Know the pantry essentials

Posted 3/23/20

For years, nutritionists and cookbook writers have advised Americans to keep a stocked pantry and to cook and eat together. It’s better for our health. It’s better for our relationships. …

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Know the pantry essentials


For years, nutritionists and cookbook writers have advised Americans to keep a stocked pantry and to cook and eat together. It’s better for our health. It’s better for our relationships. There are even apps that will help you do a lot of the planning. 

And yet, we’ve stubbornly refused.

There’s no time like the present as many of us are self-quarantining in our homes — especially now that you can order your groceries for pickup.

Cooking from the pantry is an excellent way to get meals on the table when time is short and you can’t get to the store, when dinner ideas have dwindled or if an unexpected supper has to be whipped together.

The pantry was so important to my husband that when we renovated our Savannah home, he converted a bathroom just off the kitchen to a big pantry. It was always stocked.



Pasta is a great building block for delicious dinners. Spaghetti and meatballs is always one option but there are other avenues to explore:

-Short pastas, such as bow ties or corkscrews, are great for whipping up skillet dishes or adding to soups.

-If you have orzo on hand, serve it as a side dish anytime rice is called for, or toss cooked orzo with an assortment of fresh vegetables like cucumber, tomatoes, bell pepper, etc. along with your favorite vinaigrette and canned tuna, chicken or leftover roast pork or beef for a new take on pasta salad.

-Here’s a flavor tip: If a recipe calls for cooked, drained pasta, try boiling it in broth instead of water.

-Egg noodles are the ultimate speedy side dish. After cooking and draining, toss hot noodles with a tablespoon or two of olive oil or butter, some Parmesan cheese and chopped fresh herbs for a side that goes with anything. Or, add frozen mixed vegetables to the noodle water during the last minute or two of cooking, drain then toss everything with canned chicken or tuna and a touch of Parmesan for a quick dinner. Egg noodles are also a must-have ingredient for family-favorite casseroles and skillets.


Grains and Rice

Make a place in the pantry for an assortment of grains and rice. Here are a few ways to use them:

-Got five minutes? Then you have time to make couscous. It’s a great side dish for saucy stews and cooks up faster than, say, mashed potatoes. For deeper flavor, make it with broth instead of water.

-Polenta is a great substitute for pasta and cooks fairly quickly. Serve it the next time you have leftover pot roast. Polenta is also delicious for breakfast as a hot cereal with fresh or dried fruit, nuts and milk.

-Rice — white, brown or instant — always comes in handy for serving with stir-fries, building a skillet dinner or for making risotto. For more adventuresome eaters, quinoa and bulgur make unique, nutritious alternatives for side dishes — and are terrific foundations for grain salads.


Beans and Legumes

With a few cans of beans and a bag of lentils at your fingertips, you have several delicious, quick-cooking options.

-Canned beans give you an automatic head start on great soup or chili. You’ll also be glad you have them for quesadillas, skillets and impromptu salads. Just toss drained, rinsed black or kidney beans with vegetables you have on hand — bell pepper, scallions, tomatoes, etc. — fresh herbs like parsley or cilantro and a squeeze of lime juice.

-Combine white beans— cannellini, navy, Great Northern, etc. — with drained tuna, tomatoes, herbs (basil is great) and some olive oil then toss with cooked pasta.

-Unexpected guests drop in? Make a quick, delicious dip for snacking on using black beans or chickpeas.

-Brown lentils are a wonderful addition to soup or stew and, when paired with rice, make a great-tasting side dish. For a super-quick and different side dish, toss cooked, drained lentils while warm with any prepared vinaigrette you have on hand — or lemon juice and olive oil — a handful of chopped fresh parsley (or another favorite herb) and sprinkle with crumbled feta cheese.



Staples like canned and jarred ingredients are the hub of any pantry, and you’ll find yourself turning to them for all kinds of cooking situations.

-Stock & Broth: A container or two of chicken or beef stock or broth is indispensable for making soups and stews, but it’s also great for using as a base for a quick pan sauce for sautéed meats. Simply brown steak, chicken, fish or pork chops in a skillet, remove them from the pan then pour a ½ cup or so of stock or broth into the skillet, scraping up the browned bits on the bottom. Return the meat to the pan, simmer it in the sauce until cooked through then finish the

sauce with a bit of butter, heavy cream or sour cream and a tablespoon or two of chopped fresh herbs.

-Soups: Condensed soups are a must-have pantry item for everything from meatloaf to enchiladas and side dishes — but you can also turn to them to use in salads and dips. Keep in mind that many soups can be used interchangeably, so if a recipe calls for cream of chicken and all you have is cream of mushroom, it will work great!

-Proteins: With a few cans of tuna or chunk chicken breast on hand, you’re never far from quick sandwiches, pasta salads, skillets or baked dishes.

-Italian Sauces: Prepared sauces are a must for pantry shelves. They’re great on pasta but you can also use them for pizza, to simmer pork chops or bake chicken.

-Prepared Salsa: A jar of salsa or picante sauce is a must-have for tacos or burritos, but also makes a zesty simmer sauce for chicken and chops or marinating steaks for the grill. You can also use it in pasta dishes and stir-fries.

-Other staples to have on hand include olives, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, mushrooms, capers, sweet and dill pickles — add them to pasta, sandwiches, pizzas or salads. Vegetables, like green beans and corn, are a quick and easy way to boost the veggie power of soups and stews, and fruit — pineapple chunks, peaches, mandarin oranges, etc. — can be added to skillets, meat sauces and salads. Peanut butter is a given for sandwiches, it also adds a wonderfully savory dimension to salad dressings, stir-fries and soup.


Herbs and Spices

Dried herbs and spices can add a pop of flavor to all kinds of dishes. Instead of buying spice blends, why not make your own combos with the herbs and spices you already have on hand? Let your imagination and taste buds inspire you to create new flavor combinations!

As a rule of thumb, seasoning blends can be made with equal parts of dried herbs and milder tasting spices, like paprika. Since cayenne and pepper are hot, they should be added to taste.

-Italian Seasoning: Blend together dried basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme, sage. Use to season fresh vegetables, add flavor to rice or rub on a steak before cooking.

-Barbecue Seasoning: Combine brown sugar, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, cayenne.

-Cajun Seasoning: Paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, dried thyme, black pepper, white pepper, cayenne.

-Jerk Seasoning: Onion powder, dried thyme, ground allspice and cinnamon, black pepper, cayenne.

-Taco Seasoning: Onion powder, garlic powder, ground cumin, chili powder.


Dry Goods

Every pantry should have flour and sugar on hand, but other recommended dry goods include:

-A box of baking mix.

-Instant pudding to make speedy desserts.

-Flour or corn tortillas for wraps, fajitas or baked dishes. For longer storage, keep tortillas in the freezer.

-Cocoa powder, semi-sweet chocolate chips, baking soda, baking powder and cornstarch for desserts and baking recipes.