Spontaneous Meals : Pantry Raid

TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

A pantry is a very personal thing. While daily marketing may provide the basics for most meals, it is the pantry that provides the style. The fishmonger sells you salmon, but your pantry is what makes the fish fit your taste. Dipped in Moroccan spices and broiled? Steamed with black beans and soy sauce? Surrounded by a spicy tomato sauce?

To paraphrase Brillat-Savarin: Tell me what is in your pantry and I'll tell you who you are.

In my pantry, for example, you won't find a lot of exotic spice blends; if I want blends, I've got plenty of spices on hand to make my own. You won't find sun-dried tomatoes; to me they taste like rancid oil. And while I like fish sauce in other people's cooking, it's not yet part of my culinary lexicon.

The fact that I don't have those things in my pantry does not in any way mean that they aren't worth having. It's just that they don't fit my cooking. My pantry is where I keep the ingredients to cook the things that please me.

It's also the place I turn to when I'm caught off guard. Friends drop by without warning? I've got this great little tuna spread I can put together in five minutes using nothing but the basics I keep on hand. Need a quick dinner? A mouth-filling plate of spaghetti with anchovies and bread crumbs can be ready in the time it takes to boil water. Snacks, appetizers, desserts . . . they're all in there, just waiting for me to call.

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When I moved into an older house, one of the key selling points for me was that it had a real, honest-to-god pantry (which gives you some idea of my real estate acumen). But after years of trying to shoehorn things into an apartment kitchen, the prospect of what seemed like unlimited space was irresistible. Of course, within a year I was looking for more shelves to put things on.

Here's what's in my pantry. I'm leaving out the more neutral items--flour, butter, vegetable oil, eggs, etc.--in favor of those things that are specific to my style of cooking. Your pantry may be similar or totally different, but this list may give you ideas for new items to keep on hand.

When it's hot, when you're exhausted, or when you're just hungry for a meal and can't wait two hours to eat, a well-stocked pantry can make quick meals easy. Following the list are recipes that show what you can do with a pantry and a couple of minutes. Every ingredient in these recipes is a staple--at least at my house.

REFRIGERATOR/FREEZER

* Mozzarella: Though I love the fresh mozzarella you can find now, it's a pretty perishable item. The cheese I always have on hand is the firmer, drier type that melts so well on top of pizzas, inside of quesadillas, over eggplant . . . I could go on.

* Parmigiano-Reggiano: I always have a good chunk--or even two--on hand. Though I'm normally a pretty stingy shopper, this is one time when I buy the best I can find, without thinking too much about the price. That cheese is too fundamental to too many things to quibble over a buck or two.

* Fresh goat cheese: In my family, goat cheese began not as an affectation but as a necessity. For many years, my daughter was allergic to cow's milk, so goat cheese was the only alternative. Now, we've developed a taste for it and we still use it more than any other cheese.

* Bread crumbs: Do you have a problem with those expensive rustic breads going stale before they're finished? Cut off the crusts, cut the loaves in cubes, toast them in the oven and then run them through the food processor. You can use the crumbs over pasta, in soups, in a zillion ways.

* Black olives: Another basic, either as part of an instant appetizer plate or as a flavoring in a prepared dish. Check Greek and Middle Eastern markets for the best buys. I never use those canned California olives.

* Roasted sweet red peppers: When they're cheap, I buy fresh red peppers by the carload, roast them on my barbecue, peel them and stick them into small plastic food bags with a little slivered garlic and some olive oil. They'll last all year in the freezer and are much better than the pickled type, which is all you can buy in the store.

* Stock: I'm not the kind of cook who makes fresh stock for every dish. But I am the kind of cook who makes a lot of stock once in a while and then freezes it in ice cube trays. Just be sure to dump them into a plastic food bag before guests go looking for ice cubes for their drinks.

* Walnuts: One of my dessert standbys, I always have walnuts in the freezer to go into cookies or flour-less cakes.

* Cheese-filled tortellini or ravioli: These are strictly for those instant meals at the end of long work days. You can get them with all kinds of fillings, some of them wildly esoteric. The simpler the better in this case. Serve them with a little brown butter and sage and you've got an elegant weeknight dinner.

