When we talk about culinary creations, it’s always fun to focus on seasonal veggies, fresh herbs, just-caught seafood, delicate cheeses or grass-fed meats. But conscientiously stocking your pantry with long-lasting, multipurpose essentials is just as important as fresh ingredients to creating healthy, quick meals. By stocking your pantry with the smart essentials listed here, you’ll be ready to create quick culinary masterpieces out of whatever fresh veggies, herbs and meats you haul from your garden, farmers market and local meat counter. These workhorse ingredients may not be as glamorous as wild scallops or heirloom tomatoes, but they are your best friends when it comes to delicious, sensible eating.
Marinara sauce is a mainstay of Italian cooking—and while a jar on the shelf or a batch in the freezer can certainly help you whip up a fast pasta dish or top a pizza, its uses don’t end there. Marinara makes a great sauce for meatball sandwiches. You can layer it with oven-roasted slices of zucchini or eggplant and cheese for an Italian-inspired veggie sandwich. Try stuffing bell peppers or zucchini with a blend of sautéed veggies; chicken, ground beef or meaty vegetables (such as mushrooms); and breadcrumbs, croutons or brown rice—then throw them in the oven in a dish surrounded by marinara. You can add marinara sauce to soups, or use it as a base for homemade stew and chili. Make an Italian-style meatloaf by topping it with the zesty sauce, or add it to your favorite Sloppy Joe recipe. Freeze marinara sauce in food-safe containers and use within three months for best flavor.
Frozen chicken breast cutlets defrost more quickly than whole chicken breasts, so they can easily be thawed and sautéed in a little butter or olive oil for a quick entrée. Slice the cutlets in strips and sauté with frozen vegetables for a quick stir-fry, or use as a pizza topping with barbecue sauce and caramelized onions. After a quick turn on the grill, chicken cutlets can be sliced for fajitas and tacos, or chopped and combined with lettuce and tomato for an easy burrito filling. To freeze, layer each cutlet between sheets of parchment or freezer paper and wrap tightly with more paper. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight or use the microwave “defrost” setting.
Organic chicken, beef or vegetable base is the gourmet equivalent of the bouillon cubes our moms relied upon for quick broth. It’s easier to store than stock or broth, and its concentrated form means a little goes a long way. Today’s soup base is made by slow cooking organic vegetables and meats, resulting in a top-quality, richly flavored product. Use reconstituted base for soups, gravies and sauces, and to flavor rice, quinoa and pilafs. Once opened, store the tightly sealed jar in the refrigerator until the “best when purchased by” date. You can also make your own base by reducing homemade broth or stock. Boil it in a deep saucepan over medium-high heat until the mixture is thick and syrupy; cool and freeze in an ice cube tray for easy-to-use portions.
Garbanzo beans, also known as chickpeas, are rich in antioxidants and a good source of fiber and protein. Whether they’re dried or canned, the buttery beans can be added to soups and salads, slow-roasted with vegetables and tossed in stir-fry dishes. Whirl 2 cups of garbanzos in a food processor with 2 tablespoons of sesame seeds, 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and 1⁄2 cup of olive oil to make a simple hummus spread; season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper and serve with raw vegetables. To cook dried garbanzo beans, see “The Humble, Healthy Bean” at right.
Cream cheese has many uses, from thickening sauces and soups to creating creamy mashed potatoes and scrambled eggs. Mix some finely chopped vegetables, pesto or chopped sun-dried tomatoes into cream cheese for a quick appetizer spread to serve with crackers. Unopened cream cheese can be stored in the refrigerator at or slightly below 40 degrees for up to one month past the “best when purchased by” date. It can also be frozen, tightly wrapped, for up to four months. Although it may be less creamy after it’s thawed, a quick whirl in a food processor or blender will restore its smooth texture.
Frozen organic edamame, more commonly known as the soybean, is a high-fiber, high-protein bean with a sweet, mild flavor. Frozen in the shell, edamame can be steamed or microwaved for an easy Asian-style appetizer; just sprinkle with sea salt before serving. Shelled beans add flavor and bright green color to stews, soups, risottos and stir-fry dishes. Steam shelled edamame and squeeze with a fresh lemon or sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds for a quick, healthy side dish. Look for organic varieties, as non-organic soybeans are usually genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Frozen chopped organic spinach is another time-saver because the washing, steaming and chopping are already done. Use thawed, steamed spinach in omelets, pastas, casseroles and egg dishes, or sauté it with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice and serve as a simple side dish. Surprisingly, frozen spinach can sometimes be more nutritious than fresh; after just four days, beneficial nutrients like folate and carotenoids begin to break down in fresh spinach, while frozen spinach is usually processed just after picking.
Frozen caramelized onions add mild, slightly sweet onion flavor to a variety of dishes. Top a pizza or burger with caramelized onions, add them to sandwiches, stir them into mashed potatoes, or use them for classic French onion soup. The easiest, no-fuss way to make a generous batch of caramelized onions is with a slow cooker. Peel, quarter and slice four large yellow onions, drizzle with two tablespoons olive oil, and cook on low for eight hours, stirring occasionally, or until dark golden brown. Cool, divide in half-cup portions, and freeze in food-safe containers for up to one year.
Prepared diced tomatoes are already peeled, seeded and chopped for you, and make an excellent choice in winter when store-bought tomatoes are hard and flavorless. Lightly cooked, they make a quick pasta sauce. Use them as a base for a pot of black bean chili or as a filling in a cheese omelet, or add them to stews and casseroles. Try organic, fire-roasted varieties or look for tomatoes combined with other ingredients like green chilies and chopped onions. Kirkland Signature and Muir Glen offer organic tomatoes in cans not lined with bisphenol-A (BPA)—a potentially harmful endocrine disruptor—and Eden Foods offers jarred tomatoes.
Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is a mild, nutty hard cheese produced in small batches in northern Italy. Its mild flavor makes it a perennial favorite with kids, and the cheese can be grated on buttered pasta for the ultimate easy comfort food. Cut it in cubes for a quick snack, or grate it on pizzas and salads. The leftover rind can be used to flavor homemade minestrone soup. To store Parmigiano-Reggiano, moisten a piece of cheesecloth or a paper towel and wrap it around the wedge, wrap it in aluminum foil and store it in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator for several months. The cheese can also be tightly wrapped and frozen for up to a year.
Balsamic vinegar adds complex, concentrated, sweet-sour flavor that enlivens a variety of foods. Drizzle it on salads and vegetables, make a sweet-sour sauce for chicken cutlets, or serve it with olive oil as a dip for crusty bread. For a quick appetizer, heat 1⁄4 cup balsamic vinegar over medium-high heat and boil it until reduced by about half; drizzle the reduction over cream cheese and serve with crackers. Commercial-grade balsamic is produced on an industrial scale without aging, so look for “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale” on the label to ensure you’re buying the real thing. Authentic artisan balsamic vinegar keeps indefinitely in a cool, dry place.
Canned minced clams can be tossed with Alfredo sauce, marinara, or olive oil and garlic for a quick pasta topping, and most kids will eat New England-style clam chowder if the clam pieces are small enough. Add chopped clams and a little juice to cream cheese for a quick appetizer spread. Clams are a low-mercury fish, making them a healthier alternative to most canned tuna (though some companies do offer lower-mercury tuna—try Wild Planet), but look for BPA-free cans from brands like Crown Prince. If you don’t care for clams, also consider nutritious sardines, which can bring a briny, fishy flavor to a variety of Italian and Asian dishes.
Bread crumbs add texture and help stretch ground beef or turkey in meatloaf and meatballs. Use them to coat chicken cutlets, or sprinkle on a casserole before baking for a crispy topping. To make your own, tear stale bread in pieces and let air dry for a day. Use a blender or food processor to make fine crumbs, and store tightly covered in the freezer.
Grains are excellent staples to keep on hand, and most keep indefinitely when stored in the freezer. The wide variety of nutritious grains means they can meet nearly any dietary need. Read about a few of our favorites in the abbreviated list below, or read our full whole grains guide.
? Barley: High in fiber and shown in clinical studies to reduce risk of high blood pressure and heart attack, versatile barley has a nutty flavor and appealingly chewy texture. Barley also reduces risk of colon cancer and encourages the health of good bacteria in the intestines. Eat barley in soups or stews, cook it up risotto-style (check out this recipe for Swiss barley risotto) or simply boil in water or stock and use as you would rice with stir-fried veggies or meats.
? Farro: Although it’s not gluten-free, farro—an ancient wheat variety from Italy—is lower in gluten than many wheat varieties. Farro contains more protein than brown rice, boosts the immune system and helps lower cholesterol levels. Farro is delicious cooked like risotto, served with stir-fries and as a breakfast cereal. (The medium-sized variety, farro medio, is generally sold as farro; smaller farro piccolo also goes by the German word einkorn; large farro grande is known as spelt.)
? Freekeh: Freekeh is young green wheat that’s been toasted and cracked. Freekeh is incredibly high in fiber and full of essential nutrients including iron and zinc. Freekeh is also a good source of plant-based protein. You can use freekeh in just about any application you might rice or other grains—with stir-fried veggies, or in whole-grain salads, tabbouleh or soup.
? Quinoa: Gluten-free quinoa is a nutritional powerhouse. Not a true grain, quinoa is a relative of beets and spinach. It’s considered a superfood and, unlike many grains, a great source of complete protein, as well as fiber, phosphorous, magnesium, iron and calcium. Versatile quinoa is great in a stir-fry, as a breakfast cereal with milk and brown sugar, or chilled in salads.
The Humble, Healthy Bean
Versatile beans are high in antioxidants, fiber, protein, B vitamins and minerals. What’s more, a half cup of cooked beans has only 100 calories. Here are three ways to keep beans on hand for quick meals:
? Dried beans: The ultimate food staple, scientists have successfully sprouted ancient dried Anasazi beans estimated to be 1,500 years old. To cook dried beans, rinse them in a colander in cool water and inspect them, removing any debris or pebbles. Before cooking, most beans should be soaked in cold water (about three times their volume) for six hours or overnight. Draining and rinsing the beans may help reduce the gas-producing enzymes. Pour the drained beans back in the pot and cover with fresh water or broth. Heat to boiling, reduce the heat and gently simmer until beans are tender. Cooking times vary for different varieties and may take longer at high altitudes, so check the beans often and make sure they are covered with water or liquid. One pound of dried beans will yield six to seven cups of cooked beans. Store dried beans in tightly covered glass jars or containers.
? Parboiled frozen beans: Soaking, precooking and freezing dried beans allows them to finish cooking in much less time. To make a batch, cover dried beans with water in a large pot and soak overnight. The next morning, drain, rinse and cover with water again. Bring the beans slowly to a boil. Remove from heat, cool to room temperature and drain the beans. Divide in one-cup portions and freeze in containers. Add the still-frozen beans to simmering soups or chili about one hour before the dish will be finished cooking, adding additional liquid if needed.
? Canned beans: These are an excellent shelf staple, and organic varieties in cans free of bisphenol-A (BPA, an endocrine disruptor) are available from brands like Eden Foods, Native Forest and Trader Joe’s. Use commercially canned beans within three years for the best flavor and texture.
Eliza Cross writes about good food, sustainable living, organic gardening, saving money, living simply and having fun at happysimpleliving.com. She is the author of five books, including the best seller 101 Things To Do With Bacon.