Pantries have a way of gathering odd ingredients–canned soups that you bought because they were on sale, half empty boxes of noodles, those little cans of mandarin oranges, a bag of Jaggery you bought one day when you were feeling particularly adventurous and now have no idea what to do with (that one is me!). You may have made a mad dash to the store before the hurricane or our freak Halloween snow storm and now you have shelves of soups you don’t really like or tinny-tasting canned vegetables that you don’t feel like cracking open.
But the pantry doesn’t have to be a dark and forbidding, food-oriented “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” it can actually save you a lot of time and money if you stock it right. So why not start the new year with a clean and freshly restocked pantry?
First the painful part: cleaning out and getting rid of all those moldering bags, boxes and cans. Believe me I know there may be a lot of guilty feelings involved in this procedure (a one pound bag of Jaggery? Really? What was I thinking? (That’s a type of lumpy Indian raw sugar in case you’re wondering).
• Start by removing everything so you can see what’s in there–you might even find some pleasant surprises, like some homemade jam a friend gave you during the summer.
• Toss anything past its expiration date, bags or boxes with rips or tears, dented cans. If it’s open and you know you won’t use it throw it out (but see below first!). If you bought it in bulk and really can’t remember when, toss it.
• Donate any unopened, unspoiled items.
• Wipe down all the shelves.
After doing this if you still have some random things that you can’t bring yourself to toss, or if you’re like me and constitutionally unable to throw out anything, no matter how small an amount is left, here are some ideas for using what you might have.
• If you find half empty boxes of random crackers or chips:
Make a quiche crust: crush the crackers or chips into crumbs, measure out one and a third cups and mix in a bowl with three tablespoons melted butter. Press into a nine inch pie tin to form a crust, bake in a 350° oven for ten minutes. Remove from oven and proceed with your favorite quiche recipe. This is also a great way to use leftover bits of cheese or miscellaneous vegetables you have in your fridge as well. You can do the same thing with random cookies and make a custard-filled pie.
•If you have canned beans of various types:
Make a three bean salad: In a large bowl mix three 15 ounce cans of beans, cannelloni, kidney, garbanzo, or any others you have, with two stalks of chopped celery, 1/2 a red onion and 1 cup fresh chopped parsley. Make a dressing of 1/3 cup cider vinegar, 1/4 olive oil, salt and pepper. Some people like to add a few tablespoons of sugar to cut the acidity. Toss with the beans and chill.
You can make a similar salad with white beans and canned tuna.
If you have various almost empty boxes of pasta. Cook them starting with what needs the most time and adding the smaller types accordingly. Refresh with cold water and make a pasta salad with chopped tomato, peppers, cubed fresh mozzarella, basil, oil and lemon juice or white vinegar. I did this when my kids were little and they got a big kick out of my “crazy mixed-up pasta.” Or you can undercook the pasta slightly and use it for with your favorite mac and cheese recipe.
If you have random dried fruit–raisins, dried apricots, cranberries–make rice pudding or bread pudding and throw them in. Oatmeal cookies taste great if you replace the raisins with cranberries, dried cherries or any fruit, chopped if necessary.
Muhammara is a great thing to make out of pantry items. If you have a jar of roasted red peppers and walnuts: In a food processor blend together a 7 oz jar of peppers, 2/3 cup bread crumbs, 1/3 walnuts, 2 or 3 garlic cloves, a tablespoon of lemon juice, 2 teaspoons of pomegranate molasses (if you’re are crazy like me and have it, or pomegranate juice if you don’t), one teaspoon cumin, 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, and salt to taste until the mixture is smooth. With the motor running gradually add 3/4 cup olive oil. This goes nicely with pita chips. You can also add a 14 ounce can of tomatoes and make a good sauce to serve with simply roasted or grilled chicken or lamb.
It might be a fun challenge to try and use as much of your pantry through the end of the first month of the year. You can Google “Eat from the Pantry” or “Cook from the Pantry” and you will find blogs devoted to doing just that, with lots of ideas and recipes. If you manage to clear it out, January is a great month to stock up on semi-perishables like flour, grains, dried beans, and mixes which generally last from 6 months to a year. That way, if you clean out twice a year you’ll be rotating your pantry without all the guesswork.
What you have in your pantry depends on what you usually cook. What I consider the basics are: white flour (and whole wheat if you bake), sugar, rice (I like brown and basmati or jasmine), olive oil, vegetable oil, chicken and beef stock in cartons (soup is so easy to make if you have stock on hand and it will cut down on the temptation to buy canned soup), tomatoes (in cartons, preferably), a variety of pasta shapes (I always have spaghetti, elbows, and rotini or penne), dried beans (much cheaper and better then canned), dried fruit, nuts (although its best to keep these in the freezer), red and white wine vinegar, dried mushrooms (like porcini or shiitake), spices and dried whole peppers, teas and coffee. I always have backups of things I use frequently like soy sauce, Dijon mustard, pickles, olives, tuna, roasted peppers, jam, and peanut butter.
And the next time you’re shopping before a snow storm in October, only buy things you would actually eat anyway. You’re better off buying fruits and veggies that you can store outside of the fridge for a week like apples, potatoes, yams, cucumbers, avocados, or tomatoes. Stop by a local Italian deli and get a few dry-cured salamis, pepperoni, or soprasatta–they’ll last for up to six weeks in the pantry.