Keep calm and cook on: Tips on cooking from your pantry during a pandemic
If the endless lines and empty shelves at H-E-B last week were any indication, Austinites are getting ready to spend a whole lot more time in the kitchen.
It’s a good time to start thinking about falling back in love with cooking at home.
That means digging deep into your pantry and freezer, keeping tabs on what you have on hand and buying ingredients responsibly.
Here are some thoughts on keeping calm and carrying on — in the kitchen — during the coronavirus pandemic:
Treat fresh food like gold. Fresh produce makes a huge difference in terms of what you can make and how much you’ll enjoy it, so make sure to use whatever you have on hand or in the backyard garden before it goes to waste. It’s a good idea to have a few bags of frozen vegetables in the freezer, but use up fresh produce first.
Get creative about where you buy your food. In Austin, small food shops, such as Antonelli’s Cheese Shop and Con’ Olio, are also a good choice if you need crackers, olive oil, cheeses, chocolate or condiments. Farmhouse Delivery is your best bet to buy both fresh and nonperishable products from Texas-based food companies, including cheese, meats, dairy and produce. They also offer meal kits.
Local farmstands and farmers markets, as of publication, are still open for shoppers to buy directly from local farms. If you want to get that produce delivered to your house, you might look into signing up for a community-supported agriculture box. Many local farms, including Johnson’s Backyard Garden and Green Gate Farms, are continuing with their spring CSA boxes. Farmhouse Delivery is another option for buying local produce for delivery.
If you’re cooking mostly at home for the first time in a while, you might not have much in your pantry or freezer to start with. Grocery store delivery services are in overdrive right now, but there are a number of other options to get pantry staples and even fresh goods to your house.
Imperfect Produce offers both fresh produce and shelf-stable grocery goods for delivery, and Thrive Market specializes in delivering nonperishable products that are organic. The food companies behind your favorite snacks often offer straight-to-customer delivery service through their own websites.
Consider meal kits. If you have no idea where to start shopping or cooking — and don’t mind spending a little extra per serving — you would probably benefit from trying a meal kit from companies including HelloFresh, Blue Apron, Green Chef, Purple Carrot, Sun Basket and Marley and Co. They will ship both the ingredients and the recipes directly to your house.
Pick a food rabbit hole and go down it. Maybe there’s a stack of food magazines you have been meaning to go through or a specialty food blog bookmarked on your computer. This is a great time to pull down any cookbooks on your bookshelves or look at the folder of clipped recipes you’ve been collecting for years.
Start making a list of meals you think you might want to make, using the tools and ingredients you have on hand to help guide which ones you pick. That might mean you’re making risotto or samosas for the first time, but cooking new foods will help keep you from getting bored.
Even if you don’t usually make a meal plan, it can benefit the whole family to have something to look forward to if everyone is staying close to home.
Let recipes inspire you, but don’t feel discouraged if you don’t have every single ingredient or don’t want to make every component of a dish. Spices and seasonings can be transferred to other cooking techniques, and vice versa, so a barbecue chicken pizza recipe might inspire you to make barbecue chicken nachos, or instead of making a Spanish chickpea stew, you might use Indian spices.
Get organized. I’ll admit it: My pantry is a mess. Half-opened bags of pasta and chips, forgotten bottles of barbecue sauce, cans of tuna that I really need to eat already. Taking some time to clean out the pantry, fridge and freezer will make them much more enjoyable to use. I’m hoping to move as many dried ingredients as I can into jars and replace the light in my pantry so I can (finally) see what’s in there.
Lean into the legumes. “Cool Beans” author Joe Yonan says he can’t think of a single dish where meat is used that beans couldn’t also work, and I think he’s right. Lentils are also versatile and can go into veggie burgers, kitchari or even as a substitute for ground beef on Taco Tuesday.
Love your leftovers. I’ve been on a leftovers soapbox for months, and now is definitely the time to find ways to spiff up leftovers by working them into other meals, freezing them for later or making an effort to eat them before they spoil.
Pull out those air fryers, countertop griddles and Instant Pots. If you can’t use them now, there’s no sense in having them. The same is true with the backyard grill. If you’re not “grilling,” you can heat a cast iron stove or comal on top of the fire or gas flame and enjoy the evening outside.
You love your grains, and so do bugs. Even the best cooks on the block have dealt with pantry moths or weevils before, so if you haven’t used your flour (or rice or crackers or cereal or cornmeal) in a while, check to make sure they don’t have little critters, which can multiply quickly and put a damper on your pantry party.
Plan ahead, but stay flexible and alert. And don’t panic. I don’t like the idea of running out of eggs or butter, but I’m also not going to stockpile them. My plan is to just keep an eye on my supply of perishable (and nonperishable) goods and restock them when I can, while maintaining a sense of optimism that I can make it work, as former “Project Runway” mentor Tim Gunn would say.
Massaman Curry With Chicken and Potatoes
Thai curries are some of the easiest make-it-yourself takeout meals to try cooking at home. But you need two key ingredients: a can of Thai curry paste and a can of coconut milk.
