I love cooking through the contents of my pantry—creating a week's worth of meals with whatever's on hand, striving to enhance flavor, eliminate waste and avoid repetition. I love the challenge, which started in earnest when I worked at a food magazine. Several of my foodie colleagues and I confessed to each other how much we loved using up the contents of our respective pantries—the more random, the better. Condiments and rarely used spices become heroes. Hot sauce and a fried or poached egg make just about anything infinitely better. And recently, long grocery lines and empty market shelves have forced us all to think about maximizing the contents of what we have on hand. Here are my tips to help you work through your own pantry in these strange and isolating times.
A Food Writer’s Tips on How to Cook From Your Pantry
1. Use All The Beans
I’ve been a proud member of Rancho Gordo’s Bean Club for years now, and I always keep a healthy assortment on hand. Chances are you probably have a bag of beans in your cupboard too. This week, a pot of black beans will find their way into breakfast burritos, roasted sweet potato enchiladas and a bowl of polenta or rice.
2. Order Out A Star Ingredient
For my son’s birthday, he impossibly requested grilled octopus tacos. I called the Greek restaurant around the corner for takeout octopus, which came with cubes of feta and olives. I sprinkled feta on the tacos, sliced up an avocado and served with rice (and aforementioned black beans!).
3. Lean Into Grains
Use whatever grains you have on hand (rice, farro, pasta) and toss them with sautéed greens or whatever mystery herbs and veggies might be withering in your crisper drawer. This week, I found a tin of sardines and a jar of preserved lemons. I sautéed garlic, added canned tomatoes, half a tablespoon of chopped preserved lemon rind and a pinch of red-pepper flakes and then tossed it with pasta.
4. Cook Humble Cuts Of Meat
A ten-pound bone-in pork butt will make several meals for our family of four. Day one: Slow-roast using David Chang’s bo ssäm method; serve with the veggie of your choice. Day two: Sauté leftover rice from my son’s birthday dinner with frozen, canned or leftover vegetables and then add an egg for pork fried rice. Day three: Make carnitas tacos. Day four: Simmer a large batch of posole rojo, using Rancho Gordo hominy and the last of the leftover pork.
5. Remember Your Neighbors
Check in on those in need. Our 93-year-old neighbor, Miss Joyce, is on a restricted diet and couldn’t get to the store. I made her a batch of mini breakfast frittatas by whisking together eggs, a splash of milk, some Parmesan and chopped deli ham and then baking for 12 minutes in mini muffin tins. We left the frittatas on her doorstep along with a slice of my son’s birthday cake. Today I’ll cook a big pot of French onion soup for lunches this week and deliver a quart to Miss Joyce.
6. Support Local Restaurants In A New Way
Of course, now I would give anything to be able to settle into a booth at Genwa with my family while bulgogi and mushrooms sizzle atop a grill at our table, or watch in wonder as Gino at Angelini expertly debones a salt-crusted branzino. In the meantime, we’re hunkering down in the kitchen, with a few exceptions to support our favorite local spots. Later today I’ll grab a bag of dried fusilli and a freezable to-go quart of house-made Bolognese from Jon & Vinny’s, and tomorrow we’ll order lunch and a jar of jam from Sqirl, whose comforting Crispy Disco brown rice salad is just the non-contact hug we all need right now. Give your neighborhood joints a call to see what they’re offering these days and how you can help support their business.
Heather John Fogarty is a freelance food writer based in Los Angeles. She was previously the wine and spirits editor at Bon Appétit.