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Scour pantry for building blocks of simple meals

The beginning of the year is the time for assessing all kinds of things: our weight, our health, our relationships, our finances.

Finances would include the amount of money dished out for groceries, and judging from my pantry, the lion's share was spent in there. Every so often, though not often enough, I assess what's on the shelves and figure out ways to get the bounty into our meals. A quick look last week revealed canned tuna, tomatoes and beans; boxes of pasta, grits and couscous; rice; a tube of polenta; multiple bottles of salad dressing and marinade, and even packets of seasoning for tacos and slow-cooker dishes. What was the original plan for the Marshmallow Fluff and jumbo shells? I can't remember, but the shelf-stable stuff needs to be used if for no other reason than to make room for more.

The freezer held promise, too. In the icy depths were treasures to be unearthed, or at least thawed and cooked. Bags and boxes of frozen veggies, and even chicken, pork and sausage can be put to good use.

I am no food hoarder with a garage full of paper towels, granola bars and powdered drink mixes, but I often take advantage of buy-one-get-one-free offers on such items as pasta sauces, canned tomatoes, olive oil, salad dressings, tuna, mayonnaise, bacon, frozen meatballs and butter. I have to stop myself sometimes, knowing I already have three jars of pasta sauce in the pantry and that the BOGO deal on that feature comes around frequently.

To save on groceries and to use up my stores, I took inventory last week of what I had and came up with five recipes to match, enough to get us through the workweek. (The recipes accompany this story.) My plan required a stop at the store to pick up vegetables and other perishables, but the weekly bill was much less.

The five recipes didn't nearly get to everything in the pantry, so I made a list of what I can make in coming weeks. Hopefully, it will be helpful for you as you scour your cabinets and freezer for the building blocks of dinner.

Canned tuna

The wolverines like tuna, so that leads me to tuna melts (in a skillet or under the broiler as an open-face treat) or tuna noodle casserole, which uses up a box of bow-tie pasta. I prepare a simple version by making a sauce from two small tubs of Alouette or Boursin cheese with herbs, loosened with some of the hot pasta water. Mix cooked pasta into sauce, then add two cans of drained tuna and a handful of peas and heat through. Simple, and my people love it. Plus, there are always leftovers to take for lunch.

Salad dressing

Vinaigrettes make great marinades for flank or skirt steak, plus you can brush them on vegetables or seafood headed for the grill. The lineup of bottles in the pantry also reminds me that we can have a big salad for dinner, chock full of vegetables and topped with grilled protein.

Bisquick

I am not sure why I have a box of Bisquick, but luckily I did a fine job of sealing it so that the baking mix is not infested with creepy-crawlies as sometimes happens. (The use-by date is still good.) So we can have breakfast for dinner, starring pancakes garnished with toasted pecans and blueberries. Or I can use it to make a topping for a crowd-size chicken pot pie, which also incorporates some of my frozen vegetables, or use it to make dumplings in a hearty chicken soup (chicken broth, rotisserie chicken and veggies). Lots of recipes at bettycrocker.com.

Frozen spinach

The uses for chopped frozen spinach are nearly endless, so we have plenty of "Florentined" meals at our house. From omelets to quiches, soups to baked dips, frozen spinach brings the nutrition and flavor. It can also be used in lasagna, casseroles, frittatas, pizza and stuffed shells (ah, that's how I can use those jumbos!). Thaw and squeeze out as much water as you can before using, otherwise your finished dish will be runny.

Canned beans

I make a simple soup of chicken broth, white beans, sliced sausage and fresh spinach to rousing reviews at the table. A salad, some bread and the meal's complete. There's enough flavor from the broth and sausage that I don't even need to season it. Occasionally I toss in a can of diced, seasoned tomatoes (or even stewed tomatoes). There are so many varieties of beans — I like kidney, too — that can add flavor and bulk to soups, stews and chili. For vegetarians, beans are a source of protein. White beans and garbanzos can also be pureed with olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs for dips.

