When I posted my love letter to cooking for one, my friend Misty asked an intriguing question: What foods/staples do you keep in your pantry to be able to make a variety of meals? Misty is an amazing person and a great lady to have a meal with and I should have known that a thoughtful question from her would quickly outgrow the comments section of this blog, and I would need to make it a full post! It was a hard decision, but I’ve narrowed it down to twenty items that I like to keep around.
This is my list—it caters to my tastes, meaning it lacks spices that you might use every day that wither away in my cupboard, but includes oddballs that I use often which you might never have heard of—see the inclusion of berebere and the decided lack of black pepper.
I’ll try to say a little about each item and how I use it, though I think some are self-explanatory and all are in no particular order. I’d love to hear from other people about what is essential to them! Leave links/answers in the comments below.
My Pantry Essentials:
1) Rice: Easy to make and very versatile. If I have rice for dinner one night I’ll probably end up with fried rice, congee (porridge) and onigiri (rice balls) in my future. A simple stir-fry over rice is one of the easiest and most forgiving meals to make for one, though if pressed, I’d have to admit I’ve made a number of meals simply from rice and hot sauce (see #2)!
2) Yank Sing’s Delightfully Hot Sauce: My life is not complete without this hot sauce. I just love it. As mentioned above, it can make a meal from rice. It can also fix botched flavors on any soup, stir-fry or even salad—a dollop in the dressing covers a myriad of sins, including the ‘maybe I left the lettuce a few days too long in the fridge’ one. Not that I’ve ever done that…
3) Chickpeas: I’ve always got a can around, whether I’m pureeing them for hummus, using with onions and parsley in a salad (add feta!) or making an amazing Tanzanian stew with tomatoes and coconut milk (#17). With the chickpeas already cooked, most meals that use them are ready in a matter of minutes.
4) Peanut Butter: Often employed to dress up dull fruits and veggies (apples, celery, etc.) I also use it to add oomph (defined here as calories, texture and flavor) to curries and stir-fries, or to make dipping sauces for, well, anything dip-able: just add soy sauce (#19), coconut milk (#17) and adjust to your taste/viscosity preference)
5) Canned Sardines or other seafood: Right now I’ve got sardines and smoked oysters, but mussels and clams are also out there. These seafoods are sustainable and shelf-stable so they are always around. Either eaten on crackers (maybe with mustard?) or added to a dish (dress up pasta sauce in seconds), they are savory and delicious. Alton Brown recommends a sandwich that, while it sounds ridiculous, I’ve been known to enjoy: Spread mashed avocado on bread, top with sardines from can, drizzle with olive oil and balsamic (or sherry!) vinegar, salt, pepper.
6) IQF Frozen Shrimp: I usually get the big bag from Costco because these suckers can go straight from the freezer to the frying pan and you can adjust the portion each time. Grab five shrimp, toss them in a stir-fry or just sizzle them in a little sauce to go over rice. If you’re feeling fancy you can boil them in water with a little butter in it, then cool them off and dip in a cocktail sauce (or peanut sauce from #4!)
7) Potatoes: I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone about the myriad of ways to use a potato, but I think my favorite meal for one is making them into curry.
8) Thai Curry Paste: Yeah, it’s pre-made, but whatever, it’s quick and easy and I can rub it on the shrimp before I fry them, add it to a curry or flavor a sauce with it. Very versatile. I use any of the ones in the big plastic tubs, usually the red flavor. The easiest curry I make is just this and coconut milk (#17) with
9) Garlic: Because I need my dishes to taste good! And it keeps for long periods of time in a cool, dark space with air around it.
10) Sesame oil: my most versatile oil, I use it in most of my salad dressings, to do all of my stir-frying with it and use to finish many of my dishes with a hit of flavor.
11) Butter: When making anything with a stew-y texture, be it stew or curry, I always start with butter for a little extra richness. Also, when finishing off a soup or dish that needs a little something extra, a butter pat is often that icing on the cake.
