Editor’s note: Today we are sharing a recent column from Kim O’Donnel’s Stay-Put Cooking series in LNP | LancasterOnline, a daily kitchen dispatch for everyone at home, social distancing. The column’s archive is available online for more daily tips and tricks.
Over the weekend, I received the following note from a reader:
I keep enough food on hand for a few days, but not a few weeks. How do I properly stock a pantry with things that won’t spoil and are healthy but at the same time not overreacting and contributing to the panic that I see going on?
I’m thinking about Friday, March 13, the day our executive editor announced that most of the staff would soon begin working from home. I packed my laptop and headed straight for the supermarket, feeling a heightened sense of urgency.
The scene inside the store was frenzied, with shoppers loading their carts, toilet paper notwithstanding. But that was nearly two weeks ago, an eternity in this pandemic-fueled age, and we’re not even close to being out of the quarantined woods. So if your cart from two weeks ago was loaded with short-term gratification in the form of chips and salsa (not that there’s anything wrong with that), it’s not too late to get your pantry in order. After all, this is a marathon.
So, in no particular order, here’s what I try to keep on hand during good times (and not so good) and what keeps me nimble in the kitchen. It’s not comprehensive, but should get you started. Use as a guide and create your own pantry list; in taking stock of our respective larders, we get up close with what and how we eat, and how we can sustain, especially during these uncertain times.
Dried legumes: Including lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and the list goes on because, as I confessed recently, beans are my desert island food. I find all kinds of ways to use them, from chili and soup to dips and spreads, refried for nachos; tossed with grains or pasta, topped with a fried egg.
Pasta: Of varying shapes and sizes, such as penne, spaghetti and elbows; for both planned dishes, such as mac & cheese and lasagna, and impromptu suppers using up what’s in the fridge.
Grains: Brown rice, quinoa, bulgur wheat, oats, cornmeal, for pilaf one night and repurposed into egg-fried rice the next, for quinoa breakfast porridge or a savory grain salad, oats for baking, cornmeal for hush puppies, cornbread, and dusting a sheet pan for pizza dough.
Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds are homemade granola fixins, but also lend crunch and heart-healthy fats for salads and grains.
Baking essentials: All-purpose flour, baking powder, baking soda, active dry yeast–for both savory and sweet projects, from pizza dough and cabbage pancakes to cookies and Bundt cakes.
Beans: I buy just two kinds of canned beans–black beans and garbanzos. The rest, in my opinion, are unappealingly soft. When I forget to soak beans, their canned counterparts are excellent stand-ins, especially at the end of a long day.
Whole tomatoes: Useful because you can cook them whole or you can blend them first and make a puree. They’re also unseasoned which means they’re blank canvases to make magic with.
Canned tuna, sardines and mackerel, plus a jar of anchovies: Tuna for sandwiches, sure, but also mixed with boiled potatoes and olives, or thrown into tomato sauce, or mixed with chickpeas. Sardines and mackerel are excellent companions for salted crackers or toast, a feast if you ask me.
Tomato paste: Look for the stuff in the tube which you squeeze like toothpaste and lasts so much longer than the little cans that often go underused. Great for thickening pizza sauce on the fly or for adding just a smidge of tomato flavor to a pot of beans or soup.
White vinegar: It snaps up a sauce, it cleans the counters, it brines and pickles.
Strong mustard: For everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to tuna salad, hard pretzels to salad dressing.
Oil: Olive and neutral–one for flavor, one without, for both raw and cook preparation, from vinaigrette to frying an egg. Neutral examples include: safflower, sunflower, canola, grapeseed, or rice bran.
Tehina: The sesame-based paste that most people associate with hummus, tehina morphs into sauce that can be drizzled over vegetables either raw or cooked, or over rice, fish, or chicken.
Eggs: Hard-cooked, poached, or fried. Frittatas. Egg-fried rice. Toad in a hole! Baked in tomato sauce, shakshuka style.
All-purpose aromatic staples: Onions, garlic, ginger root, and jalapeño pepper.
Refrigerated produce: Fresh herbs, like parsley and cilantro, when the backyard stash is unavailable, lemons, potatoes, greens kale, chard, or spinach, which can be eaten raw or cooked and even when looking scraggly can be pureed or thrown into a pot of soup.
Butter: Because you never know when you need to make cookies or have a piece of toast or coat a bowl of pasta. Not often, but essential.
Whole milk: That’s what I use for my morning coffee. I also use it to make buttermilk (1 tablespoon for 1 cup milk) for marinades and in cornbread.
In the freezer: Sliced bread, bread crumbs, cheese rinds, fruit, whole chicken and thighs, wild salmon, chicken carcass for stock, berries, corn, spinach, okra.
A Recipe for Eating Down the Fridge
After my first week of social distancing, I took inventory of the refrigerator to see what needed using up. This practice of eating down one’s pantry takes me back to 2009, when I organized an Eating Down the Fridge challenge on washingtonpost.com. At the time, it was a fun and enlightening exercise, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t feel like I do now, heeding the call of using up what I have on hand and stretching my pantry as much as possible during this uncertain time.
Cooking creatively without the option of food shopping on a whim takes practice. And we’ve all been there, staring at the inside of the fridge or the cabinets, failing to get inspired at the end of a long day. But there is something we can make with what we have on hand, and it’s called a frittata.
An Italian word for an egg skillet pie, a frittata is the perfect vehicle for the sundry vegetable doodads lingering in the vegetable crisper. In less trying times, this is what I make when the day has gotten away from me, assuming I’ve got four to six eggs, some semblance of an onion and a potato. That’s really all you need to get started.
Anything more is like frittata gold—the less-than-perfect spinach, the remnants of a sweet pepper, or some herbs that have seen better days. For the frittata pictured in the photo, I used a small handful of raggedy parsley, a small hunk of a yellow bell pepper, some overwintered kale from my garden, and an onion that was sprouting a green appendage. You get the idea.
Best of all, right now when our sense of time may be warped and dinner may be lunch or breakfast is being served at all hours, the frittata fits right in like an old friend.
Makes 4 hearty servings
- 1 medium potato, peeled and sliced into half moons (about 1 cup)
- 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 3 tablespoons oil or butter
- 1 medium onion, shallot or leek, finely chopped
- 6 large eggs
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- Possible add-on options: ½ red bell pepper, minced, handful of chopped spinach or chard, cherry tomatoes, chopped parsley
Place the sliced potato in a small saucepan and cover with water by a few inches. Add 1/4 teaspoon of the salt, cover and bring to a boil. Cook until the potatoes are fork-tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and transfer to a small bowl.
Heat a 10- or 12-inch cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Add the oil, tilting the pan to coat. Add the onion, turning with tongs until coated, and cook for about 5 minutes. It’s okay if the ends get a little crispy. Add the potatoes, turning frequently to encourage browning, and cook for an additional 3 to 4 minutes. Add any of the other vegetables, if using, turning until coated.
Crack the eggs into a medium bowl with the remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon salt and the pepper, and whisk with a fork. Reduce the heat under the skillet to medium-low. Pour the egg mixture into the skillet, tilting to evenly distribute, and cover. Increase the heat to medium and cook until the eggs are nearly set, 8 to 10 minutes.
Optional final step: Place the skillet under the broiler until the surface of the eggs puffs up and browns, about 1 minute.
Let cool for a few minutes. Cut the frittata into wedges and serve warm or at room temperature.