stocking the pantry: a primer

Since graduating from college I’ve moved, on average, more than once a year. Often this means unpacking my bags and walking into a kitchen with nothing in it except a cup of olive oil and some salt. So I’ve gotten pretty practiced at stocking a pantry and developing a rotation of easy, reliable meals that keep me fed while I figure out where the best produce or spices or specialty markets are for more ambitious cooking activities.


As we all prepare for social distancing measures due to the spread of COVID-19, several friends have reached out asking if I have advice on stocking a pantry while avoiding monotonous cooking. And so I thought I’d finally put together a primer on the lists and meals that I draw on when stocking from scratch. Most of these are one-pot meals and are vegetarian or vegan, because that tends to be how I cook day-to-day.

Below you’ll find a few handy lists for stocking the pantry with non- or semi-perishable items and a week’s worth of recipes that largely draw on those ingredients, requiring only minimal additions of fresh produce. These recipes tend to come together fast and most of them freeze well, meaning you can double the recipe and stash away meals for later, stretching fresh produce for longer. This assumes you’ve already got some spices, oils (or other cooking fats like butter), sugar, and vinegars on hand.



Flexible non-perishable staples

I always try to have at least some of the following in my pantry at all times:

  • Canned whole tomatoes
  • Canned crushed tomatoes
  • Tomato paste
  • Sun-dried tomatoes
  • Canned chickpeas
  • Canned black beans
  • Canned coconut milk (not sweetened)
  • Vegetable or chicken stock (either canned, in a carton, or the paste you keep in a jar in the fridge)
  • Green lentils
  • Red lentils
  • Long grain rice
  • Short grain rice
  • Several kinds of pasta (a long skinny kind & a penne or rigatoni type at minimum)
  • A few grain alternatives: I like couscous, freeka (cracked green wheat), and bulgar wheat
  • Nuts, a variety (currently I’ve got some hazelnuts, slivered almonds, and pumpkin seeds)



Versatile and not-too-perishable items:

  • Sturdy dark leafy greens (collards, kale, chard) and root vegetables, which tend to last longer in the fridge than other veggies and greens
  • Variety of fresh herbs: thyme, rosemary, cilantro, dill, and parsley tend to be hardiest, and I find they last longer if snapped away in good tupperware, one per herb. On first use, wash thoroughly, and dry as completely as possible before storing
  • Onions and garlic. Pantry miracle workers!
  • Hard and/or salty cheeses last longer: feta, parmesan, pecorino romano, halloumi
  • Fresh ginger: keep it in the freezer and grate with a microplane
  • Lemons: these keep for a good long time in the fridge, and the juice & zest freshen up everything
  • Olives and capers and pickles: designed for preservation and they add a punch to nearly any dish. I love pickled/salted lemons, increasingly available in your Middle East / International food aisles of major grocery stores
  • Hot sauces & dried hot pepper: the more the merrier! Right now I’ve got a jar of harissa, sriracha, and dried Aleppo pepper on hand
  • Pomegranate molasses: as important as your standard array of oils and vinegars
  • Grab some of those shakers typically used for red pepper flakes and dried faux Parmesan and fill them with your favorite spices or seasonings: for me it’s sumac and zaatar. I add one of the two to almost everything I cook and like to have it handy and easily accessible.

Screen Shot 2020-03-12 at 6.03.20 PM
A week’s worth of recipes. Some of these are my own, and others are from some of my very favorite publications and chefs. I’ve included a few notes about my own tweaks and possible substitutions. I always tell my students to “follow the footnotes” and strategically use bibliographies, and the same principle applies here when thinking about expanding your culinary repertoire: it’s always a good tactic to browse elsewhere on the site of a recipe you love or Google the author for more good ideas.

Monday: Pasta with tomato sauce from scratch, Roman style

I learned this from a friend who learned it from her host family in Rome. Even though you can dress it up with other veggies and herbs (as pictured below), all you *really* need is a can of whole tomatoes (chop them and pour in all the liquid they came with too, then as they cook down, use a potato masher to finish the job), olive oil, salt, sugar, garlic, and pasta. The sauce freezes well. Simple and comforting!

cook the sauce

Tuesday: Just-keeps-getting-better lentil salad

Via Bon Appetit: it is truly as good as they say. You can make it with any dark leafy greens, any nuts, a bit of chopped onion if you don’t have scallions, and any olives (or even capers in a pinch). And it does keep for days, and keeps getting better.


Wednesday: Eggplant and lentil stew with pomegranate molasses

Originally found on Food & Wine, this is a recipe from Musa Dagdeviren’s wife Zeynap, who’s from Antakya, a region that boasts the best of Turkish and Syrian culinary influences. It’s a set-and-forget dish so you can put it on the stove and watch the delightful Chef’s Table episode about Dagdeviren while it cooks. You can swap out the fresh tomatoes for whole canned ones, meaning the only fresh ingredients you need are eggplants, green chiles, and fresh mint. And even so you can do without the mint and substitute dried chiles if you need to. This freezes well. 

eggplant stew

Thursday: Braised coconut & chickpeas with lemon

From Faith Durand of the ever-reliable The Kitchn. I typically skip the sweet potato (though it’s delicious if you do wish include it), double the chickpeas (or substitute cannellini beans) and add more hot spice and some chopped preserved lemon. I’ve made it with kale and collards too––just slice them thinly and cover the pot for the first few minutes to speed up the cooking. Freezes well. 

Friday: Curried lentil, tomato, and coconut soup

From Yotam Ottolenghi, via Epicurious. This one is truly a wonder: all you need is some fresh herbs (preferably cilantro, but basil and parsley are also nice) and fresh lemons or limes. Everything else is pretty shelf-stable, but it doesn’t taste or look that way in the least. And it freezes well, too. 

Instead of the “curry powder” instruction here I use my own spice mix of turmeric, a tiny bit of cumin, powdered ginger, fresh black pepper, and dried coriander.


Saturday: Risotto of any kind

I love risotto. And as long as you have good broth (I make this at the end of a week, once I’ve got a bunch of veggie scraps saved up to make my own broth), any kind of short-grain or even medium-grain rice, and an onion, you can make this and toss in whatever vegetables you have around. The linked recipe outlines the basic principles for the cooking process for risotto (which is not scary or intimidating, and you should try it!). Below: pantry-clearing risotto from a few months ago.

Sunday: Order in

Small businesses, especially local restaurants, are already struggling and it’s only going to get harder in the coming weeks. If you can afford it, treat yourself and support your local restaurant community. Consider supporting a Chinese restaurant in particular! Most if not all delivery apps now offer contact-free drop-off, if you’re concerned about maintaining as much isolation as possible. Just remember to tip well, and in cash if you can.

One thought on “stocking the pantry: a primer

  1. Thanks, Anny! This is a great post. I will look forward to trying these recipes.

    Much appreciation and best wishes to you at this time, Julie


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