Building a sustaining winter pantry isn’t about being a good cook, it’s about knowing what you like to eat.
What’s for dinner?! It’s the ever-present question that comes on after lunch, demands discussion, and threatens a 6:30-Indecision-Crisis-Run to Chipotle (I don’t judge). Coming up with the right formula to create meals that are nutritious, satisfying, and affordable every night can seem like a major burden, but don’t worry–you got this.
Think of your pantry as your own little grocery store. Each component needs to have a purpose, or it needs to git! In a grocery store, the purpose is generating revenue; in your pantry, it’s keeping your family from cannibalism. Just like in a grocery store where every square inch is prime real estate, a well-stocked pantry should focus on the essentials plus a few strategic accents. Get rid of that extra can of fiesta corn you keep pushing aside week after week. You’re clearly not a fiesta corn kind of person. Give it to FeedMore where they can find someone who is.
Building a sustaining winter pantry isn’t about being a good cook, it’s about knowing what you like to eat. Think about what you eat most often. If you draw a blank, (who can remember things?) look at your grocery and restaurant receipts from the past couple of weeks when you sit down to make your next shopping list.
I’m going to assume you already know that a typical pantry should include things like canned tomatoes, soy sauce, pasta, tortillas, and rice.1 A winter pantry is more than that: a winter pantry should make cooking convenient while building bold, soul-warming flavor. Ain’t nobody got time for a complicated 14-step braise on a Tuesday night, but that’s precisely what our exacting palates demand this time of year. Building your pantry is about knowing what you can do after a day of working and schlepping. A good winter pantry sets you up for success.
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Coconut Milk is a double agent, functioning equally well in sweet and savory applications from soup to bread pudding. Combine coconut milk and curry paste (another pantry staple that didn’t make the list but totally could have,) simmer with vegetables and the protein of your choice, and you’ve got Whatever Curry in about 20 minutes. Slow Cooker Coconut & Green Curry Pork delivers intoxicating smells to your house all day and a shredded pork masterpiece to your dinner table come supper.
Instant polenta might as well call itself “Instant Dinner” because that’s pretty much what we’re looking at here. Follow the insultingly simple package directions (boil! pour! whisk!) and you’ll find yourself swimming in a hot, bubbly bath of molten cornmeal. Where you take it next is your call, but you don’t need to do much to bring it on home to dinnertown. Crumble in cooked sausage, or stir in garlicky spinach, roasted red peppers, and a heavy handful of cheese. However you guild the polenta, you win.
BONUS: Polenta makes a rib-sticking, unexpected breakfast. Swirl in some fig jam and ricotta for a porridgy treat; or cut squares of leftover polenta from last night’s dinner, and fry them up in a little olive oil. Crispy polenta shapes make a great resting place for poached eggs.
These protein-rich little buggers can round out a few other ingredients to create a full meal. This hearty stew of sweet potatoes, kale, and chickpeas from Cookie and Kate is a totally decent way to end the day and can come together in under an hour.
BONUS: Kids tend to like garbanzo beans because of their size, which is ideal for pinching between wee digits. You can also do the red onion, parsley, olive oil trick on them to create a salad worthy of any potluck. Or, whirl them up with some lemon juice, water, and tahini to make your own hummus. E-ZAY.
Beer, beloved beer. Aside from being the most popular thing going these days, beer can also be handy in the pantry, so tell that to anyone giving you the side eye when you’re “stocking up.” A can of beer can add depth to chili, plump up store-bought sausages as a poaching liquid, and can be inserted (rather unceremoniously) into a chicken prior to roasting, to great reward. And if all else fails, you know, drink it. See Brooklyn Brew Shop for page after page of drool-worthy, beer-centric recipes, and get ready to make Homer Simpson noises out loud.
Canned clams are inexpensive and require a tiny amount of your precious pantry space. What they offer in return is an upgrade to family-beloved spaghetti. Shortly before breaking all of our hearts and going dormant, the Martha-centric blog Marthable, brought this Bucatini with Red Clam Sauce recipe into my life, and now all signs would suggest it will never leave. Also, with canned clams in your pantry, you’re that much closer to clam chowder. Think about it.
Lentils are technically pulses, a super healthy type of legume, which means EAT THEM because they’re dense with protein, fiber, minerals, and other things I’m pretty sure you need to survive. Lentils suck up whatever flavors you put around them and amplify them with an earthy depth. Take, for example, this Dinner Was Delicious recipe for Lentil Soup, whose ‘wow factor’ comes from a clever pan-roasted garlic technique. Also noteworthy: leftover lentils, dressed with a lemon vinaigrette, make a solid alternative to pasta salad that doesn’t get weird in packed lunches.
You can (and should) have all sorts of hidden weapons in the freezer–nuts, ginger,
firearms, bananas for smoothies. Among them, frozen peas should find a frosty home. You can easily freeze your own fresh peas when they’re in season, and/or buy them when they’re not!2 Frozen peas lend a much-needed springiness to risotto, soup, or omelets. Think of them as verdant little reminders that spring will come again. And bags of frozen peas are, like, scientifically engineered to be good for boo-boos.
Did you know that peanut butter on wheat bread is a complete protein? Well it is. Something something, science something–what that means is it’s a snack you can feel pretty good about. And while good ol’ PB&J might not be dinner worthy, per se, Chicken Satay, Peanut Soup, and Spring Rolls with Peanut Sauce most definitely ARE. Plus, peanut butter, sugar, and a single egg are all you need to make at least a few gluten-free peanut butter cookies.
Salt and pepper season our food, and they’re great at it, but to take dinner on a savory adventure you’re going to need to let spice be your guide. Spices that you buy for one recipe and never use again aren’t helping anyone (I’m looking at you, Mace). Look at the flavor profiles of your favorite dishes, and isolate which spices make them sing. Once you know which ones you love, combine them with some standards, and keep your go-to spice kit close at hand. Mine includes:
- chili powder
- bay leaves
- Hungarian paprika (keep walking, Polish paprika)
- fennel seed
- chili flake
- curry powder
- garam masala
Yes, yogurt lives in the fridge not in the pantry, but its relatively long shelf life gives it honorary pantry status. It’s an obvious breakfast with fruit and toasted almonds. Greek yogurt is only a few ingredients away (namely lemon juice and tahini) from being the best thing that ever happened to lunch’s ubiquitous chicken (or less ubiquitous falafel!) pita. It’s also a tenderizing marinade for pork tenderloin with a little paprika and crushed garlic. And most importantly, its the star player in a recipe that’s more of a revelation—Diane Kochilas’ Pasta with Yogurt and Caramelized Onions, a dirt cheap, 5-ingredient game changer that you’ll definitely make more than once.
Lentil soup photo by: Lucy Hewett
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