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Published: Tuesday, 6/10/2008

Ordinary Ingredients: Stock your pantry for quick, inexpensive meals

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

Among the 150 items you probably have stocked in your pantry, can you pull an impromptu dinner together quickly?

If you can t, you need to think about new buying patterns to stock your shelves or fill your freezer. It s a great way to save money, both at the supermarket and with unbudgeted meals. It s a great way to avoid impulse buying because there s always a meal you can prepare quickly from your cupboard.

But right off, many readers would dispute the idea of having 150 items in the pantry. That figure came from recipe development specialist Cynthia Holub of the J.M. Smucker Co. at a seminar for media at the Pillsbury Bake-Off in Dallas in April.

Not that any of us have the time to count the spice bottles, sauces, canned goods, and baking ingredients. But the truth is you have more than you think. My spice rack holds 32 different items. I know I have at least 10 different vinegars, assorted bottles of vegetable oil, sugars, flours and cracker crumbs for dusting entrees as well as crumbs for pie shells. That adds up to 75 items right there. Then there s the pastas, rice, crackers, juices, jams, jellies, peanut butter, and assorted condiments from ketchup, mustard, pickles..., well, you get the picture.

Actually, some of this stuff should be thrown out. I should use the space for real food that will turn ordinary ingredients into extraordinary meals.

It s about what s in the pantry, said Ms. Holub at the seminar. Reinvent the pantry to demystify meal preparation.

Start by making a meal plan using dishes you can make with confidence. Use simple recipes with minimal ingredients.

For example, a basic Quick Tomato Sauce made with five or six ingredients (onion, olive oil or canola oil, minced garlic, crushed tomatoes, salt and pepper, minced parsley) stocked in your pantry can be turned into a variety of meals. Variations come from adding fresh produce, herbs and dairy; proteins, spices, condiments, and accompanying entrees or side dishes.

As you develop a meal plan, get the entire family involved. Pick 10 recipes, said Ms. Holub. Choose a variety of recipes with different flavors, textures and techniques. For example, one recipe might involve stir-fry, another call for sauteing ingredients, and a third involve grilling.

Spice things up with ethnic flavors or create variations of basic recipes. You can improvise, she said. Substitute one ingredient for another. Add proteins. Use ethnic combinations of ingredients such as Greek flavors of olive oil, lemon, and yogurt.

For a Quick Chicken Saute, add a variation with Balsamic-Thyme Sauce or make a Chicken Piccata. For Quick Tomato Sauce add sausage and peppers.

The key is having the ingredients on hand.

Many recipes use ethnic variations. Using the basic tomato sauce, here are several flavor profiles from Smucker s family of products:

For Creole, add 1 cup finely diced green pepper and celery and 2 cups frozen cut okra; 1 cup cooked andouille smoked sausage, and 1 teaspoon Creole seasoning blend plus chili powder to taste. Pair with seafood, chicken, rice, or gumbo.

For Indian, add 2 teaspoons finely grated fresh gingerroot, 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice, and cup fresh cilantro (omit parsley in basic tomato sauce recipe), 2 teaspoons curry powder, 1 teaspoons garam masala, and teaspoon cayenne or to taste. Pair this with lamb, seafood, chicken vegetables, rice and grains, or legumes.

For Italian, serve with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese adding 2 cans small white beans, rinsed, and drained, 2 teaspoons oregano, 3 tablespoons capers, and 1 cup sliced pimento stuffed olives. Pair with spaghetti, gemelli pasta, corkscrew pasta, cheese ravioli, or tortellini.

For Mexican, add 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice and cup fresh chopped cilantro (omit parsley), 2 teaspoons onion powder, teaspoon cinnamon, and ounce unsweetened chocolate for a mole-style sauce. Serve with poultry, seafood, pork, rice, or corn/flour tortillas.

Ms. Holub s Southwestern option is similar to the Mexican flavors. Add cup chopped fresh cilantro (omit parsley), 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained, 1 cups frozen sweet corn, 1 teaspoon cumin, teaspoon crushed red pepper, and 4 ounces green chilies, drained. Pair with rice, corn/flour tortillas, or pasta.

For Middle Eastern or Greek, serve with 1 cup crumbled feta cheese (optional), add 1 pound ground lamb browned and drained, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, teaspoon allspice, and 1 cup sliced Mediterranean olives. Pair with basmati rice, couscous, or pasta.

Don t underestimate the versatility of canned foods. Stock canned tomatoes, canned vegetables, and canned fruit for many options.

Then when you don t have fresh lettuce, you can make a marinated bean salad. Use canned vegetables in soups, stews, and casseroles.

When you don t have fresh fruit, make ambrosia from canned fruit. Or use canned fruit in gelatin salads, which everyone finds so refreshing especially at pot lucks.

You can t hold these gelatin salads very well in summertime picnics unless you have refrigeration.

As I write this, I m thinking about what should be in my pantry for a quick dinner and what is there.

I always have frozen homemade spaghetti sauce in my freezer. So pasta is a staple. I always have noodles, canned cream of mushroom soup, and tuna fish for tuna noodle casserole.

The ingredients for green bean casserole is also another staple: 2 cans French style green beans, 1 can mushroom soup, and 1 can french fried onions.

Ingredients for chili, tacos, and homemade soup are also a good lunch or dinner option. I keep potatoes, carrots, and onions in my refrigerator crisper, always ready for a pot roast or a side dish. Rice and the ingredients for a teriyaki sauce or a stir-fry are a must.

As for desserts, a cake mix and confectioners sugar for frosting and chocolate chips for baking and unsweetened chocolate for brownies are among my staples.

But if I don t have a cake mix, I have several from-scratch cake recipes that use basic ingredients.

Some foods have use-by dates that needed to be checked especially processed foods such as stuffing croutons and any type of breading mix because of the oil content, which can go rancid with age.

Make your list 10 recipes you need to stock for your pantry and freezer. It will help your shopping, your planning, and your budget. Best of all, dinner on a week night will be a whole lot easier.

Kathie Smith is The Blade s food editor. Contact her at food@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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