beans (cheaper).
  • Canned fish: tuna (best and most sustainable quality you can afford), salmon (ditto), anchovies.
  • Grains: brown and white rice, quinoa, pearl barley, couscous, whole wheat and unbleached white flour, grits, and oats (old-fashioned oats and Irish oatmeal).
  • Oils: Extra virgin olive oil, canola oil
  • Pasta: I try to keep a variety on hand, including linguine, Israeli couscous, orzo, and some type of shaped pasta, such as orrechiette, penne or cavatappi.
  • Spices and dried herbs: kosher salt, black pepper are must-haves. Additional favorites that go in a range of cuisines/dishes include: cumin, smoked paprika, thyme, cayenne pepper, cinnamon and red pepper flakes.
  • Tomatoes:  canned, whole plum tomatoes (best are the San Marzano variety of tomato), crushed tomatoes, and tomato paste.
  • Vinegar: I have several types, but find I use cider and white vinegar most often.

Fresh (perishable) Ingredients

  • Cheese: Parmesan and Romano can be pricey, but are less perishable than many other cheeses, if stored properly. Best to buy in chunk form. I wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and then store in a sealed zip-top bag.
  • Condiments: low-fat mayonnaise, dijon mustard, soy sauce, fish sauce, hot or chili sauce.
  • Eggs
  • Fruits: citrus, such as lemons and limes; olives, such as Greek Kalamata or Moroccan oil-cured.
  • Herbs: I like to grow my own basil (indoors near a window or outside when the weather allows) and will often keep Italian flat-leaf parsley on hand. I love cilantro, but you have to use it relatively quickly (or freeze). You can extend the shelf life of fresh herbs by rinsing, drying thoroughly, wrapping in paper towels and then storing in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
  • Lemons/limes
  • Vegetables: Obviously, some have longer shelf-lives than others, and the season will also determine some of what’s available. I tend to keep onions (yellow, shallots), garlic (whole), carrots, and potatoes (white and sweet) on hand. Cabbage keeps better than more delicate greens. Celery and beets also keep pretty well.

Frozen Ingredients

  • Vegetables: Sweet, green peas; baby white corn, edamame, spinach.

Creating a Pantry Special

One way to think about pantry specials is in terms of ingredient categories.  Mixing and matching items from the various categories below can provide quite a range of meal combinations.

  • Starch (potato, rice, pasta)
  • Fat (olive or canola oil, bacon fat)
  • Condiment (soy, fish or chili sauce; mayo; mustard)
  • Protein (beans, canned fish, cheese, eggs – or meat, if you have it)
  • Vegetable (what’s in season? what do you have on hand? what goes well with the other ingredients you’ve chosen?)
  • Aromatics (onion, garlic) and herbs or spices – these are your base flavors and will help add depth and flavor to your dish
  • Acid (lemon, lime, orange – zest or juice; vinegar) – often helps brighten or lighten a dish’s flavors.
  • Liquid: stock (vegetable, chicken), water, tomato juice, cider or apple juice.

Let’s see if this works.  Here’s one potential combination, if you choose items from several categories:

Potato (starch) + Olive oil (fat) + Dijon mustard (condiment) + Tuna (protein) + Green Beans (vegetable) + Salt/Pepper (aromatics) + Lemon Zest and White Vinegar (acid).

I’d probably make a Niçoise-style salad out of the ingredients. Dice and boil the potato, immediately tossing the hot, cooked potato with a vinaigrette made from the olive oil, mustard, lemon zest, vinegar and salt/pepper. While potatoes cook, blanch the green beans. Finally, I’d mix the vegetables together and top with flakes of tuna before serving. A hard-boiled, sliced egg and a few olives would be great on top too, if you have them.  Not too complicated, and it’s healthy, to boot!

I’ll share a few examples of my favorite pantry specials. These are more concepts than recipes, so it’s all about mixing and experimenting to come up with your own preferred flavors.

Linguine with Anchovies and Bread Crumbs (adapted from a Martha Stewart recipe): Cook linguine most of the way and drain, saving about 1/2 to 1 cup of cooking liquid. Set the pasta aside in a colander. In the same pot, briefly sauté minced garlic and several anchovies in olive oil, add some lemon zest and/or red pepper flakes. Add the reserved cooking liquid and pasta back to the pot, and cook for another minute or two to let pasta soak up sauce. Serve topped with dried breadcrumbs and grated Romano or Parmesan.

Hearty Tomato and Bean Stew: Sauté some minced garlic and finely diced onion in olive oil, along with dried herbs or spices of choice (thyme, smoky paprika); add 28oz can whole plum tomatoes with liquid, crushing the tomatoes with your hands as you put them in (careful, they squirt easily). Add some drained and rinsed cannellini (or garbanzo) beans, salt and pepper, and 1/2 to 1 cup water, and bring to boil. Simmer tomato mixture while you separately cook pasta (small shape, like farfalle or elbow) most of the way, removing a couple minutes early. Finish pasta in tomato liquid, adjust seasoning to taste, then serve. You can also add greens like spinach or kale during cooking, for more nutrition and flavor.

Tuscan Tuna and Beans:  Again, start with aromatics like onion and garlic.  For this dish, I mince shallot and garlic, and sauté in olive oil in a saucepan, along with some crushed red pepper flakes, a little dried thyme or sage, and some lemon zest. Rinse and drain a can of cannellini beans and add to pan, along with enough water or chicken stock to cover the beans by ½ inch.  Add salt and pepper (not too much, as beans will reduce), bring to a boil, and then simmer for 10-15 minutes. Toward end of cooking time, crush some of the beans using the back of a spoon, so they thicken the bean mixture.  Serve hot, topped with flakes of canned tuna (best quality you can afford) and some finely chopped raw onion. I usually squirt a little lemon juice over the tuna, and drizzle some olive oil on top too.

Making these dishes on a moment’s notice is possible if you keep your pantry well-stocked. Of course, you can (and I often do) supplement the basics with additional fresh and other ingredients, but if you start with the list shared above, you’ll have the building blocks to create a wide variety of your own pantry specials.


2 responses to “What’s for dinner? The pantry special.

  1. Susan Oakes-Hauf

    I need to get better at this, which is odd, since I keep most of these things on hand most of the time. I am a good but not imaginative cook. These are good, basic guidelines for exactly that purpose. I like it!. I DO need to try the San Marzano tomatoes too! 🙂

    • Glad to hear you think it’s helpful. Maybe you can report back on any new kitchen endeavors? As for San Marzanos, the brand in my picture is the best I’ve come across yet…grab that can, if you see it at Weggies!


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