Canned tomatoes

At my house, two cans of fire-roasted tomatoes become a creamy soup by heating with a bit of broth and half-and-half or condensed milk, then pureeing. If I have fresh basil, I chop and garnish with ribbons before serving. A home cook should never be without cans of diced tomatoes, which can augment soups, stews and chili but are also excellent for pasta sauces and meatloaf. I brown boneless, skinless chicken thighs then let them simmer in a can of seasoned diced tomatoes. Once the chicken gets tender, I serve it over egg noodles.

Rice and couscous

Always tasty as sides (make the rice Spanish-style by adding a can of diced tomatoes and some minced garlic), they are also solid bases for cold salads. Couscous is an amiable partner with mint, cucumber, diced tomatoes and feta cheese dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. Add a can of garbanzo beans to use another pantry staple. I serve this salad with grilled meats, and it's also a welcome potluck offering. Rice — white or brown — is quite versatile as a salad component. I've made a curried rice salad mixed with diced Granny Smith apples and toasted almonds dressed with curry powder mixed with mayonnaise. A squeeze of fresh lemon brings all the flavors together. (This also helps put a dent in my spice shelf.)

Frozen fruit

A bag of cranberries, one of peaches and another of mixed fruit stares at me in the fridge door each time I open it. I know they all last in there, but not forever. I can use that Bisquick to make a topping for cobbler, and the frozen fruit (not cranberries) is delicious in smoothies. Because the fruit is frozen, I won't even need ice. Rather than wait for another holiday season, I'll use the cranberries in muffins and cookies. Why wait until November?

Spaghetti sauce

Meatball-mozzarella subs draped with pasta sauce is an easy way to use up a jar in the pantry. But a jar of pasta sauce can do so much more: Stir a spoonful or two into polenta or grits; spread on bread for grilled cheese sandwiches; use as a simmer sauce for fish; dump into stew; offer as a dipping sauce for breadsticks, or add to slow cooker brisket. You can also make the colorfully named "eggs in purgatory" by simmering 1 cup pasta sauce in a small skillet then cracking in 2 eggs. Cover and cook until the whites set, then top with freshly ground pepper and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-9596.

>>MODERATE

Baked Chicken With White Beans and Tomatoes

6 bacon slices (¼ pound total), cut into 1-inch pieces

4 large chicken thighs with skin and bone, about 1 ½ pounds total

Salt and pepper

2 medium onions, chopped

1 (14- to 16-ounce) can stewed tomatoes including juice

2 (15 to 16 ounces each) cans small white beans, rinsed and drained

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook bacon in a 10-inch heavy ovenproof skillet over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until browned and crisp, about 8 minutes. Transfer bacon with a slotted spoon to paper towels to drain, reserving fat in skillet.

While bacon is browning, pat chicken dry and season with ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper. Brown chicken in fat in skillet over moderately high heat, turning over once, about 8 minutes total, then transfer chicken with tongs to paper towels to drain.

Pour off all but 3 tablespoons fat from skillet and reduce heat to moderate. Cook onions in skillet with 1/4 teaspoon salt, stirring and scraping up any brown bits, until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Stir tomatoes and juice into onions and boil, uncovered, 3 minutes, to concentrate juices slightly. Stir in bacon and beans and bring to a simmer. Nestle chicken, skin side up, in beans and bake, uncovered, until chicken is cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes.

Note: If you don't have an ovenproof skillet, after simmering bean mixture, transfer it to a shallow 2- to 3-quart baking dish, then add chicken and bake as above.

Serves 4.

Source: Epicurious.com

>>EASY

Black Bean and Corn Frittata

6 eggs

Kosher or sea salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Dash ground chipotle chile pepper (optional)

½ cup canned black beans, drained and rinsed

½ cup fresh, canned, or frozen corn, rinsed if canned and thawed if frozen

½ cup chopped scallions

½ cup shredded melting cheese (smoked cheddar, Monterey Jack, and mozzarella all make good choices)

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Salsa, for serving (optional)

Sour cream, for serving (optional)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees with a rack in the upper third. Whisk eggs together in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper and chipotle pepper, if using. Add beans, corn, scallions, and half the cheese and mix well to combine.

