By Lisa Golden Schroeder
With holiday cooking sneaking up on us, the food pages of my local paper and every cooking magazine that lands in my mailbox are urging me to break away from the bonds of tradition. There’s been so much about chefs in the news these days—their innovative twists on global cuisines and street foods, or foraging for wild or artisan ingredients. But while food editors enthusiastically encourage you to look for pink salt from the Himalayas or tropical fruits you can’t pronounce, I can tell you that most of us who work in the food biz cook for our families in much the same way you do (though I do have to say I love my bottle of recently purchased pomegranate molasses). And knowing that I’ll be deep into a steamy kitchen soon enough, whipping up holiday spreads to please each and every person at my table, I need to remind myself that the in-between times can be mini vacations from cooking stress. Don’t be seduced by the quest for exotic home cooking, thinking you need to fill your pantry with bottles of preserved lemons or vintage balsamic vinegar. There’s amazing potential in lots of ordinary ingredients that take the burden off the coming cooking marathon season. The secret to maintaining a smart, serviceable pantry is keeping versatile, affordable items on hand.
To get a jump-start on streamlining your pantry, check off what you’ve already got then head to the store.
- A good-quality olive oil (but you don’t have to break the bank)
- Red wine vinegar
- Kosher or coarse sea salt
- Peppercorns (in a grinder)
- Jarred mayo
- Tomato paste (buy in the can, then freezer dollops on waxed paper)
- Canned cooked beans
- Canned tomatoes, whole or diced
- Dried pastas—preferably with some whole-grain flour
- Fresh garlic and onions
- Selection of dried herbs or favorite blends (I love herbes de Provence, Montreal steak seasoning, and a salt-free garlic herb blend) + spices
- Capers or olives
- Maple syrup or honey
- Shredded Parmesan or other aged pungent cheese
In the words of a successful chef, great ingredients will always make a great product. And you can still make a great dish with simple ingredients—it’s what you do with them that matters. With a smart, simple pantry you can make quick and inexpensive dinners without much effort—start thinking of your pantry like your clothes closet. You want everything to mix and match, giving you much more than the just the sum of what lives on your shelves. If you’ve got chicken stashed in the freezer, then you can dream up lots of dinners in a dash—stovetop sautés, main dish salads, delicious pastas—without angst or a recipe. For example:
Skip the pre-made salad dressings; make a silky vinaigrette or a fresher creamy ranch-style dressing for a fraction of the cost, in the amount you need at the moment. Shake up 3 tablespoons vinegar, 1 tablespoon oil, a spoonful of mustard, a bit of dried herb, salt and freshly ground pepper to taste in a covered jar. Drizzle over some grilled chicken on a bed of baby greens. Or blend some mayo with chopped garlic and a little shredded Parmesan. Thin with milk or lemon juice, season with lots of ground pepper—and voila! You’ve got a nice dipping sauce for chicken tenders or a Caesar-style dressing (add some capers for a bit of brininess). Season up that basic mayo yourself, to your own taste.
Toss hot cooked pasta with sautéed or roasted chicken chunks, aromatic cheese, olives, and maybe some diced canned tomatoes (add your own dried herbs, rather than buying flavored tomatoes that limit how you’d use them). Pastas are terrific if you’ve got leftover roast chicken, with dinner only 10 minutes away with ingredients you’ve got on hand.
Sauté boneless chicken breasts or thighs in olive oil (add some garlic or onion if you’d like); stir in some vinegar and honey or maple syrup. The sweet-tangy glaze will just coat the chicken, absolutely delicious with a sliced pear or apple salad or roasted vegetables. Brush the same vinegar-honey mixture onto a whole bird during roasting.
Simmer up a quick stew with browned drumsticks, broth, tomatoes, onions, and dried herbs. Use some tomato paste to enrich the stew, then shred the meat off the bones and stir back into the pot with some canned beans. Serve over steamed rice or couscous. I’m thinking about a thick lentil soup tonight, brimming with chopped onion, carrot, celery, and tomatoes—finished with some chopped leftover chicken thighs that were rubbed with a smoky mesquite seasoning, with nary a recipe in sight.