12) Lentils: Red lentils cook relatively quickly and can make for a great stew or easy soup. This is something I’ll make at the beginning of a week, spending 45 minutes prepping on a Sunday evening, then eat for breakfast and/or lunch for the rest of the week.
13) Berebere: There aren’t many spices on this list, because in general I use just garlic and salt and let my ingredients talk. But berebere is a unique spice mix from Ethiopia that I buy in large quantities from Ethiopian markets here in Seattle. I use it to add depth to those lentils in #12 or to season my shrimp (#6) or potatoes (#7). It has a hint of spice, but is mild enough for using as a major flavor component in most dishes.
14) Salt: Obvi.
15) Eggs: Aside from numerous egg based dishes that are great one person meals (omelets, scrambles, poach and serve over vegetables, fry and dip toast in), egg can provide the protein for a curry (either hard-boiled or scrambled), a stir-fry, fried rice, a simple soup (egg drop soup can come in a number of forms, from Chinese to Greek), or even a salad (hard-boiled).
16) Frozen Stock Cubes: I’m an ardent user of homemade stock. I keep cans of stock in the house just in case, but I almost always use homemade. I do this without devoting barely anytime: I make the stock once a year, using my parents’ and anyone else’s turkey carcass I can round up after Thanksgiving, let it boil away in big pots on my stove, then reduce it to a super rich, thick broth and freeze it into ice cube trays. When frozen, I transfer them to giant Ziploc bags and use them through out the year. I use this stock as the base to all my soups and stews and to add extra flavor to basically any dish—just add the cube and let the water evaporate, leaving the flavor.
17) Coconut Milk: So I mentioned the stew in #3 and dipping sauce in #4, but there are also the many Thai curries and various soups that this figures into. You can even make ice cream for it. Pretty much one of my favorite ingredients to add to something, with its unique texture and flavor. A hard one to substitute for!
18) Flour: With the eggs already mentioned, you can run away with this category: breading vegetables or meats, making pasta (a major staple around here), any sort of baking, etc. Whatever style you cook, having flour around will open up a million meals for you. One of the easiest recipes for a quick bread is scallion pancake: 2 cups of flour, .5 cup warm water, 2 scallions, chopped (or your filling of choice, I often change it up, using Sichuan peppercorns or garlic), salt and oil. Mix the most of the water and the flour (I do it in my KitchenAid), adding water until it is pliable and coming off the bowl, a little bit sticky. Cover with a wet towel for 30 minutes, then split into six pieces, rolling each out flat to a ten inch circle, brush with oil, add scallions, roll up like a cigar, then into a spiral, roll it out flat again. Griddle and serve.
19) Soy Sauce: Add to anything for salt with a punch. Great in marinades, dipping sauces, stir-fries, over rice, in a soup, basically great as long as it is hiding in the background. It gets overwhelming if you try to bring it to the front of a dish—I know people who can have rice just with soy sauce, but for me that’s a little much. Unless it is really good soy sauce, which is not the type I’m referring to for the pantry staple.
20) Tortillas: Either make a bunch from masa ahead of time or just buy a package. Freeze them in packs of ten. On their own, they aren’t the greatest, these previously frozen specimens, but when torn up and fried to a crisp you can’t tell the difference. Or mix in with your scrambled eggs and top with salsa, for a delicacy known as “Mexican Eggs” growing up in the Gastrognome household. Okay, by salsa I may sometimes mean ketchup. If you’ve got cheese around a quesadilla always pleases everyone!
A little side note: I know for lots of people what’s missing are ketchup, mustard and mayo. I rarely use these, but I do have a few mustards and Kewpie Japanese mayo. Kewpie and hot sauce is an amazing dipping sauce. If you do keep ketchup around and want the easiest stir-fry sauce ever, mix with soy sauce. It was a college staple of mine and another treasure from my mother (See Mexican Eggs in #20).
So there you have it: My 20 pantry essentials. What did I forget? What would you add?