I really enjoy the challenge of using up what I have on hand to make a dish. Cooking this way:
- Reduces food waste. I cook with the food already sitting in the pantry and refrigerator before I buy more food. With less food on hand, less can turn and go to waste.
- Saves money. Less shopping leaves more cash in my bank account.
- Saves time. The fewer shopping trips, the less time I spend shopping.
- Makes cooking more fun. Dinner becomes a puzzle that requires creativity to solve. This leads to delicious combinations that I may not otherwise discover.
As long as I have the following staples in my pantry, I can put off shopping for another day. If I run out of any of them, I need to pack up my shopping kit and hit the store.
1. Extra virgin olive oil
I cook with versatile extra-virgin olive oil more than anything else. It tastes delicious, it contains less saturated fat than coconut oil or butter and it has a high smoke point (about 400°F).
I also bake with olive oil. It tastes delicious in pumpkin or zucchini quick bread in place of butter or vegetable oils, which most quick bread recipes call for. Earlier this week, I made a batch of granola using olive oil as my fat. The granola disappeared quickly.
2. Beans and lentils
I may run out of beans or lentils but never both at once. I always have one or the other on hand, but almost always a few varieties of each.
If you have access to bulk bins, those bins will inevitably offer at least a few varieties of beans. Bulk bins without beans are like adolescent boys eating beans without making crass jokes, which I told myself I wouldn’t make on here but I sort of just did.
Black beans can go into a simple dish of not-too-spicy black beans or chili or bean burgers. I also sprout them. We’ve been eating lots of black-eye peas lately—very creamy and delicious. Chickpeas can go into chana masala or hummus or become roasted chickpeas or a salad component.
Green lentils hold up well in dal with larger vegetables. I put smaller red lentils into soupier dal. Small lentils like moong dal taste delicious in dosas.
I need to feed my sourdough starter, Eleanor, to keep her alive. She likes rye flour the best. If I run out of flour, I usually have some wheat or rye berries on hand that I can grind up in my little grain mill. Eleanor loves freshly ground flour.
When you grind your own wheat, the flour contains the whole wheat kernel, or seed. Refining flour strips it of the bran and germ (the seed’s embryo), both of which are rich in protein, vitamins and minerals. But the germ also contains oils that, once released upon grinding, will turn flour rancid quickly. Without the germ and its oils, flour becomes shelf stable—making it more profitable. When I grind my flour up, I usually use it immediately, and if I won’t use it for a few days, I store it in the refrigerator.
When my boss (who does love me) first heard that I grind some of my own wheat, she thought I had gone off the deep end. Then one night we went together to hear brilliant chef Dan Barber speak. At the end of the talk, when Barber took questions, the first came from a woman who asked, “What do you recommend we do to get kids interested in cooking?” Barber told her to get her hands on a grain mill and start playing around with grinding up flour. My boss looked at me with surprise and I nodded.
With my flour, I feed my starter, which I use to make sourdough bread, crackers, pancakes and more. Or I make pizza, quick bread or pasta. These all require minimal ingredients. But I must have flour for them.
I like to have rice to go with the bean and lentil dishes I cook so often and I also need it for dosa batter. Leftover cooked rice can go into rice milk. Day-old cooked rice that has begun to dry out is perfect for fried rice.
If I have other whole grains on hand—barley, quinoa, millet, bulgur—I can get by. I have no moral obligation to eat beans with rice although I would prefer to.
Nuts go into impromptu trail mix, quick breads and brownies, nut milk (we also make seed milk), peanut sauce and more. We also eat lots of nut butter. If we run out but have nuts on hand, we can make nut butter quickly (and by we, I mean my daughter Charlotte, who makes all of the nut butter).
One woman’s cumin is another woman’s oregano. Your favorite spice or herb will differ from mine—as will many things on this list.
We go through lots of cumin. The earthy, smokey flavor goes perfectly with all of those beans and lentils. At the moment, I have run out of ground cumin but I do have a jar of cumin seed—I use both types generously—so I’ve been grinding that up in my little secondhand spice mill from the thrift shop (I see spice mills at our thrift shop ALL the time). When my current stash of cumin seed shrinks to an uncomfortably low level, I’ll stock up on both cumin seed and ground cumin.
Because I can buy my spices in bulk, I buy small amounts frequently. This ensures I have fresher spices, which really do make a huge difference in the final dish. Fresh spices add more flavor than old spices that have sat in the cupboard for five years.
And in case you wondered: Herbs come from a plant’s leaves. Spices come from other parts of the plant, such as the seeds, flowers, roots or bark. Dill leaves are an herb. Dill seeds are a spice.
I must have onions or shallots or leeks at all times. And also garlic, although we can survive for a day without garlic. Not onions. I feel like Mother Hubbard without onions.
I buy yellow, white or red onions and also shallots, which separate the chefs from the cooks, according to the late Anthony Bourdain in his book Kitchen Confidential.
Add a few seasonal fresh vegetables to this list of staples and I have everything I need to make piles of delicious food.