When my book on pantry meals was published in 1995, both of my parents were ill in Georgia where I lived. My husband was living in Oxford, Miss. My parents lived an hour away from each other, with my home midway between the two.
Not knowing where I would be next, I needed a system to fix a meal wherever I was, for whomever I was cooking for. Planning was not possible. And I always arrived with no time to spare.
Cooking from pantries was my only option, with each so-called “pantry” consisting of a refrigerator, freezer and dry goods shelves. The system I devised also worked, by and large, for snowstorms, hurricanes and power outages for all the intervening years.
This system entails 10 meals one can make “without thinking” from ingredients on hand. Some of the meals, such as lasagna, chili, meatloaf, chicken soup and chicken pot pie, are sold prepared from grocery stores, or made ahead of time and frozen. Others can be cooked at the last minute. You replace the ingredients when used so they are there when needed again.
Now that we been isolating at home for three weeks, I’ve learned a whole new way of pantry cooking: Improvisational pantry cooking. It’s a totally different kettle of fish.
As anyone who has been through this knows, coming up with three pantry meals a day is very different than one. It involves experimenting all the time. Not everything used is replenished, because it might not be available.
Although I had a full freezer and plenty of food on the shelves, after the first week it was hard to make everything work together. My father used to have a saying: “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.” It turns out the adage is literally true. If the eggs are eaten for Sunday breakfast, they are not there on Wednesday night.
Improvising happens anew every day because one ingredient from each dish seems to be missing. I started making meatloaf only to realize I had no eggs to bind it. I baked it anyway in small tins, and then crumbled the cooked meat over vegetables and pasta or rice, served in a bowl. Not the same. But it worked.
A grocery store order placed on Thursday turned out to be only available for pick-up the following Tuesday. With this unexpected delay, menu planning went out the window. Note to self: Next grocery order, order more frozen vegetables like spinach and turnip greens. Frozen chopped onions also go on the grocery list, because goodness knows when we will see Vidalias.
Here’s what happened while I waited:
- One of the packages in my freezer contained four boneless chicken thighs. After defrosting, it weighed about 1 pound. I had what seemed to be a large handful of fresh spinach. I had chopped an onion for something else and it was more than I needed, so I had one-quarter of an onion in a little dish on the cutting board, waiting for a home. I had half a head of garlic (a rather less-than-attractive head of garlic, I might add). I didn’t have any pine nuts, which I would have liked, but I had pecans. And a bit of dried apricots for color, flavor and nutrients.
- I didn’t have enough corn meal mix to make a pan of corn bread, so I had to make corn fritters.
- Faced with a friend’s birthday and no way to have a celebration meal, I had to halve my gift of fudge because I didn’t have enough chocolate, even after I sacrificed a bar of Christophe's excellent dark chocolate I had been hoarding. It was a welcome gift, nonetheless, delivered via piazza drop: I left it on the porch in a tote, and waved at her from the window.
- Another time I had to use milk and softened butter instead of cream for my two-ingredient biscuits, making it three-ingredient biscuits, counting the self-rising flour.
So here are the things to do next time:
- Start a kitchen diary. Make pages to itemize everything from each area of the kitchen. This will be a work in progress, so don’t stress over it. Look at it to make life easier later. It’s a good place to jot down things done to enhance food, or to make the kitchen function better. Draw in it, write in it and keep it.
- Everything should be marked. Use blue painter’s tape for easy marking of ingredients. Before starting, cut lengths of tapes and put them somewhere handy, like the edge of a shelf, for quickly removal, writing name and date before affixing to container for freezer or shelf.
- Kitchen book in hand, start with the refrigerator. Think about recipes and meals. Make a diagram of what should go where. The things to be used first should be in the front of the shelves, to be seen first and used first.
