Cooking From the Pantry

Monday Author: Susanne Skinner

pantry, cooking from the pantryI have a well-stocked (some might say over-stocked) kitchen.  In part this is due to my love of cooking, but it’s also my inability to resist a purchase.  Ingredients intrigue me.  Picking up a bag of dried porcini mushrooms or holding a bunch of fresh lemon grass just feels right.  I know it’s an addiction and you can judge me.  There are worse things.

Reading cookbooks and recipes is a thing.  Mine have bookmarked pages and notes.  Cooking blogs and recipe sites populate my favorites bar.   It’s the reason I have balsamic pear vinegar, red curry paste, Korean bean thread noodles and five kinds of salt.   All purchased with good intentions.

Last year I read an article about people like me.  Grocery shopping seduces us with tastes, textures and possibilities, igniting our imagination.  The next thing you know an impulse buy is in the shopping cart.  Instant gratification at the checkout often results in forgetting it’s in the pantry after it has been put away.  This is especially true if it’s waiting for inspiration to strike and also true if you’re me.

I saw myself in this article and wondered if the writer knew me—it was personal.  I had time on my hands and decided to meet this situation head on.  The first thing I did was go through the pantry and remove out-of-date products.  Thankfully there weren’t many and that effort led to an all-out inventory of the refrigerator and freezer.

I found renewed inspiration to change up our meals and a lot of ingredients that needed to be used.  My pantry reflects a broad range of cuisines with a lot of possibilities.  The one thing I could not do was purchase ingredients to go with the ingredients; it’s the reason I ended up here in the first place.

cook with what you haveUse What You’ve Got

Now there’s an original idea.  Unfortunately it wasn’t mine—it was the magazine article encouraging me to prepare meals with what was on hand.   It was a throw down from the author—daring me to do this without purchasing a single item.   I knew I could do it; the challenge lay in creating interesting combinations from existing stock.  There was a lot of existing stock.

I was up for it.  I even bragged about it during the morning walk.  “I’m cooking to the pantry,” I boldly announced to my friends at 5:45 in the morning.  They thought it was a fine idea.  That’s why we’re friends.

I inventoried shelf-stable items; then moved to the perishables and freezer.  The pantry offered lentils, brown basmati rice, and a lot of dried pasta. Ingredients partially used, then left to fend for themselves.  Shrimp, blueberries, buttermilk, chicken, fresh spinach past the salad stage; all waiting for inspiration.   My goal was a week of recipes without setting foot in the store.  My noble intentions and I produced interesting and eclectic results.

Pasta al la Vodka is something I order in restaurants but a box of penne pasta, leftover heavy cream and a bumper crop of basil led me to this amazing and easy dish.  This is where I admit that alcohol is also a pantry staple.

Brown rice and chicken stock baked in the oven will give you the easiest rice you’ve ever made—and this is the recipe that will take you there.  Alton Brown’s Baked Brown Rice turns out perfectly every time I make it.  I served it with this unusual Blueberry Chicken.  Don’t let the combination of flavors scare you.  It’s a delicious way to use apricot jam and blueberries.

Paul Prudhomme’s BBQ Shrimp is simply amazing.  If you have shrimp, this recipe is crying out to be made.  You can use half the butter and it’s still delicious.  We serve it in big bowls with Overnight Artisan Bread.  Four ingredients if you count the water, and it never ever fails.  Dip it in the sauce—you won’t be sorry.

Rice and Lentil Pilaf is a favorite Weight Watchers vegetarian recipe, and the lentils were leftovers from a fall Girls’ Night In project.  It gave the spinach a home, along with some dried cranberries and a jalapeno from the garden.  The jalapeno was not in the recipe but invited to join the party.

An internet purchase of flaked sea salt resulted in this wonderful Lemon Rosemary Sea Salt.  I was buying vanilla beans when the web site suggested that if I liked those, I might also like this.  It’s how the internet says I love you.  I have no shame—it’s who I am.

I put it in the pantry and suggested it make friends with the other salt residents, and it remained there for almost a year.    When I found this recipe, I combined it with fresh rosemary from the garden and lemon zest.  A family favorite was born.

Baking to the Pantry

Baking ingredients are never in short supply at Casa Caron.  Flours live side by side with flavorings, sugars and chocolate.  I am a chocolate hoarder, and I’m including cocoa in this revelation because I have at least four varieties.   It’s like shoes—there’s more than one color in each color, if you know what I mean.

Whip itIf you’ve ever wondered who buys vital wheat gluten and rice flour, the answer is me.   Crystallized ginger, meringue powder, and vanilla beans?  It’s me.  I look at these things and see endless possibilities.   I never throw out a used vanilla bean—I stick it in a canister of sugar, infusing that wonderful scent and flavor. Then I bake with it.

A dessert Crumble was created from over-ripe pears and an apple left behind by a visiting child and a can of pumpkin that was approaching end of life was reborn in Paul’s Pumpkin Bars.    As a serious bread baker, my sour dough starter needs to be fed and used on a regular basis.  Marcy Goldman’s French Country Bread is just the thing. When the weather turns colder a hot oven does not offend anyone in our non-air conditioned house.

I use my starter in place of hers and for the rest of the week I have the best sandwiches ever.  When the bread gets a little dry, toast it and put this cinnamon honey butter on it.   Or you can just eat it with a spoon and pray for redemption.

My final effort was marrying crystallized ginger to dried apricots and the last of the buttermilk for Sunday breakfast scones.   All of these ingredients lived here and became something delicious with a little imagination and recipe research.

A New Good Habit

This simple practice makes me feel good about myself.  It’s become a monthly exercise that prevents items from falling off the ingredients grid and is an honest effort to use what I buy.  My family reaped the benefits and I created good food without making a single purchase.

Take the challenge.  What’s in your pantry?

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