Back in March, during those first terrifying weeks of the coronavirus lockdown, I started writing a series of articles as a way to help cooks figure out how to use the mountain of beans and pasta many of us had manically laid in, in case we couldn’t, or didn’t feel comfortable, leaving the house.
Called From the Pantry, it was intended to provide recipes that were versatile enough to cut down on anxiety-ridden trips to the supermarket, while still being satisfying to eat and calming to cook. The recipes, written narratively, were a real-time kitchen diary, based on what I had in my own pantry, and created with an eye toward giving readers wiggle room to use what was in theirs.
But the series served another function as well. During a time of thrumming uncertainty and sadness, these dishes were a sure thing, a reminder that, even if nothing else felt the way the way it should, you could still make yourself something good to eat with ingredients you might have had on hand. And for my family, that meant a staggering number of cakes. Our confinement didn’t have to limit us, at least where dessert was concerned.
Six months later, a lot has changed. Shopping has become less fraught. The once-empty shelves are now refilled. (Even toilet paper and yeast are back in supply.) As restaurants reopen and takeout options expand, cooking three meals every day isn’t as daunting as it once was.
The pandemic isn’t over, but we’ve adapted to this new normal — and, for the most part, figured out what to do with all those beans.
And that is why it seems like the right time to end the series.
I have to admit I’m a little sad to give it up, but also truly grateful for the experience. The act of cooking for my family was soothing, and getting to share the results with readers was deeply restorative, giving me a sense of purpose — a way to feel safe and useful amid the chaos.
But maybe the most important thing I came away with was an understanding of just how intuitive and creative pantry cooking can be. At its best, it’s confident and flexible, and its joys paradoxically come from its confines, like figuring out how to turn a box of wilting spinach into a thrilling meal, or finding the poetry in panic-purchased tofu before it expires.
I’m no poet, but I like to think that pantry cooking is a bit like composing a sonnet or a limerick — the restrictions of form yielding great things in the kitchen. Pantry cooking is about cleverly reinventing leftovers, about figuring out how to adapt your favorite recipe to use what you have, and about not taking anything, ever, for granted.
These five recipes highlight all of this. Among them are casseroles that raise polenta, canned beans and potatoes beyond the quotidian, a roast chicken and stock that exemplify thrift, and a chocolate-mayonnaise cake that proves how, even if you don’t have fresh eggs and butter on hand, you can still have cake.
This baked polenta is an extremely adaptable pantry dinner, and it works just as well without a stash of summer corn. You can throw in just about any kind of hearty chopped green, and any firm cheese — though feta and blue cheese work well, too. The eggs round out the dish, but feel free to leave them out and make this a side. (View this recipe on NYT Cooking.)
An Irish dish of mashed potatoes and greens, colcannon is one of the most nourishing, comforting dishes you could make. The fried leeks aren’t traditional: Usually, the alliums are stewed more slowly in butter, if they’re used at all. But they lend a deeper flavor and a crisp, savory finish. For a full meal, crown it with a fried egg or some smoked salmon, or serve a simple green salad on the side. (View this recipe on NYT Cooking.)
This is not the classic, cream-of-something-soup version you may be familiar with. It’s based on a recipe for a Breton tuna and white bean gratin from the food writer Diana Henry’s cookbook, “Simple” (Mitchell Beazley, 2016). Several steps were eliminated, and an essential potato chip topping was added, which may put it squarely into tuna casserole territory. But you can call it whatever you like. (View this recipe on NYT Cooking.)
Born out of a scarcity of fresh eggs, chocolate-mayonnaise cake is one of those Depression-era recipes that sounds a lot stranger than it tastes. After all, cakes rely on eggs and fat for tenderness and richness, and mayo is made of exactly those things, plus some salt and vinegar to give it tang. But you don’t taste the tanginess of the mayo, and if you didn’t tell anyone it was there, they would never know. Which is to say, don’t let a lack of eggs or butter stop you from making cake. This one is ridiculously good for the small amount of effort you put into it. (View this recipe on NYT Cooking.)
This dinner is a crisp-skinned treat that leaves leftovers for lunch, and, if you like, a 2-quart container of golden broth. Reserve the bones, and let them simmer in salted water with a few simple aromatics, while you answer emails, check the news or drink some wine. The chicken here is first roasted in a skillet, so even the drippings don’t go to waste, used to sauté some hearty greens as a side. But you can use any pan you like, as long as it has a rim to catch the juices. (View this recipe on NYT Cooking.)