If the lone avocado on the kitchen counter is ripe, move it to the front of a refrigerator shelf. Will it be for salads or toast? Put it next to lettuce for the salad; put it by the condiments and ingredients that also go on bread or toast, perhaps mayonnaise and mustard? Or the breakfast or lunch items? Make mental groupings of what goes where for the way the family lives and eats.
- While organizing the refrigerator start a “bits and pieces” container. This is for the carrot tops removed from the carrots so they fit in the drawer; the onion peel from the aging onions that are losing their skin; bits of cooked meat or things that would work in a stock or sauce.
Take all the little dribs and drabs of leftovers from the refrigerator and see if a meal can be made of them.
Could they all go into a soup? Could the soup be based on cooking chopped onions in saved bacon fat? Determine to use up all the little bits and pieces in a few days or freeze together for later use as a soup base.
I had a friend who saved every bit of liquid from cooking. Once a week she made a refrigerator soup, using the combined liquids as a nutritious stock.
- Review jars and condiments. Group according to use where possible. Could the chow chow on the top shelf be put next to the tomato ketchup for topping the cooked peas? Would that help to use it up? Or should it just be chucked because no one ever asks for it? Or would they both be better kept next to the collards in the refrigerator drawer?
- Organize the freezer. If possible, have a cooler next to the freezer while working to hold food that needs to be moved or used so it won’t defrost before its place is found. Plastic see-through shoe boxes and other containers would be handy, too.
- Arrange food according to use, not type. Store small pieces of meats, fish and proteins in the same area. Whether sausages, bacon, shrimp or chicken wings, they need something else to make them a complete meal; they are proteins that can be substituted for each other. Although they need to be cooked, they cook in less than half an hour and can be defrosted quickly.
Similarly, boneless chicken breasts, steaks, chops, frozen salmon, take a little more care in defrosting and take about the same amount of time to be cooked.
Try having a freezer baking section, grouping ingredients like frozen peaches and self-rising flour for a cobbler next to each other; plain flour next to the cooked chicken for pot pie or chicken and dumplings. And put a package or two of English peas next to the cooked chicken.
Staples like cornmeal, grits, barley, farro, rice, stay pretty much that way, grouped together.
If homemade breadcrumbs are unmarked, they will be lost. Put them in the area where they will be used, well-marked and placed where they can be found.
Frozen vegetables are a godsend. If there are pre-cooked vegetables, like my summer ratatouille, put them prominently in the front so they don’t get lost.
Finally, make a diagram of what is in the freezer and tape it on the front. Another diagram in the kitchen book will help plan meals.
In organizing kitchen or pantry shelves used for dry ingredients (which can include wet ingredients, like canned tomatoes, of course) the oldest items to be used should be in front, with the newest in the back.
Rather than alphabetize, sort according to function. I do alphabetize my spices, but not everyone thinks that is the best way. Some people group spices by cuisine, each in their own drawer. See what works. Although bottles may have to be grouped by height, try having the rice vinegar next to the soy sauce rather than in the vinegar section.
Pasta and rice are best all in one area, with orzo and similar small-pieced pastas with the long grain rice as they cook quickly and arborio or risotto rice stored next to casserole pasta like lasagna.
Tuna fish and other canned fish to be used for a salad might be grouped together, while anchovies used to add flavor to a recipe might be in a totally different area.
Dried fruits need a special place. Chocolate does too. (If you have a private stash of chocolate, make a note in your kitchen notebook on where you hid it. Then you can eat that Christophe’s chocolate rather than letting it languish. It’ll make you exceedingly glad to have your notebook.)
- Make notes all along in the kitchen book. Once all the food in the kitchen is marked and married to its group, it’s time to make those pantry meal lists. This time make lists of meals that reflect the pantry you have. Because that may be all you get.
Greens-and-Apricot-Stuffed Boneless Chicken Thighs
Boneless chicken thighs are handy to use. They have more flavor and moisture than chicken breasts, cook quickly and take well to stuffing.
4 boneless chicken thighs
1/4-1/3 cup cooking oil or other fat such as bacon fat, butter, etc.
