Monday, June 18, 2018
Cooking

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 [email protected] or (727) 893-9596.

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