Dinner on a Deadline: Week 2 – Stock the pantry

Posted by Anita on 05.18.10 11:54 AM

This post is the second of 12 installments in the Dinner on a Deadline series, a project designed to help you get thoughtful meals on the table quickly without resorting to processed convenience foods. Each week features homework to help you put the lessons into action, plus a sample recipe to show how we use the week’s tips in real life.

(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*So, gang — how’s the menu planning going? From my point of view, the homework looks great! Between the comments on last week’s post and the Twitter stream, I’ve seen some good menu plans, lots of delicious meals made from items already on hand, and many good tips for weeknight dinner prep. So let’s move on with some more ideas for getting food on the table.

One of the most powerful weapons in the weeknight-dinner arsenal is a well-stocked pantry. Now, when I say “pantry”, I hear all the small-kitchen cooks groan. But a pantry doesn’t have to be large or lavish to be effective — even a single, dedicated shelf next to the dishes is better than nothing. No matter whether you have an enormous pantry or a tiny one, keeping staples on hand encourages spontaneous meals and lets you shift gears quickly when your weeknight throws you a curve. And, stocking up is especially important if you’re not a particularly dedicated meal planner.

Once you stock your pantry, keeping it up to date needs to be a continuous process. At our house, we opt for the instant-replacement method: If we use, say, a package of penne, we add penne to the grocery list and buy it on our very next trip to the store. When we get down to the last few ounces of soy sauce, it goes on the list, too. We never wait until we need a staple item to replace it. In the case of items we use a lot, we even keep backups on hand when space permits.

Speaking of space: The elephant in the room here is that most people’s pantries (including mine, until I tidied it up last weekend) look like a disaster area. Once you clear away the clutter, you may find yourself with a lot more storage space than you thought you had. With this in mind, the first real step in stocking the pantry is a thorough clean-up. I know the idea of spending your precious kitchen time tackling a long-postponed chore isn’t terribly appealing, but the payoff is huge. Even the most rudimentary kitchen organization helps make it fun to cook, instead of a hassle. Once you’ve got your kit organized, you won’t have to dig through a mess to find things when you need them quickly. You’ll also have a better idea of what you have, and what you’re missing.

When it comes to quick weeknight dinners, staples are key. There are a few million articles online dedicated to stocking your pantry. (Simple Bites has a good one, with links to many others.) Every site’s list is a little different — and they should be. There’s no one right way to fill your shelves; the important thing is that you figure out the kinds of meals you eat (or want to eat) and stock for them. Personally, I don’t like to rely a lot on the canned soups, commercially frozen vegetables, and other industrial products that some of the lists include. You know your own tastes better than I do; look through a few lists, and use them as a jumping off point.

Here’s what our pantry typically contains:

• In the fridge: Eggs, cheese (something melty plus a hard cheese like Parmesan), bacon, milk, sour cream, kimchi and/or sauerkraut, tortillas, bread, butter, mushrooms, olives, mustard, peanut & almond butters, maple syrup

• In the garden: Fresh herbs, lettuce, carrots, radishes, celery, lemons, green onions, one or two seasonal vegetables (peas, tomatoes, etc.)

• In the cupboard: Pastas, rices, polenta, dry beans, posole, coconut milk, chiles (pickled/dry), tomatoes, pressure-canned chicken stock, pickles & preserves, soy sauce & fish sauce, canned tuna, shallots & onions, garlic, ginger, potatoes, crackers, tortilla chips, nuts, salsas, herbs & spices, oils & vinegars, baking supplies

• In the freezer: Precooked beans and grains; pie and pizza doughs; pasta sauces; curry pastes; leftover bread/buns; leftover cooked meat; precooked meatballs; quick-thawing raw proteins (ham cubes, chicken parts, sirloin tips, ground meat, duck confit) in meal-size packs; sausages (Italian, chorizo, breakfast, ‘nduja); pancetta & guanciale; butter; blanched garden veggies; ice cubes of many types: chicken stock, lemon and lime juice, egg whites, tomato sauce/paste, chipotle en adobo, etc.

(I know there’s a a lot of untapped detail in that last bullet item; we’ll talk more about stocking the freezer later in the series.)

Looking at our list, you can probably already see that, even without a recipe, I can get a number of basic dinners on the table using just what we have on hand. This week, I made a simple Asian-style noodle dish using beef from the freezer and a bunch of items from the pantry, plus a few vegetables from our farm box. Pretty much once a week — and more often when we’ve been traveling or otherwise unable to get to the farmers market — we eat this way, “shopping” from the items we’ve put aside for quick weeknight meals.