DRY INGREDIENTS

* Pastas: For short pastas, I like to use tubes (rigatoni, penne, etc.) because I find that other shapes (farfalle, etc.) cook unevenly. Also, orzo, rice-shaped pasta, is wonderful for soaking up meat juices. For long pastas, in addition to the obvious candidates (spaghetti, fettuccine), look for perciatelli , which looks like spaghetti with a hole through the middle. It's got a nice bite that makes even a simple tomato sauce shine. Don't buy angel hair pasta--it always clumps when it cooks and cools almost instantly into a rubbery, starchy ball.

* Bittersweet chocolate: This is always on hand for making icings, mousses, cakes . . . well, you name it. In fact, break off little chunks and you can make the best chocolate chip cookies ever.

* Arborio rice: This stuff used to be ridiculously expensive, which was a shame, because risotto is a real boon when you need to have dinner on the table in a half-hour and all you've got in the fridge are some vegetables or a few scraps of leftover meat. I buy arborio in vacuum-packed bags when it's on sale and it lasts forever. If it's still too pricey, look for American short-grain rice. It's not as good, but for everyday meals it works just fine.

* Cocoa: This is another one of those ingredients I tend to buy a lot of when it is on sale. Not only is it good on winter mornings, but there are a good half-dozen cakes and cookies that I can put together with it in almost no time.

CANNED INGREDIENTS

* Canned whole tomatoes: I've got a side yard full of shoulder-high tomato plants, but none of the fruit is ripe yet, so all my tomatoes right now are from a can. This is probably the most common canned food in good pantries. Here's a great quick tomato sauce: Put one tablespoon olive oil in the bottom of a pan. Mince a couple cloves of garlic and add them to the cold oil. Place over medium heat and cook until the garlic turns translucent. Run a can of tomatoes through the fine holes in a food mill into the pan. Cook 10 to 15 minutes over medium-high heat until thickened. Then add either capers or basil, depending on the season.

* Canned white beans, black beans and garbanzo beans: Certainly, dried beans that you cook yourself are better, but these are good weeknight substitutions--especially for salads and to fill out soups. While I wouldn't serve these beans to guests (I have yet to find a brand of white beans in which two-thirds of the beans are not broken), I have (and will continue to) serve them purees of canned beans as appetizers.

* Tuna fish in oil: This is getting difficult to find these days, with every dieter in America seeming to rely on a small can of water-packed tuna for lunch. But if calories are not that much of a concern, try the oil-packed, preferably olive oil. Anything else tastes like fish-flavored sawdust.

* Salt-packed anchovies: If you think oil-packed tuna is hard to find, try scoring some salt-packed anchovies. For me, this began as an indulgence, but quickly crossed over to a necessity. Rinse them well and fillet them and the flavor is so much fresher and more delicate than the normal anchovy that it'll make a believer of you. After my first attempts at feeding my family anchovy-based dishes were soundly rejected, I began sneaking them in as flavorings in sauces and vegetable sautes. It got so whenever I asked whether my daughter liked a dish, she would fix me a stare and ask "Did you put anchovies in that?" She's coming around, though. You can get them mail order from Corti Brothers grocery in Sacramento, (916) 736-3800. Getting the rest of the family to eat them is up to you.

* Capers: I think of capers as my out-of-season basil. To me, they provide the same kind of bright accent to dishes, though they do it in a much different way.

* Olive oil: This is absolutely fundamental. One of my indulgences is having several olive oils to choose from. You don't need to go that far, though you should have a fruity one to cook with and an elegant one to use raw, with salads. You don't have to pay a fortune for good olive oil (though, as with Parmigiano-Reggiano, this is another case in which I would), and paying a fortune still won't guarantee you the best product. The only way to choose is to try several and decide which ones you like best.

* Vinegars: This is another major space occupier in my kitchen. I have more vinegars than I know what to do with. Actually, I think I could probably do with just three: balsamic (for cooking, where its sweetness is not so distracting); red or white wine (for general uses, though I like lemon juice best for salad dressings), and Asian rice wine (when I need just a hint of sweet acidity).

I know, I know: The combination of tuna and butter sounds pretty disgusting, but it is absolutely delicious. This is my adaptation of a recipe by Marcella Hazan and I use it a lot. Though it is pureed, oil-packed tuna still makes a difference, since it gives a smoother, creamier result.

