I have long been a 'pantry cook,' and in these difficult times, I would love to share with you how I cook everyday from a well-stocked, yet basic, pantry. With the addition of a few fresh ingredients - never forgetting the all-important staples like onions, garlic, and lemons, to name a few - I can cook delicious and nutritious meals everyday. They may often be basic, but to me that's the best sort of homecooking, simple and adaptable meals that you can make at a moment's notice, even (or especially) when supplies are limited.
As I write, one third of the world is in government-enforced lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Countries around the world are scrambling to get on top of the spread, and each face a vast array of different challenges, whether that be ageing populations, lack of intensive care beds and essential supplies, communication issues, or socio-economic issues. I’m mindful that certain populations have had to deal with severe epidemics before – the SARS crisis of 2003 is just one example - but this time it’s hitting communities hard the whole world over.
I don’t think it’s an understatement to say COVID-19 has thrown the world into crisis, and we are all doing our best to cope. Forced to spend more time at home, many are looking for ways to shop sensibly and safely while still feeding their families nutritious flavourful meals. It has been really heartening to see so many chefs, food bloggers and others freely sharing their tips and tricks to make the most of what you have. A problem we’re all facing, however, is the depletion of essentials like flour, rice and pasta due to some people resorting to panic-buying and hoarding (there are also those who are stockpiling in order to profiteer from the crisis by selling items at inflated prices online – do not support these criminals!). Supermarkets as well as smaller stores are having difficulty restocking supplies and the fallout is affecting everyone. There is no need to stockpile but there is merit in knowing how to shop wisely so that you can stretch your dollar further, cook delicious and healthy meals at home, and make fewer trips to the shops. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of pantry staples based on the cooking I do most regularly, however, everyone’s preferences and cooking needs are different, so please just use it as a guide. When I say ‘pantry staples,’ I’m referring to basically everything you can keep in cupboards (apart from things like potatoes, onions, and the like) that’s not fresh. It’s still vitally important that we eat fresh food as much as possible.
Cooking economically but deliciously and nutritiously is right up my alley! I have spent more time than I care to admit being a student while supporting myself and so learning to cook smart was actually a matter of survival to me. I don’t agree with the common wisdom that eating healthily is more expensive than using alternatives like take-away or pre-prepared foods. Sure, if you compare individual items, say, a whole free-range chicken with a pre-prepared chicken meal that serves four, you might find that latter is cheaper. However we need to take the whole picture into account. One of the easiest ways to minimise costs is to eat less meat. Not only is this better for your wallet, it is also better for the planet and your health. Eat chicken once a week instead of three or four times and suddenly that free range chicken - which gives more than one meal in the form of bones for stock, pan juices, and so on – suddenly seems a lot more economical, and you can take comfort from the fact that the bird was raised ethically and not imported from some factory in god-knows-where.
I agree fresh fruit and vegetables can be expensive but I’m going to let you off the hook here: You don’t need to eat top-shelf organic produce to be healthy. In an ideal world, we all would, but let’s face it, I certainly can’t fork out $18/kilo for beetroot, so I work with what I can do, buying the best I can and not giving myself a hard time. So let go of unrealistic expectations! Buy what’s in season (its more plentiful and therefore cheaper and tastier), and don’t forget your freezer – frozen peas have got me out of many a fresh-vegetable shortage situation. Keep in mind that cheaper fruit and veg though is not always to be found in your supermarket. I’ve often been very pleasantly surprised at the prices of fresh produce at my local markets, so it’s worth shopping around, though in these times, that will pretty tough, I know. And finally, while we need our daily fresh fruit and veg intake, if you can learn how to base your cooking around a few essential pantry items, you can always find something to make, even if you only have a slightly shrivelled carrot, a sad stick of celery, an onion and some frozen peas. In such a dire situation, a well-stocked pantry will be your saviour.