Once you have a well-stocked larder, you’ll be amazed at how handily you’re able to put together meals, even when you’ve got “nothing” in the house. After just a few weeks of building meals from what you’ve got on hand, you’ll start to develop a repertoire of pantry-based suppers.

DinneronaDeadline-logoIn addition to this week’s recipe below, here are a few meals we make using pantry staples and just one or two fresh ingredients:

- Simple chilaquiles
- Fondue mac & cheese
- Weeknight paella
- Korean-style tacos
- Deep-dish pizza
- Pasta carbonara
- Pea and proscuitto risotto
- Pasta with leafy broccoli and sausage
- Sopa Azteca (tortilla soup)
- Ham, chickpea, and orzo salad
- Chorizo, potato, and mushroom tacos

That’s not an exhaustive list, by the way — that’s just the pantry-centric ideas we’ve already blogged about. Once you’ve got your own pantry stocked, you’ll see the possibilities and patterns in your own meals.

This week’s homework

Novice pantry-stockers: Organize your pantry space: Take everything out and put it on the counters, wipe down the shelves, and then put things back in an order than makes sense based on the way you use them. Same thing with the fridge and the freezer — they’re an extension of your pantry, after all. Give away (to the food bank / coworkers / freecycle) anything you don’t want to eat that’s taking up space. Think about the kinds of meals you like to eat, make a list of what’s missing, and stock up as your budget permits. Plan and cook at least two meals, each using a pantry ingredient you already have.

Extra for experts: Tackle the organization project above, plus one of these two options: (1) Write a post about at least 5 items in your pantry, and why they’ve earned a permanent spot on your shelves. (2) Buy yourself one splurge-worthy ingredient (Calabrian chiles, a new kind of rice, heirloom beans, etc.) and cook with it, using at least two existing pantry ingredients that you’ve let languish.

(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*(c)2010 AEC *All Rights Reserved*

This week’s recipe

I love this recipe — which really is more like a template — because it’s so flexible. Don’t have beef? Use the same quantity of sliced chicken, butterflied shrimp, ground pork, or tofu cubes. You can use pretty much any Asian noodle, too: Fresh, dry, egg, wheat, rice, curly, straight — they all work, so long as you’ve got close to the right quantity going into the wok. Any crunchy vegetables can take the place of the peas; we’ve used boy choy pieces, green beans, and celery cut on the bias; don’t be afraid to experiment.

When it comes to Thai-style curry paste; we like the Mae Ploy brand that comes in a plastic tub (it keeps almost forever in the freezer if you roll up the inside bag tightly); this recipe is especially good with the red and yellow varieties, but it’s flexible enough to use what you’ve got. Heat and saltiness vary widely, though, so if you’re using another brand, start out with less paste; if you find the end result is a little bland, spike it up with some fish sauce and/or chile flakes at the table, and make a note to adjust the recipe the next time. I like to mix it up by using half red curry paste and half peanut butter, which makes an especially tasty combination for little kids or other spice-phobic eaters.

This recipe can be made by one focused cook in less than 30 minutes from start to finish, but to streamline the post-work chaos, I generally do all of the prep the night before, then store all of the measured and cut ingredients in the fridge overnight.

Thai Curry Beef Noodles
- adapted from Big Bowl Noodles and Rice

For two servings — multiply as needed:
4 to 6 oz dry Asian wheat or egg noodles (for substitutions, see end of instructions)
Peanut or vegetable oil
6 oz beef (such as flank steak or sirloin tip) sliced thin across the grain into 2-inch lengths
1-1/2 tsp dark soy sauce (we like Kimlan Super Special)
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp cornstarch
1/3 cup homemade chicken stock (or water — canned broth is too salty)
1-2T fish sauce (depending on the saltiness of the curry paste)
1T fresh lime juice
1-1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 to 1 red chile (such as Fresno), julienned
1/4 cup thinly sliced red onion
a handful (12 to 15) snow or snap peas, cut in half on the diagonal
1 to 2T Thai curry paste (depending on how hot you like it; you can use half peanut butter)
1/4 cup peanuts, chopped
a few tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves

Bring 4 to 6 quarts of water to a boil and cook the noodles according to package directions. Drain, run under cold water, drain again, and toss with a teaspoon of peanut oil; set aside.