Coconut milk is mainstream at this point, and you can find these little 4-ounce cans of Maesri curry pastes at international markets and at the South Austin restaurant Thai Fresh, which also sells the lemongrass and Thai lime leaves. I keep these store-bought pastes and cans of coconut milk in my pantry for quick dinners that sometimes require only the two cans of curry, plus a pound of protein, such as chicken, beef or shrimp. You could use tempeh, pork or tofu, if you prefer.
In Jam Sanitchat’s 2013 cookbook, “The Everything Thai Cookbook,” she shares recipes for making about 20 different curries, from yellow curries with fish to the sweeter panang curry that is usually paired with beef. They all share a similar process: Cook the curry paste in a little coconut cream (or, as I’ve learned, coconut oil) and then simmer the meat with the coconut milk and curry paste. Add some fish sauce, tamarind and sugar, if desired. Serve over rice.
– Addie Broyles
1 (13.5-ounce) can coconut milk
12 pieces bone-in chicken thighs and/or drumsticks
1/2 cup Massaman curry paste
2 tablespoons roasted peanuts
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon tamarind concentrate (or 2 tablespoons tamarind water) (optional)
2 cups large-cubed sweet or regular potatoes
1 medium onion, chopped into bite-size pieces (optional)
2 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick (optional)
4 cardamom pods (optional)
Do not shake the coconut milk. Scoop the cream on top of the coconut milk cans, about halfway down, into a medium saucepan. In another saucepan, bring the other half of the coconut milk to a boil. Add chicken pieces and simmer for 45 minutes over low heat.
Bring coconut cream that was scooped out to a boil over medium heat. Stir in curry paste and turn down the heat to low. Simmer at low heat, without stirring, until fragrant and coconut cream starts to release some oil, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add chicken and the simmering liquid to the fried paste. Add the peanuts.
Bring to a boil over medium heat. Season with sugar, fish sauce and tamarind, if using. Add sweet potatoes, onions, bay leaves, cinnamon stick and cardamom. Simmer for 10 minutes. Taste and adjust as needed. Serve.
— Adapted from “The Everything Thai Cookbook” by Jam Sanitchat (Everything, $18.95)
Roasted Squash and Farro Salad With Feta
Wondering what to do with all the dried grains in your pantry? This salad from Farmhouse Delivery would work with farro, millet, bulgur, quinoa, brown or wild rice, and you can use any seasonal squash. Each grain will cook a little differently, so look it up on the package or online if you’re unsure. The feta-squash mixture would even be good served on a bed of polenta. Farmhouse sells feta from Bee Tree Farm and farro from Homestead Gristmill, as well as other kitchen staples from around Texas. They also sell meal kits.
– Addie Broyles
1 medium-large winter squash (butternut, pumpkin, acorn, red kuri)
8 ounces dried farro
2 small sweet red peppers, diced
1 bunch green onion, sliced thin (white part and about 1/2-inch of green)
1 small handful parsley leaves, chopped
4 to 6 ounces feta cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 teaspoon whole grain or Dijon mustard
1/2 cup olive oil, plus extra olive oil for roasting squash
Salt and pepper, to taste
Peel and cut squash into 1 1/2-inch cubes. For soft-skinned winter squash (such as acorn or delicata), you can go ahead and skip the peeling process. Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Toss the squash cubes with olive oil, salt and pepper and spread out onto a baking sheet. Roast, tossing once or twice, until tender and lightly browned.
Rinse and drain 1 cup farro. Place in a pot and add 1/2 teaspoon salt and enough water or stock to cover (about 3 cups). Bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 30 minutes. Drain off any excess water. When farro is cooked, spread out on baking sheet until cool.
When it’s cool, place in a large bowl, and add peppers, green onions and parsley. Set aside and make the dressing. Place lemon juice and mustard together in a small bowl. Whisk together until combined and continue whisking while drizzling in olive oil until dressing is emulsified.
Pour over farro mixture, stir to combine and correct seasoning with extra salt and pepper if necessary. Add roasted squash pieces and feta cheese and lightly toss again. Refrigerate or serve at room temperature.
– Adapted from a recipe by Farmhouse Delivery
A reliable pantry staple, packaged instant ramen, enjoys a cult status with many, from cash-strapped college students to gourmet chefs. The slice of processed American cheese adds comforting, savory creaminess and is a nod to the days following the Korean War when iconic American foods flooded South Korea.
– Jane Black
1 cup water
3/4 cup coconut milk
One (3-ounce) packet instant ramen noodles, such as Maruchan Ramen Noodle Soup
1/4 cup frozen green beans
1 tablespoon creamy peanut butter (optional)
1/2 teaspoon curry powder, plus more for garnish
1 slice American cheese, such as Kraft
Add 1 cup of water to a medium pot and bring to a boil. Add the coconut milk, noodles, green beans and peanut butter, if using, and cook, stirring now and then, for about 3 minutes.
Remove from the heat and add the curry powder and half of the spice mix from the ramen packet and stir until fully dissolved, about 1 minute. (Discard the remaining spice mix.)