So, let’s get started! This is a cut-down list of what currently resides in my pantry. For example, I have more spices than I’ve listed here but I’ve included what I think are good foundation to build upon. With this list, I can cook broadly across different cuisines. As I said, consider it a guide and adapt to your personal needs. I’ve also included a recipe (a template, really), to what I should just call my ‘Staple Soup,’ though this sounds incredibly uninspiring, so I’m just going to leave it as ‘Minestrone’ for now, which is essentially what it is, and work on that title another time! For this kind of soup, I just as often use beans or lentils instead of pasta, and change the flavourings depending on my mood. Ok, now to the point.
Stocking Your Pantry
I admit this seems like a long list, but you’ll find you already have a lot of this in store anyway. Most of these items don’t need to be bought regularly, just replenished from time to time. It’s also not in any way exhaustive, so consider this a good starting point, from which you can curate your pantry in any way you wish!
A note about stocks, sauces and preserved foods (remember to decant any remains from tin cans into another vessel before storing in the fridge). Certain products, while listed as pantry items, will obviously migrate to the fridge once opened. With regards to stock, I do occasionally make my own - usually vegetable or chicken - and freeze in portions in a large ice-cube tray, but I don’t always have some on hand, so I do back up with a good quality, low-salt alternative. Whether you are in the store-bought or homemade camp, or a little bit of both, is entirely your business, but that is why I list them here.
Minestrone, aka 'Staple Soup'
I could so easily continue with what I consider my ‘essential’ store-cupboard, fridge, and freezer staples, but I think I should stop here! Suffice to say that if you consistently stock your fridge/freezer with fresh produce, and have a well-stocked pantry, you’re good to go any day of the week! Now to a recipe! A no-fuss, hearty soup based around pantry staples that makes great leftovers (it’s also freezable) and is anything but boring. When I eat a soup like this, I am liberal with salt, pepper, olive oil, herbs, yoghurt, parmesan, or whatever it needs to lift it into delectable territory. And always with a side of toast. If I’m feeling under the weather, I’ll chuck in some ginger and turmeric for an immunity boost. Swap out the vegetables for what you have or prefer, substitute the pasta for beans, and so on. Robust greens like kale or cavalo nero are really lovely in this type of soup, especially when combined with butter beans* and perhaps some bacon or pancetta. If using the latter, sauté with the onion, carrot and celery before proceeding.
*If using dried beans or chickpeas, soak overnight and drain before adding to the soup. Depending on the variety, they will take anywhere from 20-40min to cook. Or, you can cook them first and add to the soup at the last minute.
Serves 6 - 8
2 T olive oil
2-3 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
1 onion, diced
I carrot, diced or sliced
2 sticks of celery, diced or sliced and leaves reserved and roughly chopped (substitute another leaf like silverbeet or kale)
2 t cumin seeds
2 t coriander seeds
1 t paprika
Chilli flakes, to taste
2 x 200g cans of whole or diced tomatoes
1 L vegetable or chicken stock
I zucchini, sliced or diced
1 cup of dried small pasta (for example, orzo or macaroni)
Ground black pepper
Sea salt flakes
Handful of flat parsley, roughly chopped
Grated parmesan (optional)
Extra virgin olive oil (optional)
In a large saucepan or crockpot, sauté onion, carrot, and celery until the onion begins to turn translucent (you can add a pinch of salt here if you want to prevent the onions browning too much). Add the garlic and spices and cook for a further minute or two until fragrant.
Tip in the canned tomatoes, crushing them with the back of a spoon (you can also insert some scissors into the open can and chop them up this way before adding to the pot). Add the stock and bring the soup to the boil. Once boiling, turn the heat down to a moderate simmer.
Add the zucchini and pasta and cook until both are al dente. Turn off the heat and add the reserved chopped celery leaves, or other greens, allowing them to just wilt. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To serve, ladle into bowls and top with parmesan (if using), parsley, and generous swirl of extra virgin olive oil. Eat with warm toast, preferably snuggled up near a window observing the cold outside world.
About The Daughter's Table
The Daughter's Table is a living archive of recipes and stories. It is inspired by my daughter, and the desire to create a food legacy that connects us to what we eat and why.