Mix the beef with the soy sauce, cornstarch, and sesame oil. In a separate bowl, mix the chicken stock with the fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar and whisk to blend. Set both the mixtures aside.

Heat 1/2 cup oil in a wok (or your largest skillet) over high heat until very hot but not smoking; add the beef, stirring to separate the slices. Using a slotted spoon or a spider, remove the meat to a clean plate when still pink in the center. Pour off the oil into a heatproof bowl.

Wipe the wok clean and return it to the burner over high heat. When hot, add 2T of the reserved oil. Add the chiles, onions, and peas; cook, tossing rapidly, until well coated with the oil. Scoot the vegetables to the side of the wok and add the curry paste to the bottom. Stir the paste around briefly in the oil to release the flavor. Add the seasoned stock mixture; bring to a boil, stirring or whisking to distribute the curry paste. Then, add the noodles.

Cook, tossing the noodles until mixed with the sauce and vegetables. Add the beef and toss briefly until everything is heated through and well mixed. Remove the cooked noodles to a platter, sprinkle with peanuts and chopped cilantro, and serve.

If you want to substitute other noodles, keep in mind that fresh noodles gain very little mass when cooked, where dry pastas can double or triple in size. You want 8 to 10 oz of cooked noodles for two servings. If you find you’ve prepped too many noodles, they keep for a day or two in the fridge, provided they’re tossed liberally in oil and well covered. They make a great snack or lunch when reheated with a little peanut butter, a splash of water or stock, and a sprinkling of chili flakes.

cooking, Dinner on a Deadline, recipes



Comment by Adrienne

I am really enjoying reading this series! I also just wanted to chime in and tell you how much I am enjoying your use of the word “larder,” because whenever people talk about a well-stocked pantry, they almost NEVER mean just the pantry.

Posted on 05.18.10 at 12:09PM

Comment by noëlle {simmer down!}

If anything, I’m guilty of the over-stocked pantry and letting ingredients languish- might have to tackle homework #2!

Probably my most-often-made pantry dinner is pasta puttanesca. Dried pasta, a can of good tomatoes, garlic, some anchovies, capers, black olives and red pepper flakes is all it takes! Best of all, unlike many pasta sauces, it actually tastes better if you cook it briefly rather than letting it simmer.

Posted on 05.18.10 at 12:11PM

Comment by melissa

I would add something else to that – bread dough. I’m a bit of an Artisan Bread In Five Minutes a Day apologist, I’ll admit, but having bread dough constantly in the freezer has been a rather brilliant move on my part. takes 5 minutes to bake a pita. Also, I can have a pizza ready in 25 minutes including oven heat time (or less depending on how thick I make the crust) and last night I was tired and uninspired and turned some leftovers into delicious pocket pies, done in about 15 minutes. If I have a little bit longer I can make a proper loaf of bread but it is still minimal effort since the dough is already made.

Posted on 05.18.10 at 12:27PM

Comment by Anita

Adrienne: I am a collector of almost-archaic words, and “larder” is one of my favorites (“fortnight” is another). Let’s start a campaign to get it back into popular usage. :)

Noëlle: Cameron suggested I add a section to the post about the overstuffing issue, but (a) it was getting so long, (b) I figured most people had the opposite problem, and (c) the pantry clean-out homework should help. But you (and he) raise a good point: “Your pantry is not a packrat storage space for your dreams. It’s a workbench/toolkit.” So be ruthless when you’re decluttering, eh?

Melissa: We freeze pie dough, puff pastry dough, and even pizza dough, and loaves of homemade bread, but we’ve never frozen bread dough. What a great idea. Pita in 5 minutes, wow — Do you freeze it already shaped, then? How long does it take to defrost?

Posted on 05.18.10 at 12:43PM

Comment by Aimee @ Simple Bites

Thanks for the shout-out, Anita!

What a marvelous, comprehensive post. I especially like the part about splurging on one specialty pantry item. Chocolate, please!

Posted on 05.19.10 at 11:34AM

Comment by Jennifer Hess

Looks like I’ve got my work cut out for me – I’m overdue for my annual spring cleaning and (love it) larder inventory, so this is very timely :)

Posted on 05.19.10 at 11:39AM

Comment by Helene

Here’s a story/idea/ other way to make the pantry cleaning task a bit easier. I usually enroll the help of a friend of mine who also likes to cook, mush easier for the process that follows. She comes to the house and we pull everything out. Things are still good so I pull out items I have languishing there because I got them on a whim or never really use them and tell her to pick whichever she wants and take them home. We clean, chat, catch up, have cookies and coffee, etc…That same week I go to her house and we do the same thing with her pantry and more cookies….or wine. In the end, we get to spend time together, trade off ingredients, and get the job done.

