Stocked pantry? Check. Stocked fridge and freezer? Check. Now what?
Most people have stockpiled enough food necessary to make it through the 14 day shutdowns ordered in many areas. Cooking at first will be easy - you’ll make relatively the same things you do on a “normal” day. But what about day 10 and beyond?
That’s when creativity and a bit of knowledge come into play. I cannot stress this enough…if you know how food ‘works’ you can make anything. If you understand how aromas and flavors and textures come together you can create a crowd-pleasing meal out of very little.
Let me explain.
Take plain white rice, for example. Plain rice is well…plain. Flavorless. Boring. But add some salt and umami in the form of Furikake…and POW! Deliciousness. Something as simple as shaking some seaweed flakes and toasted sesame seeds takes boring to wow in no time at all.
Is everything in cooking that simple? No. But, it can be.
The flavor profiles you enjoy in restaurants - BBQ, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, whatever…they all come down to spices and cooking techniques. Think about it: Almost every cuisine uses meats, rice, beans and veggies in some combination.
BBQ: mustards, sugars, cumin, peppers, salts, time and heat.
Mexican: cumin, cilantro, peppers, salt, garlic, onion, grilling and roasting
Italian: onion, garlic, basil, oregano, rosemary, olive oils, slow and low heat
Japanese: miso, shoyu (soy sauce), seaweeds, vinegars, salts, grilling, simmering and flash cooking
Middle Eastern: za'atar, cumin, garlic, olive oil, parsley, cinnamon, grilling, slow roasting
Obviously, these are not an exhaustive list of the myriad of spices used or techniques of the above cuisines. It’s just as example of how spices and techniques are shared across cultures but result in vastly different foods. I highly recommend Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat as the primer on how food ‘works’ (she also has a Netflix series by the same name). Needless to say, if you have eaten food, you’ve seen these ideas in action.
The point is you can pick a random pantry ingredient - say, lentils - and with a few added ingredients have a delicious, nutritious and easy meal. Lentils are the workhorse of the pantry. Anything you make with ground beef you can make with lentils. If you have an InstaPot, you can have cooked lentils in about 9 minutes or so - that is magic. Otherwise, after rinsing (which you need to do no matter which method you choose), simply add lentils to a pot, add water in a 1:2 ratio (2 c water for every 1c lentils), any seasonings you wish to use (NO SALT) bring to a rapid simmer, then reduce heat and simmer uncovered 20-30 minutes until lentils are slightly tender. Strain. Salt and serve or use in a recipe. This works for all types of lentils. Lentils can be frozen or kept in the refrigerator for 4 days which makes them ideal for meal prep or just having on hand for lazy days.
If you Google “lentil recipes," you will be faced with 52,100,000 results! As I said, lentils are the workhorse of the pantry. We eat them a few ways around here, but our favorites are Mujadara (a Lebanese rice and lentil dish), lentil tacos, and for St. Paddy’s Day - lentil shepherd’s pie. All of the recipes I will cook this week use basic pantry staples and (if available) a few fresh or frozen ingredients. I will note how to work around a lack of fresh ingredients where possible.
Let’s get cooking!
Mujadara Recipe (Lebanese Lentils and Rice)
- 1c. Stock or water (I make my own veggie stock from scraps I freeze, boxed or prepared bouillon is just fine)
- 1c. Cooked lentils
- 1c. Cooked rice
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 1 onion (I use 1tsp. Onion powder as my crowd isn’t into the texture of onions)
- 1 teaspoon za’atar* (see note on faking your own)
- 1/2 teaspoon Garlic powder (can omit - we just love garlic and use it in everything)
- Lemon (can use bottled lemon juice or just omit - adds brightness to dish)
- 1. Heat large pan with 1/2 Tablespoon of the olive oil on medium - high heat.
- 2. Add onion and cook until soft and slightly brown (skip steps 1& 2 if using onion powder)
- 3. In a small bowl, toss lentils, za’atar (or fake), onion powder (if using), garlic and rest of olive oil until lentils are coated.
- 4. Add lentils, cooked rice and stock to pan with onion (if using) and cook until liquid evaporates.
- 5. Remove from pan, drizzle with lemon juice (if using) and serve.
*NOTE: Fake za’atar (real za’atar uses sumac, sesame seeds, thyme and salt)
- 1/2 tsp. Cumin
- 1/2 tsp. Sesame seeds
- 1/2 tsp. Thyme
- 1/2 tsp salt
Lentil Tacos Recipe
- 2c. Cooked lentils
- 1 Tablespoon Light oil (I use safflower, anything is fine here)
- 1tsp cumin*
- 1tsp chili powder*
- 1tsp garlic powder*
- 1tsp onion powder*
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1. In a medium bowl, mix spices, salt and pepper.
- 2. Add lentils and oil to spice mixture. Stir to coat lentils.
- 3. In a sauce pan, add lentil mixture and cook on medium-low until warm.
- 4. Serve on preferred tortillas with normal taco fixins, beans and rice
*NOTE: adjust spices to taste.
Lentil shepherd's Pie Recipe
This one goes out to all you crockpot fans out there.
- 2 cups Cooked lentils
- 1cup Broth (I make my own veggie stock from scraps I freeze, boxed or prepared bouillon is just fine)
- 2 tsp. Garlic powder
- 2tsp. Thyme
- 2 cups Frozen mixed vegetables *(SEE NOTE BELOW)
- 2 cups Mashed potatoes (more if you love potatoes) (you can also use canned potatoes to make mashed)
- 1 cup Shredded cheddar (can omit or use 1T. nutritional yeast)
1. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients except mashed potatoes and cheese together until combined.
2. To crockpot, add mixture.
3. Dollop mashed potatoes on top of mixture to cover.
4. Cook on high for 30 minutes.
5. Reduce heat to low.
6. Add shredded cheese and cook on low for 15 min or until cheese is melted.
1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. Grease casserole dish.
3. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients except mashed potatoes and cheese together until combined.
4. Place mixture in baking dish.
5. Dollop mashed potatoes on top of mixture to cover.
6. Bake for 20 - 30 minutes or until mashed potatoes start to get golden crust.
7. Add cheese and bake for 10 -15 minutes, or until cheese is melted.
*NOTE: can use fresh carrots, peas, green beans, etc if you need to use them up - just cook them until slightly soft before adding to mixture)
So there you have it: three distinct cuisines using the same ingredient. I will be posting one of these recipe blasts a day using a new pantry staple each day—stay tuned!
Dana Gnad is a freelance writer and photographer with over 20 years of experience in technology. She has spent most of her life living on various homesteads — off-grid, urban, and everywhere in between. Currently camped out on 30 acres in the suburbs, affectionately known as The Lazy Dog Farm, she is working on her first book and dreaming of a life on the sea. Connect with Dana on Facebook and Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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