I love food shopping. Most people who enjoy cooking do, of course, but I come from a household where grocery shopping and coupon clipping were family pastimes. Long after I moved out of my parents’ house, I could still call up my Dad any time to find out where yogurt or cereal were on sale.
Combine a love of cooking and grocery shopping, however, and it doesn’t take long to accumulate random odds and ends in your fridge and pantry. And even as those get pushed further back on the shelves, you’re constantly buying new things to make new dishes. Say, a bulk bin bags with just a handful of bulgur, perhaps? A bottle of fig vinegar? Or the can of Libby’s you held onto during that pumpkin shortage?
Wait … this is starting to sound an awful lot like our March Chopped challenge.
Well, if WTE’s Ides of March taught us anything, it’s that random items can offer ample fodder for plenty of tasty meals — something most of us don’t realize until a hurricane or blizzard are headed our way. Not to mention that every item cluttering up the cupboard is something you’ve already paid for. Putting all that stuff to work creatively can be a good way to stretch your cooking skills and the food dollars you’ve already shelled out.
Once you use what’s piling up in your pantry, naturally you’ll need to restock. And if you’re trying to stay on budget, the key is to do that economically while still ending up with things you actually want to eat.
So how to go about cooking with what you have, then setting yourself up anew, cheaply?
For the former, I have a few basic things I do regularly, all of which have done wonders for keeping my fridge tidy (random scary things shoved in the back are pretty much a thing of the past at my house). Making simple stir-fry or pasta sauces with the condiment bottles and jars that clutter up the fridge door is a good start. This week, I made a delicious pasta sauce with just a few spoonfuls of sundried tomatoes packed in oil, five lonely olives, two garlic cloves, a splash of cream and a half-cup or so of the pasta cooking water.
Also, as many of you know, almost any random ingredients can be stitched together by Googling them (unless you’re Sarah, trying to get fava beans, chai tea and ground turkey into one dish). And most grains (like that leftover bulgur, perhaps) are delicious when cooked in broth, rather than water, then tossed with a saute of onions and/or garlic and whatever fresh vegetables are lying around.
As for the latter part of the challenge, restocking your pantry economically, there’s so much good material out there I think I’ll do the most service simply by pointing to some tips I’ve found particularly useful. Again, much of what you’ll see is common sense, but there are some real gems in the links below that can help you cook tasty meals while staying on a budget.
As you read, keep in mind you’ll boost your basics by having a few long-lasting items that offer a flavor punch. Some of my go-tos:
- A chunk of Parmesan cheese (still wonderful grated, even when it’s verging on brick-hard)
- Sesame oil
- Fish sauce (this sounds odd to some, but just a few drops of fish sauce heighten the flavor of most savory dishes)
- Tomato paste in a tube. This lasts a very long time, and excellent to have when you only need one or two tablespoons at a time
- Sriracha sauce and/or Tabasco and chipotle Tabasco (heaven!!)
- Nuts, which last ages when stored in the freezer, and raisins. Both can be great additions to sweet and savory dishes.
As for where yogurt’s on sale this week, you’ll have to do that sleuthing on your own!
- Here’s an oldie but goodie from my hometown paper. There are several good tips at the end, including a good reminder about substitutions for seasonings that can help you prepare a tasty dish without buying jars of things you don’t need.
- From another Seattle favorite, a long-time local co-op, some good ideas, particularly in the “change your patterns” section.
- NPR just launched a very cool project, where you can learn how to cobble together unusual pantry items.
- Links to lots of basic and inexpensive dishes, most made almost entirely from things you’re likely to have on hand.
- And one of my all-time favorite from-the-pantry meals: Mark’s Bittman’s tuna-tomato pasta. It’s cheap, easy, and I’ve yet to meet a single person who tried it and didn’t like it.