TUNA SPREAD

1 clove garlic

1 (6 1/2-ounce) can oil-packed tuna

1/4 cup butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 teaspoons capers

1 tablespoon finely minced parsley

Crackers or bread rounds, optional

Finely mince garlic by dropping in feed tube of running food processor. Turn food processor off and add tuna, butter and olive oil. Process until smooth, scraping down sides as necessary. Add capers and parsley and pulse once or twice to stir. Serve on crackers or bread rounds. Makes 3/4 cup.

Each tablespoon contains about:

75 calories; 104 mg sodium; 13 mg cholesterol; 6 grams fat; 0 grams carbohydrates; 5 grams protein; 0.01 grams fiber.

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This is one of those things that can be done in 15 minutes and looks like a million bucks. The flavors are bright and complex, and it is just perfect for warm weather. Cut the balsamic vinegar in half, and you can even serve the tomato sauce as a cold soup.

TOMATO-GOAT CHEESE APPETIZER

2 cloves garlic

1 (28-ounce) can whole, peeled tomatoes

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

2 teaspoons capers, with liquid

Salt, pepper

1/2 pound fresh goat cheese

1 tablespoon finely sliced fresh basil

Olive oil

Finely mince garlic by dropping in feed tube of running food processor. Add tomatoes and balsamic vinegar and puree just until slightly chunky. Add capers. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Combine goat cheese and basil in small bowl. Beat until smooth. Mound in middle of sheet of plastic wrap. Spread lightly to make rectangle, form in cylinder using plastic wrap, then twist ends to pack tightly. Unmold and carefully cut into slices.

Divide tomato puree among 6 soup plates. Place 1 goat cheese slice in center of each. Drizzle over with 1 teaspoon olive oil per serving. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

169 calories; 424 mg sodium; 17 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 6 grams carbohydrates; 8 grams protein; 0.62 grams fiber.

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This is one of those perennial summertime dishes that gets repeated over and over again in different Italian cookbooks. Each has a slightly different version. This one is mine. If the salad is a little looser than you like it, reduce the amount of oil.

TUNA-WHITE BEAN SALAD

1/2 medium red onion

2 (15-ounce) cans white (cannellini) beans, drained and rinsed

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 tablespoon finely minced garlic

2 tablespoons finely minced parsley

2 (6 1/2-ounce) cans oil-packed tuna, drained

Remove ends from onion. Thinly slice onion widthwise to make thin rings. Place rings in strainer and submerge in cold water while salad is being prepared.

Combine beans, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and parsley in large mixing bowl. Stir well to combine. Add tuna and stir gently, being careful not to break chunks of fish up too much. Spoon into serving bowl.

Remove onion with strainer from cold water. Rinse briefly under running cold water. Gently squeeze dry in corner of tea towel. Scatter onion across top of serving bowl. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

653 calories; 241 mg sodium; 11 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 86 grams carbohydrates; 51 grams protein; 8.43 grams fiber.

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This recipe, from "Paula Wolfert's World of Food," comes together in the time it takes to bring the pasta water to a boil; it is compulsively edible. The toasted bread crumbs are a distinctively Sicilian twist--as cookbook writer Anna Tasca Lanza says: "We Sicilians are greedy and like to have big mouthfuls of food."

PASTA WITH ANCHOVIES AND TOASTED BREAD CRUMBS

1/3 cup fruity extra-virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, halved

2 to 3 dashes hot red-pepper flakes

10 salted anchovies, filleted, soaked in milk 10 minutes, drained and cut small

1/2 pound thin spaghetti

2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/2 cup toasted coarse bread crumbs

Heat olive oil in heavy skillet. Add garlic. Gently cook over medium heat 2 minutes, or until golden. Discard garlic and remove skillet from heat. Add red-pepper flakes and anchovies. Mash to puree with wooden spoon. Reheat gently, stirring 1 minute to blend flavors. Remove pan from heat before oil gets too hot.

Cook spaghetti in boiling salted water until al dente. While pasta is cooking, transfer 3 tablespoons pasta cooking water to anchovy-oil mixture and reheat gently. Drain pasta, transfer to skillet and toss with hot sauce. Divide evenly onto 4 heated dishes. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve at once. Pass bread crumbs for sprinkling on top of each serving. Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

439 calories; 461 mg sodium; 9 mg cholesterol; 20 grams fat; 52 grams carbohydrates; 12 grams protein; 0.27 grams fiber.

Food styling by Donna Deane and Mayi Brady

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