Preheat a medium (10-inch) cast-iron or other oven-safe skillet over medium to medium-high heat. Once the skillet is hot, add the butter and swirl to coat the entire pan. Add the egg mixture and cook for a couple minutes, until the outer edge is set. While the egg is cooking, sprinkle the other half of the cheese over the top of the egg mixture.

Transfer the skillet to the preheated oven. Bake until frittata is set in the center and the top is slightly browned, about 10 to 20 minutes, depending on how long you let the frittata cook on the stove and how browned you want the top of the frittata to be. After removing the frittata from the oven, run a rubber spatula around the edge of the pan to loosen it. Allow to rest for a few minutes, then transfer to a cutting board, slice into wedges and serve, topping with salsa and sour cream if desired.

Serves 2 to 4.

Source: lainesrecipebox.blogspot.com

>>EASY

Spinach Orzo Soup With Tangy Tomatoes

7 cups vegetable or chicken broth

1 ½ cups orzo

2 boxes chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed to remove excess water

1 (14-ounce) can fire-roasted diced tomatoes, well drained

1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 eggs, slightly beaten

Coarse salt

Grated Parmesan cheese

Bring the broth to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the orzo and cook until just tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in the chopped spinach, reduce heat to keep soup warm.

In the meantime, heat the tomatoes, red pepper flakes and a splash of extra virgin olive oil in a separate saucepan. Taste, and season with salt more if needed.

Just before serving, slowly pour the beaten egg into the hot soup, stirring quickly with a whisk. (Stirring will result in ragged looking eggs rather than scrambled.) Taste for seasoning again. Ladle into individual bowls and top each serving with spoonful of tomatoes, a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of cheese.

Serves 4 to 6.

Source: Janet K. Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

>>MODERATE

Smothered Pork Chops

With Onions and Cheddar Grits

For the grits:

2 cups water

cup uncooked quick-cooking grits

¼ cup (1 ounce) preshredded sharp cheddar

½ teaspoon salt, divided

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

Dash of ground red pepper

For the pork chops:

4 (4-ounce) boneless center-cut loin pork chops

½ teaspoon garlic powder

teaspoon black pepper

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons butter

1 cup chopped onion

½ cup fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth

¼ cup water

Bring water to a boil; stir in grits. Reduce heat, and cook 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Remove from heat. Stir in cheese, ¼ teaspoon salt, ⅛ teaspoon garlic powder, and red pepper.

While grits cook, sprinkle pork with ¼ teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon garlic powder, and black pepper. Dredge in flour. Melt butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pork and onion; sauté 6 minutes, turning pork over after 3 minutes. Add broth and water; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 4 minutes. Serve with grits.

Serves 4.

Source: Cooking Light

>>EASY

Creamy Parmesan Polenta With Shrimp

1 (16-ounce) tube of polenta, cut into ½-inch dice (see note)

1 cup fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth

¼ cup (1 ounce) grated fresh Parmesan cheese

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

2 teaspoons olive oil

2 cups cherry tomatoes

3 garlic cloves, minced

¼ cup dry white wine

1 pound peeled and deveined medium shrimp

Chopped fresh parsley (optional)

Combine polenta and broth in a medium saucepan over medium heat; cook 5 minutes or until smooth and hot, stirring with a whisk. Remove from heat; stir in cheese and pepper.

Heat olive oil in a large nonstick skillet. Add tomatoes and garlic; cook over medium-high heat 2 minutes. Add wine; cover and cook 2 minutes. Uncover; add shrimp and cook 3 minutes or until most of liquid has evaporated. Spoon ¾ cup polenta into each of 4 bowls; top with ½ cup tomato mixture. Sprinkle with parsley.

Note: You can also make polenta from scratch or substitute grits.

Serves 4.

Source: Janet K. Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

Scour pantry for building blocks of simple meals 01/22/13 [Last modified: Monday, January 21, 2013 5:58pm]

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