Transfer the ramen and its broth to a large bowl and place the cheese on top. Dust with more curry powder and serve. Serves 1 to 2.
– Adapted from chef Edward Lee
Padma Lakshmi’s Kitchari
"Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi loves to serve her family and friends kitchari, a much-loved Indian food that she describes it as a savory rice-and-lentil porridge. Lakshmi makes the dish a bit healthier by tweaking the traditional recipe. For example, the dish usually is made with 2 cups of rice to 1 cup of lentils, but Lakshmi reverses that to have the lentils be the main ingredient. The legumes are boiled with a bay leaf and a bit of salt. When she makes the dish for family and friends, she sautes vegetables and adds them to the porridge, which makes it healthier still. Here, the kitchari is made with more pantry-friendly ingredients. It gets its spice from black mustard seeds and dried red chile peppers.
– Jane Black
1 cup yellow or green lentils
1/2 cup basmati rice
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
1/2 cup diced carrots (about 1 large)
2 tablespoons canola oil
2 to 3 dried red chiles, or more to taste
3/4 teaspoon black mustard seeds
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or ghee (optional)
Rinse the lentils and rice until the water runs clear. In a large stockpot, add the lentils, rice and bay leaf and enough cold water to cover the ingredients by about 3 inches. Stir in enough salt so that the water tastes lightly salty.
Set the pot over medium-high heat and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking on the bottom, about 20 minutes. Stir in the carrots and cook, stirring a few times, until the rice is tender and the porridge is the consistency of oatmeal, about 10 minutes. If any foam forms during cooking, skim it off If the mixture seems too dry during cooking, add water, a little at a time, as needed.
When the rice is just about cooked, in a shallow pan over medium-high heat, heat the canola oil until shimmering. Add the chiles, mustard seeds, cumin and pepper and cook, stirring, until the mustard seeds begin to pop, about 3 minutes. Add the oil and spice mixture (called chhonk) to the porridge. Stir in the butter or ghee, if using.
Remove from the heat, divide among bowls and serve. Serves 4 to 6.
– Adapted from "Top Chef" host Padma Lakshmi
Microwaved Migas (Migas in a Mug)
If the great Mug Cake trend of the mid-2010s taught us anything, it’s that you can make many meals, including savory food, in a coffee mug. Not all the mug meals from that era have carried into the 2020s, but microwaved scrambled eggs have. Crack a couple of eggs in a mug, whisk with salt and a little milk and microwave in 1-minute increments, stirring in between them. This version from the Central Texas Food Bank includes tortillas or tortilla chips to make those scrambled eggs into migas. The recipe calls for 6 eggs cooked in a large microwave-safe dish, but you could scale it back to just 1 or 2 in a coffee mug for a single serving. A quick and easy breakfast, no matter if you’re working from home or in a hurry to get out the door.
– Addie Broyles
6 corn tortillas, cut into wedges (or several handfuls of stale tortilla chips)
6 tablespoons milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoons pepper
6 tablespoons shredded Mexican cheese blend, low-fat
6 tablespoons salsa
For tortilla chips, cut tortillas into triangles, by first cutting tortilla in half and then small wedges. Place tortilla pieces in a microwave safe dish or on a paper towel. Spread them out evenly in one layer and microwave for 1 minute, 3 tortillas at a time. Flip them over and heat for another 1-2 minutes.
Beat eggs and milk with a fork in a bowl or the same microwave dish you will be using. Add salt, pepper and cheddar and stir.
Add tortilla chips into microwave dish along with the salsa. Set some aside for garnish. Stir to combine.
Microwave on high for about 6-8 minutes or until done. Stir egg and tortilla mix halfway through the cooking process to ensure even cooking.
Slice into 3 pieces, and garnish with tortilla chips, Greek yogurt, salsa, cheese and cilantro. Serves 3.
– Adapted from a Central Texas Food Bank recipe
Spanish Chickpea Stew
Raisins and chickpeas are almost always in my pantry, and I have a brick of frozen spinach that has been waiting to be used for probably a year. This recipe from the Central Texas Food Bank combines all three into a quick stew that doesn’t require anything fresh. (Use 1/2 teaspoon dried garlic if you don’t have whole cloves.) Switch to vegetable broth or bouillon to make it vegan.
– Addie Broyles
1 1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons garlic, minced
2 cups onion, diced
2 teaspoons ground smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
3/4 cup raisins
1 cup low-sodium canned diced tomatoes
1 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 can (15.5-ounce) canned low-sodium chickpeas (garbanzo beans), drained and rinsed
3 cups frozen chopped spinach, thawed or 1 (13.5-ounce) canned chopped spinach
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
In a large pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute. Add onions and continue to cook for 2 to 3 minutes until onions are translucent. Mix in paprika and cumin.
Add spinach and cook for 7 minutes. Add chickpeas (garbanzo beans), raisins, tomatoes and chicken stock. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered for 7 to 10 minutes, or until raisins are plump. Add vinegar, salt and pepper. Mix well. Serve hot. Serves 5.
– Adapted from a Central Texas Food Bank recipe