En español | When the snowdrifts block the door and the roads are treacherous, dinner becomes more of a challenge. Which is why winter requires a well-stocked pantry. Most homes have enough food staples to put together a good meal and sometimes even a great one. It's a good idea, whatever the season, to keep the larder stocked with staples. What the staples are depends on what you like to cook and eat.
Pantry meals often rely on canned, frozen or shelf-stable ingredients. It is not a culinary crime to use these ingredients. I far prefer using fresh, seasonal foods when I cook but sometimes the weather gods conspire against us.
Basic pantry and freezer staples:
Flash-frozen fruits and vegetables are usually processed at the peak of their ripeness when they are most nutritious, since flash freezing locks in the nutrition. They may even be more healthful than fresh. Their out-of-season fresh counterparts are often picked underripe, and don't have time to develop all their nutrients on their long ride to "fresh food" aisles of supermarkets.
Canned vegetables are commonly thought to lose more nutrients in processing, but not always. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has established quality standards to help consumers make the best buys. Grade A vegetables are carefully selected for color, tenderness and freedom from blemishes, according to USDA. They are sometimes labeled "fancy."
Canned tomatoes are critical. Diced, crushed, whole, stewed, with or without chiles, they can make a pantry meal. Canned tomatoes seem not only to retain most of their nutrients but may even contain more carotenoid lycopene, which helps prevent heart disease and cancers, than fresh tomatoes because of something that happens in the processing.
Some frozen meats and seafood hold up just fine in the freezer and are a good resource for an emergency. So if you enjoy a quick shrimp stir-fry, make sure there are always shrimp and vegetables in the freezer. Pre-cooked chicken strips can be used in stir-fries, salads and other dishes. Vegetarians probably have tofu on hand.
Other pantry suggestions:
Parmesan cheese can enhance many dishes. Use it with eggs to make a frittata, put it on top of the good-quality spaghetti sauce you have in the pantry, throw it over a salad.
Corn Tortillas allow you to make tacos, tamale pie and other dishes combined with frozen corn, canned tomatoes, beans and spices. They freeze well.
Frozen Vegetables to keep on hand include broccoli, edamame, green peas, snap peas, corn and spinach. Combined with a few other pantry staples, you can be endlessly creative.
Chicken and Vegetable Stock also are pantry must-haves. Their uses are limitless.
Pasta and Pasta Sauce provide a foundation on which to build many dishes. Add other pantry ingredients and you've got a meal. Have an assortment of pasta, including whole wheat.
Rice, long grain, short grain, white and brown, basmati, arborio, jasmine can go under a lot of sauces.
Canned tuna, anchovies, salmon, smoked oysters offer many alternatives. Make linguine and clam sauce with canned clams, for example (also keep some clam juice around).
Potatoes, onions and garlic should always be available for soups, stir-fries and endless other dishes.
Mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, oils and vinegars are essential condiments for cooking and making dressings to enhance what you've cooked. Also keep a variety of dried herbs, spices and extracts.
Dried fruits such as raisins, currants, dates, apricots, cherries and cranberries can be just the ingredients needed for a rice salad or vegetable stew.
Nuts such as pecans, pine nuts and walnuts can be added to salads, grains and other dishes.
Flour, granulated sugar, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cornmeal and extracts will be useful in both sweet and savoring cooking.
Pantries are idiosyncratic. Stock yours based on your own taste and the way you cook.
This is my go-to meal when there's not much in the house to eat.
Lentils with Sausage and Spinach
With these pantry items available, dinner takes no time.
Black Beans and Rice
You can use either dried or canned black beans. Full of protein and flavor, this can be a main dish or side dish.
Eggs are a good friend to the house-bound cook.
You can make a robust vegetarian chili with common pantry items.
Quinoa (prounounced KEEN-wah) was a staple food of the ancient Incas who called it "the mother grain." It has recently become wildly popular in the U.S. and is a good thing to keep in the pantry.