Last year I did a full Marie Kondo on my pantry, which had gotten wildly out of control. In the process, I discovered far too many expired items, including wonderful foods brought back from travels abroad. Sending that much food to the trash receptacle was an important lesson for me. I made a vow to be smarter about how I use my pantry, letting go of stocking in many multiples of things, and only buying as I needed.
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I did a pretty good job, and then the Current Predicament occurred, and I restocked my pantry to the gills in hopes of minimizing the need to go to the store or receive deliveries. The past few weeks have inspired thoughtful decisions about how to use what I have. No more finding a recipe and then going out to source the ingredients for it, but instead more and more winging it based on available products: Making do, making substitutions.
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As part of that, I have discovered some pantry heroes that deserve extra love for being wildly versatile helpmates during this time. And while I am certainly grateful for my canned tuna stash, dried beans, and grains, I want to talk about the magic jars of the pantry. Because while often food in jars is thought of as just something to be consumed as-is, I am finding that pivoting to thinking of them as ingredients has been a welcome addition to my kitchen practice. Here are my Fab Four!
Nutella needs no one to be convinced that it is a good thing to have in the house. Spread on bread, drizzled on pancakes or waffles, wrapped in crepes, Nutella is its own kind of magic.
But a couple of weeks ago I needed to make an emergency birthday cake for a friend who was going to be celebrating her natal day on lockdown. And by emergency, I mean too fast for me to thaw enough butter for a typical buttercream. But since buttercream is really just fat, flavoring, and powdered sugar, I reached for my trusty jar of Nutella. I stirred powdered sugar into the spread until I got the consistency I wanted for the cake and smeared it on. That was it. Two-ingredient frosting magic. Then I found a brownie recipe that I wanted to try but did not have the bandwidth to dirty a double boiler for melting chocolate, or the patience to wait for it to cool to add eggs. Then, I realized that Nutella is chocolate based, the consistency of melted chocolate, and is already room temp. I swapped it in. Brownies were delicious. Would it work in every recipe? No, but it is worth some experimentation. Want more ideas of what to do with Nutella? Try one of these.
Sure, you can absolutely survive happily on jarred pasta sauce and noodles. But putting that jar of pasta sauce to new uses has become a whole new wellspring of creative cooking at my house.
One jar of sauce plus one jar of water (or stock if you want to be fancy) makes a great tomato soup. You can leave it chunky, or puree it to be smoother. You can leave it plain or add rice, noodles, beans, or vegetables. Cook it down to evaporate some of the water and get a thicker, terrific sauce for homemade pizza or calzones.
Marinara is also a secret weapon for elevating grains. Cook rice in half marinara, half water for a red rice, then add smoked paprika for a Spanish feel or chopped jalapenos to go to a Mexican-ish place. Cook orzo the same way with a pinch of cinnamon for a Greek-style pasta side.
Have you pandemic-baked some sourdough or no-knead bread? When it stales, tear what’s left into chunks, toss with olive oil, and toast until browned and crispy. Heat a jar of sauce with half a jar of water (or stock, again, if you like); once it’s hot, toss in the croutons and cook just until they start to absorb, but aren’t soggy. You’ve whipped up pappa al pomodoro! Serve hot with a drizzle of olive oil and some parm and fresh herbs if you have them… basil is natural but try fresh mint for a really great new flavor sensation. Or just use it as a shortcut for recipes like these stuffed shells.
And if you’re wondering: My personal preferred brand of marinara sauce is Rao’s. But use what you have!
Pandemic time is peanut butter time. With kids home all day, and time becoming fluid, and homemade meals and snacks needing to happen at a volume most are not used to, peanut butter sandwiches and snacks are everywhere. And there is nothing wrong with that fluffernutter lunch, or ants on a log for elevenses, or peanut butter and crackers for that mid-afternoon slump.
But for me, I am finding that peanut butter is entering (and jazzing up) my cooking more and more. From sesame peanut noodles to satay sauce for grilled chicken, to an emulsifier for salad dressing, peanut butter is shockingly versatile in the kitchen. Low on flour? Try these magic cookies. You can stir a tablespoon or two into everything from beef stew to chili to curry to baked beans to enchilada sauce to add some grounding base-note flavor and natural thickening.
And anyone from Chicago knows that the best eggrolls have peanut butter in the filling. Think about that the next time you’re making some homemade versions of one of our favorite comfort foods.
And if you’re wondering: My favorite peanut butter brand is Maranatha No-Stir Creamy, because it just tastes like roasted peanuts, no added sugar, so it works great in savory cooking, but use what you have on hand.
Jam and Jelly
Whether you can your own all summer long or tend to buy up fancy flavors on your travels (or like me, both), you may find yourself with a veritable glut of jam in your pantry. And sure, it is lovely on toast, biscuits, and scones, or paired with peanut butter or cream cheese. And of course you can dollop it into thumbprint cookies.
But did you know that jam or jelly can also be a useful ingredient in other things? Use it as a sweetener in vinaigrettes. Make these crostata tartlets. Glaze a ham with it. Add it to sauces or stews when you need sweetener: Think about a spoonful of apricot jam in your tagine sauce, redcurrant jam in your beef stew, or ginger jam in your teriyaki. Apple butter is the secret to my stuffed cabbage recipe.
Any recipe that calls for a small amount of honey to sweeten can be swapped out one-to-one for jam or jelly. Whenever I need a fruit compote to top something, my ratio is two-parts fresh fruit to one-part dried fruit to one-part jam. For example: Want an amazing blueberry compote to pour over your pancakes, spoon onto cheesecake, or swirl into your rice pudding? Cook one 8-oz. jar of blueberry jam, one cup of dried blueberries and two cups fresh blueberries over medium heat until the fresh berries have cooked, and some have burst. Perfection.
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