1/4 large onion, chopped, or 1/2 shallot, chopped
1-2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1-1/4 cup fresh spinach, kale, or other green, roughly chopped. or 1/2 package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted
3-4 dried apricots
1/4 cup chopped toasted pecans or other nut (optional)
1/4 cup cooked rice (optional)
1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice or white wine (optional)
Freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. While the oven is preheating, oil a small frying pan or set out a small nonstick dish or frying pan in which the chicken will fit together closely but not touch.
Move the chicken thighs to a clean cutting board, top side down. Turn each thigh over, and partially slice so you can splay it out. Cut off any small thin pieces that would tend to overcook. Pound the thigh lightly with a mallet or other heavy implement to flatten slightly. Season with salt and pepper.
If the apricots are fairly fresh, they will not need soaking. If they have seen better days, put them in a small bowl and add hot water to cover. Let soak until pliable. Drain. Chop the apricots.
Heat a small saucepan or frying pan with a small amount of oil, enough to cover the bottom. Add the onion to the hot pan and cook until it is soft, about five minutes. Add the garlic, cook a minute or so and then add the spinach or other greens. Cook about 2-3 minutes, covered, until the greens are soft but not soggy looking. Add the apricots or nuts. Remove pan from heat and set aside.
Add 1/4 the spinach mixture to the divided thighs. Fold up like an egg roll and move to the frying pan, cut side down. Proceed with the rest of the boned thighs. They can be tied with cooking twine, skewered or closed with dampened toothpicks, but if the pan is small enough it is not necessary. Oil the top of the thighs.
Move the pan of thighs to the hot oven and cook until lightly browned and a thermometer registers 165 degrees; the chicken will be firm to the touch. There should be very flavorful pan juices in the pan. Spoon a little over each thigh and let sit in the pan a few minutes before serving. Serve with juice over the chicken.
Treat the juice like gold: It can be used in a number of ways, from a pan sauce to becoming a stock.
Fresh Field Peas with Snaps
I so prefer fresh field peas to canned that I buy them whenever I see them and keep them frozen. They vary widely in flavor and texture, with the crowder pea being a little tougher and drier than a white acre or lady pea. On occasion, I am lucky enough to get the tiny pods that are too tiny to shell, called snaps, and cook them with the peas. This recipe doesn’t include my normal salt pork or ham hock, as I didn’t have any.
1 pound shelled fresh or frozen peas, with any snaps
1 sliced or chopped medium onion
2 finely chopped garlic cloves
1 chipotle pepper (a dried smoked Tabasco pepper)
Chicken or vegetable stock to cover
Freshly ground pepper
Add the peas and snaps, chopped onions, garlic and pepper to a pot. Add chicken stock to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover. Cook, covered, 45 minutes to an hour, or until peas are tender but not mushy. (Check occasionally to be sure there is enough liquid and add more as necessary.) Remove the pepper. Add optional chopped herbs before serving.
Tip: Serve peas with tomato conserve, which has many other names, including tomato ketchup and tomato jam.
Improvised Pantry Fudge
In cutting this recipe in half, I found it was very adaptable. I measured the milk in a wet measuring cup and the chocolate in a dry. It will win over nurses as it did years ago when I took it to the hospital to win over my father’s nurses.
1 12-ounce package semisweet chocolate chips
1 6-ounce package of unsweetened or dark chocolate
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated milk)
Dash of salt
1/2 to 1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
1 teaspoon orange extract
Zest of orange rind (optional)
Line an 8-inch or 9-inch square pan with wax paper. Melt the chocolates with the milk and salt in a heavy saucepan over low heat or in the microwave. Remove from the heat and stir in the nuts and orange extract. Chill 2 hours or place in freezer until firm. Turn the fudge onto a cutting board, peel off the paper and cut into squares. Garnish with optional strands of orange rind (no white attached.) Store loosely covered at room temperature.