In good and tough times, pantry-to-plate is a smart way of eating.

By Chris Malloy
March 23, 2020

Pantry staples can transform your cooking, as anyone who embraces pantry building knows. Pantry staples, of course, will never be a substitute for fresh food. They’re a strategic supplement. But even when using pantry staples as a meal’s main ingredient, you don’t have to lose flavor. So stock your pantry with these five items that, with some time and a few other ingredients, can be the centerpiece of tasty meals.

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1
Grits or polenta.

It doesn’t get much homier than a bowl of grits or polenta and a square of melting butter. Both staples carry the mild fragrance of corn. If you have grits or polenta made from heirloom corn  (like Anson Mills), they’ll likely carry that fragrance more deeply, reaching notes that commodity versions can’t. Both grits and polenta taste delicious alongside grilled or slow-cooked meats, making for a truly comforting meal.

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2
Curry paste.

Making curry paste from scratch is a task. And the hardest part? Tracking down the many highly specialized ingredients, like shrimp paste and galangal. You don’t have time to do this whenever you want curry, and that’s where canned curry paste lends a huge time savings. (We love the brand Maesri, widely available at Asian markets and online.) Four-ounce tins provide enough curry for a meal for three to four people. They come in popular Thai curry blends, such as red, green, Panang, and Massaman. To use them, bring a 16-ounce can of coconut milk to a boil, then stir in the curry paste. Add some stock or water to thin the mix some, then drop in whatever cooked vegetables and proteins you have on hand.  

3
Dry soba noodles.

These Japanese buckwheat noodles are best fresh, but dry can be equally delicious. Long and thin, soba noodles cook faster than Italian pasta. They have impressive range. In warmer months, soba can be served cold for dipping in sauces like dashi, the Japanese broth of kombu and bonito flakes. They can also be a main component in all kinds of soups, stir-frys, chilled noodle dishes, and salads. (If going salad, consider a miso dressing.)

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4
Almond butter.

Something seriously magical happens when almonds are turned to fine pieces and oils. And that something makes almond butter a great candidate for a starring role in breakfast or lunch. Slather toast with almond butter and honey, and you have a healthy, satisfying breakfast. For lunch, almond butter and your favorite jam is one sneakily delicious evolution of good-old peanut butter and jelly.

5
Quality pasta.

Good dry pasta has a short road to a great meal. Dry pasta thrives with other pantry ingredients. You can make restaurant-worthy pasta with just garlic and olive oil, your favorite premade or homemade pesto, or a can of tomatoes and butter. You don’t need much. And that, lucky for cooks building pantry meals, is exactly the point! When buying boxed pasta, choose those crafted with bronze dyes. When dry pastas have been extruded through machines with traditional dyes, they gain a white fuzziness on the noodle surface. This roughness not only “catches” sauce better, it indicates that a pasta artisan knows the old ways of the craft.

 

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