Love that noodle dish!

Posted on 05.19.10 at 6:46PM

Comment by Anita

Aimee: Hey, as long as you cook with it, chocolate is always OK with me.

Jen: Excellent, I love it when the timing works out.

Helene: Sounds like an AWESOME plan. When do you want me to come over?! ;)

Posted on 05.19.10 at 8:51PM

Comment by melissa

I just realized I initially typed “bread dough in the freezer” [in the first comment] – I meant to type “fridge” there. Sorry for the confusion!

I actually usually don’t bother freezing it at all. The way ABi5 has you do it is, you make up a really wet dough and it keeps in your refrigerator after its initial rise for up to 2 weeks. During that time you can just grab some whenever you need, and shape a loaf or roll out into pizza dough or whatever. For pita all you have to do is heat your oven, grab a little hunk, shape into a ball and roll it out really thin, toss it on the hot pizza stone inside, and bake it about 5 mins.

You CAN freeze it, of course, and then thaw it before shaping and baking. But honestly, my dough never really lasts long enough to make that necessary. :D (I make pizza at least once a week…I’m a bit of a pizza fiend.) I also alternate which doughs I use to make it more interesting.

Posted on 05.19.10 at 8:58PM

Comment by Tamara

I just wanted to say that I love the weeknight dinner series, especially that you write it for the way you (and we) cook and eat. The average weeknight dinner article seems to focus on excusing you for having a busy life, then helping you make up for it by incorporating boring and over-processed foods into your diet. Thanks for such real and well thought out posts.

Posted on 05.20.10 at 8:03AM

Comment by Ellen

I got so excited making this dinner I forgot to photograph most of it!


Posted on 05.21.10 at 7:13PM

Comment by Scott_D

OK, so I’m no good about following directions, but I am good about cooking from my pantry and freezer. My pantry is in good shape as we moved less than a year ago. In fact, I’m still stocking it as I find items.

One item I found this week at Genova Delicatessen is Beretta quick cook polenta. I find it as good as the long cook and way superior to the tubed cooked stuff. It cooks in 5-6 minutes. One way I use it frequently for very quick meal is with Sausage and Peppers.

I always have some kind of sausage in the freezer, usually Italian, but sometimes Chicken Apple. Any kind works, fully cooked makes things faster. When bell peppers are in the discount bin I buy them, core, seed and freeze them. It’s nice to have at least green and red, but all colors are good.

I slice an onion or two, sauté them with some of the sliced peppers, then dump in a 14oz can of tomatoes, some basil & oregano (fresh or dried) and simmer for a few minutes. Cook the polenta, sauté or grill the sausage or just throw in with the tomatoes, onions and peppers. Serve that mixture over the polenta topped with a little parmesan or asiago or whatever cheese.

With the help of the microwave for defrosting, you can have this on the table in 15 minutes or so. My only problem with is that I usually end up with too much of the sauce. I just put it in the fridge and it’s great on sandwiches.

Posted on 05.23.10 at 9:44AM

Comment by MarocMama

I’m a week behind but I’m here!! http://www.marocmama.com/2010/06/never-have-kitchen-without-them.html

Posted on 06.01.10 at 9:06PM

Pingback by Caviar and Codfish » Blog Archive » Shrimp with Soffritto

[...] you need to shell the shrimp yourself.  It’s a good example of how to cook for Anita’s Dinner on a Deadline project, where one of the key ways to keep down your weekday meal prep time is to have a well-stocked [...]

Posted on 06.24.10 at 2:16PM

Comment by Gudrun

I knew I was a big girl when I had all the ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies on hand and did not need to run to the store. That was great. I felt totally in control of my kitchen!

Posted on 07.06.10 at 12:22PM

Comment by Barb

Found your blog today after googling “recipes using chorizo, yellow curry, broccoli, noodles. Found week 2; organizing the pantry and the recipe of day will work well tonight!! I’ll need to keep reading!

Posted on 09.22.10 at 12:17PM

Pingback by 20-Minute Lies « FUSSYlittleBLOG

[...] think the emphasis needs to be put on how to find the time to cook, and tools that can help.  A slow cooker is invaluable and allows you to keep food safely [...]

Posted on 01.12.11 at 5:22AM

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.