While we are all staying in our homes more due to the coronavirus outbreak, most of us are cooking at home more often than eating out.
I have done quite a bit of cooking over the years. Now, out of necessity due to physical limitations, I have found or came up with literally hundreds of simple recipes, which do not have many ingredients, and do not take much time to prepare.
In this segment I would like to spotlight some of the staples you should have in your pantry, freezer and refrigerator. Since store shelves at this time are a lot of time empty with people “panic hording,” I will also try to offer substitute items.
• Pasta: I usually have about four different types of pasta in my pantry at all times. It cooks up very quick, and you can serve a wide variety of proteins, vegetables, sauces and herbs and spices to it for a complete meal. Simply boiling some spaghetti and making a sauce of fried ground beef, tomatoes (whole, crushed, diced or pure would work just fine) and herbs such as basil, oregano, parsley and garlic (fresh is best, but dried is fine), and spices such as salt and pepper.
You can also make homemade pasta. There are a number of recipes out there, just search the internet for recipes, basically it is flour and eggs. To make it simple to turn the dough into pasta, just roll it out, fold it over itself at least three times, and then using a medium to large knife, just cut it into one-half to three-quarter inch strips. Unfold the strips and you have what is known as rags — no need for pasta machines.
• Rice: Rice tends to take a little more time than pasta to cook, but it is still simple to boil in a pot on the stove. You could also use minute rice for quicker cooking. You may already have a rice cooker. Like pasta, you can add whatever protein and vegetables you like. In a wok or even a Dutch oven cook some 1-inch chicken pieces, preferably in peanut or canola oil, then add some vegetables, either frozen or fresh, (I like a mix of snow peas, broccoli florets, carrot strips, bell pepper strips, water chestnuts and bamboo shoots) along with soy sauce, garlic and ground ginger, then add the cooked rice, and you have a quick stir fry.
You could always substitute cauliflower rice, either fresh or frozen, although it will have a little different taste, and not quite as firm of a texture.
• Oils: I usually have three or more types of oil in my pantry. My go-to is extra virgin olive oil. I use it in all pasta recipes, frying meats, adding to sauces. I also have more neutral oils, such as canola. It fries at a higher temperature, and is virtually tasteless in your meal. It is also good to have a spray oil, mainly to spray sheet pans to prevent food from sticking. Peanut oil, sesame oil, coconut oil and vegetable oil are also some useful oils to have on hand.
• Broths and stocks: Chicken, beef and occasionally vegetable stocks and broths are some of my must haves. I cook a lot of soups; they are filling and provide a lot of nutrients. Also, whenever a recipe calls for water, I usually add broth, it adds more flavor to whatever you are cooking than plain water.
• Herbs and spices: I always have salt, pepper, garlic powder, chili powder, cumin and turmeric for my spices and for herbs I have basil, oregano, parsley, chives, sage, thyme and pepper flakes. Just add a combination of these herbs and spices, and you can take your dishes from bland to flavorful.
• Tomatoes: Fresh is usually best, but especially when it is not growing season for tomatoes, canned are a good substitute in most applications. I always have a variety of canned tomatoes in my pantry. I always have diced (usually fire roasted), crushed, pure and sauce. I have even drained diced steamed tomatoes in place of fresh in such meals as salads or tacos. Also jarred marinara sauces are a quick, already complete sauce.
• Canned vegetables: I prefer frozen vegetables, but I do have canned beans. I have black beans, chili beans and baked beans. I also have diced green chilies and chipotle peppers. I will go to fresh vegetables first, then frozen and then canned, but canned vegetables will work just fine.
• Flours and other baking ingredients: I usually have all-purpose flour, baking soda, baking powder and cornstarch. I also have baking mix (such as Bisquick). I make simple (but tasty) biscuits or pancakes. And breadcrumbs, (I like Panko) breading cube steaks makes a simple chicken fried steak. I also like to have corn meal in my pantry. I can always make polenta, cornbread or corn muffins.
FREEZER AND FRIDGE
• Proteins: Approximately every three to four months I do my shopping for proteins. I have a small freezer, so I do not have a lot of bigger cuts of meat like roasts, but occasionally I will get a small roast. I always have hamburger, steaks such as petite sirloins and cube; and stew meat. I am not a dark chicken meat fan, so I get a few packages of chicken breasts, chicken tenders and ground chicken. I also have packages of bacon, bulk breakfast sausage and sausage links.
• Vegetables: What space in my freezer not taken up by proteins, is filled with a variety of vegetables. I prefer fresh vegetables, but they do not last long, and I prefer frozen vegetables over canned. I always have a variety such as corn, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower and peas. I also have several mixed varieties, which are good to add to soups, or just steam to go with baked or fried chicken tenders or a steak.
• Cheeses: My go-to cheeses include mozzarella, Parmesan, pepper jack, cheddar and cream cheese. Cheese usually has a relatively long shelf life.
• Other dairy: Whole milk, heavy cream and half and half. Butter and eggs are also a must for the fridge. Most of the time I will only pick up the other dairy items when I have a specific recipe that calls for it, because it does not last more than a week or two. Some dairy, such as butter can be frozen to extend its shelf life. Also, if you do not have milk, you can add some water to canned milk as a substitute. If you need buttermilk for a recipe, you can add 1 tablespoon to 1 cup of milk, and you will have buttermilk.
By having some staples available, you can throw together a meal in no time. Recipes do not have to be complicated. All it takes is to throw together a protein and some vegetable, add some herbs and spices for flavor, and you have a quick meal. Be creative. I would suggest you follow a recipe for the first time, but after that, use the recipe as a guide, and then add and subtract ingredients to your own taste.