Be prepared, whether it’s for cold weather or a quick meal when you’re too tired to plan ahead.
Every so often, I assess what’s on the shelves in my kitchen and figure out ways to get the bounty into our meals. A quick look recently revealed canned tuna, tomatoes and beans; boxes of pasta, grits and couscous; rice; a tube of polenta; multiple bottles of salad dressing and marinade, and even packets of seasoning for tacos and slow-cooker dishes. What was the original plan for the Marshmallow Fluff and jumbo shells? I can’t remember, but the shelf-stable stuff needs to be used if for no other reason than to make room for more.
The freezer held promise, too. In the icy depths were treasures to be unearthed, or at least thawed and cooked. Bags and boxes of frozen veggies, and even chicken, pork and sausage can be put to good use.
I am no food hoarder, but I often take advantage of buy-one-get-one-free offers on such items as pasta sauces, canned tomatoes, olive oil, salad dressings, tuna, mayonnaise, bacon, frozen meatballs and butter. I have to stop myself sometimes, knowing I already have three jars of pasta sauce in the pantry and that the deals come around frequently.
To save on groceries and to use up my stores, I took inventory of what I had and came up with some recipes to match, enough to get us through the workweek. One is below. My plan required a stop at the store to pick up vegetables and other perishables, but the weekly bill was much less.
Canned tuna: Good for tuna melts (in a skillet or under the broiler as an open-face treat) or tuna noodle casserole, which uses up a box of bow-tie pasta. I prepare a simple version by making a sauce from two small tubs of Alouette or Boursin cheese with herbs, loosened with some of the hot pasta water. Mix cooked pasta into sauce, then add two cans of drained tuna and a handful of peas and heat through. Simple, and my people love it. Plus, there are always leftovers to take for lunch.
Salad dressing: Vinaigrettes make great marinades for flank or skirt steak, plus you can brush them on vegetables or seafood headed for the grill. The lineup of bottles in the pantry also reminds me that we can have a big salad for dinner, chock full of vegetables and topped with grilled protein.
Frozen spinach: The uses for chopped frozen spinach are nearly endless, so we have plenty of “Florentined” meals at our house. From omelets to quiches, soups to baked dips, frozen spinach brings the nutrition and flavor. It can also be used in lasagna, casseroles, frittatas, pizza and stuffed shells (ah, that’s how I can use those jumbos!). Thaw and squeeze out as much water as you can before using; otherwise, your finished dish will be runny.
Canned beans: I make a simple soup of chicken broth, white beans, sliced sausage and fresh spinach to rousing reviews at the table. A salad, some bread and the meal is complete. There’s enough flavor from the broth and sausage that I don’t even need to season it. Occasionally I toss in a can of diced, seasoned tomatoes (or even stewed tomatoes). There are so many varieties of beans that can add flavor and bulk to soups, stews and chili. For vegetarians, beans are a source of protein. White beans and garbanzos can also be puréed with olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs for dips.
Canned tomatoes: At my house, two cans of fire-roasted tomatoes become a creamy soup by heating with a bit of broth and half-and-half or condensed milk, then puréeing. If I have fresh basil, I chop and garnish with ribbons before serving. A home cook should never be without cans of diced tomatoes, which can augment soups, stews and chili, but are also excellent for pasta sauces and meatloaf. I brown boneless, skinless chicken thighs, then let them simmer with seasoned diced tomatoes. Once the chicken gets tender, I serve it over egg noodles.
Rice and couscous: Always tasty as sides (make the rice Spanish-style by adding a can of diced tomatoes and some minced garlic), they are also solid bases for cold salads. Couscous is an amiable partner with mint, cucumber, diced tomatoes and feta cheese dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. Add a can of garbanzo beans to use another pantry staple. I serve this salad with grilled meats, and it’s also a welcome potluck offering. Rice — white or brown — is versatile as a salad component. I’ve made a curried rice salad mixed with diced Granny Smith apples and toasted almonds dressed with curry powder mixed with mayonnaise. A squeeze of fresh lemon brings all the flavors together.
Spaghetti sauce: Meatball-mozzarella subs draped with pasta sauce is an easy way to use up a jar in the pantry. But a jar of pasta sauce can do so much more: Stir a spoonful or two into polenta or grits; spread on bread for grilled-cheese sandwiches; use as a simmer sauce for fish; dump into stew; offer as a dipping sauce for breadsticks, or add to slow-cooker brisket. You can also make the colorfully named “eggs in purgatory” by simmering 1 cup pasta sauce in a small skillet, then cracking in 2 eggs. Cover and cook until the whites set, then top with freshly ground pepper and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.