Pantry Cooking

Get creative with ingredients you have on hand

Text and Photos By Amy Rogers |  Posted on May 19, 2020

When you think about it, your pantry is one of the oddest places in your home. Where else do you store the things too fancy to use unless it’s a special occasion, right alongside those too awful to cook with, maybe ever?

Yes, this is where we stow the truffles and the junk food, the nice mustard and the moon pies.

While reaching past the Fruity Pebbles in my pantry recently, I stumbled on some hibiscus flower syrup someone had gifted me. I found some stale cocoa mix and pitched it straight into the trash. That led to a purge of the packets, all those drink mixes and fake sweeteners that no one in our house enjoys. I unearthed a bag of Arborio rice. That was a keeper. Next, I went for the spinning spice rack, and that’s when I discovered it.

Oatmeal, Fruit and Nut Breakfast Bites
Black Bean, Tomato and Corn Salad
Saffron Risotto with Artichokes, Pimientos and Kalamata Olives

The jar of saffron. It’s the world’s most expensive spice, and I had splurged on a smidge of it a while back. Yet once I got it home, I promptly forgot about it. With that realization came an urge to shake up those pantry shelves, get creative and start cooking.

During these days of stay-at-home sameness, few of us have more actual leisure time. It’s not realistic to devote endless periods of time to kitchen artistry. I try to make dishes that are on the simple side and also pack tons of flavor. This balance isn’t hard to achieve as long as you’re willing to dig deep and search out those hidden pantry gems that can make meals interesting.

It’s a good idea to keep favorite staple ingredients on hand beyond the mainstay beans, greens and grains. In my pantry, that means candied ginger, slivered almonds, dark chocolate chips, dried berries, ground tahini sesame paste, olives and anything that comes marinated in a jar. These items keep almost indefinitely (which is part of the dilemma), and you can mix and match them in countless combinations.

For years, I’ve been bringing a Black Bean, Tomato and Corn Salad to picnics and potlucks. You can make it ahead of time or at a moment’s notice. This dish is simple, colorful, vegan and endlessly adaptable. My secret pantry ingredient: bagel seasoning. It contains onion, garlic, sesame seeds, poppy seeds and salt. Finding that spice was a lightbulb moment for me, but you can practically use any seasonings you have.

Cakes are temperamental, and cookies are too much trouble for me. Instead, I make Oatmeal, Fruit and Nut Breakfast Bites Just change the name and they turn into snacks or a dessert to serve with ice cream. Bits of candied ginger give these bars a warm, spicy bite that you can dial up or down according to your taste.

Risotto is my “little black dress” dish. It’s simple, elegant and a perfect backdrop when you want to embellish it. Making risotto isn’t mysterious. It just requires that you pay attention while you cook it and takes only about a half-hour. You can’t pick up take-out in less time. If you do nothing more than plate and serve it, people will devour it. They will swoon if you dress it up into a variation like Saffron Risotto with Artichokes, Pimientos and Kalamata Olives.

Now, if I can just devise a clever way to use up those moon pies. Perhaps I’ll put them in a future bread pudding.