“My son is going back to college soon, and for the first time, he’ll be living off-campus in an apartment. I thought I’d supply him with lots of pantry staples for quick, healthy meals. What do you suggest?”
Think of a well-stocked pantry as a gateway to big flavors fast. For college students (anyone, really, with a crazy schedule and not much time), it makes scratching together a meal any time of the day or night easy—not to mention more healthful and less expensive than ordering pizza. Again.
So, after a look through my kitchen cupboard, here’s a round-up to choose from, based on personal taste, cooking ability and interest, and how much you want to spend.
A STUDENT-FRIENDLY PANTRY LIST (PLUS RECIPE IDEAS)
Asian soup noodles: Packets of soba, udon, and/or rice-stick noodles come in handy for a super-quick meal or late-night snack—they take just minutes to prepare, and can be tossed with soy sauce and topped with sautéed greens or a fried egg and a squirt of Sriracha.
Broth: In a perfect world, we’d all have homemade broth in the freezer, but until then, a few cans or aseptic containers of store-bought broth will come in handy. I’m a Swanson’s fan; their organic chicken broth is well-balanced and not too salty, and their organic vegetable broth, though tomatoey, isn’t cloying.
Canned & dried beans: Goya makes a variety of canned organic beans, and they’re awfully handy. But nothing beats dried beans for value and flavor, and quick-soaking them takes just an hour. If I had to choose just one bean to live on, it would be the pinto; read what I have to say about it (along with a quick-soaking method and foolproof meatless recipe). Lentils, by the way, don’t need a soak and are the fastest-cooking legume. If a hearty bistro salad appeals, this is a great one.
Canned fish: The only tuna I buy is American Tuna MSC Certified Sustainable Pole & Line Albacore Tuna, available through Amazon or directly from American Tuna—a company owned by six fishing families from San Diego. Add a few tins of small forage fish such as sardines and anchovies too. Aside from being far more sustainable, they’re high in omega-3s, protein, B vitamins, minerals, and DMAE, a chemical compound that may enhance brain function (wish I’d known that when I was in college). Chopped anchovies give briny depth to a lemony vinaigrette, salsa verde, or tomato sauce. Broken-up sardines, delicious on a sandwich (the tender bones are a good source of calcium), make pasta con le sarde, a Sicilian classic, a snap to prepare.
Canned tomatoes: Buy whole tomatoes rather than puréed or chopped; they’re more versatile. Muir Glen is a good organic brand, while those labeled San Marzano are less acidic.
Hot sauces & chile pastes: I’m convinced a fascination with chile peppers is on the Y chromosome, so think beyond Tabasco. Sriracha, which comes in a handy squirt bottle, is a good, versatile chile sauce. Fun to have but by no means necessary are chipotle chiles in adobo; whizzed up in a blender and refrigerated in a small jar, the purée can be stirred into mayo and more. Likewise, the North African chile paste called harissa is used both as a condiment and as a flavor base in cooking.
Miso: This protein-rich fermented soybean paste comes in various strengths; white (shiro) miso is the mildest, and yellow (shinshu) miso, which has more oompf but is still mellow, is the most versatile. Miso lends the savory quality called umami, so often associated with meat, to salad dressings, sauces, soups, marinades, and glazes for roasted or grilled vegetables. Look for non-GM miso.
Mustard: Coarse- or whole-grain mustard is good for brat or burger night. A smooth Dijon may look sissified in comparison, but a dollop gives terrific body to a vinaigrette, simple pan sauce or herbed coating for chicken.
Pasta: Stock up on spaghetti (or spaghettini) and a short, easy-to-fork-up shape like penne. And don’t forget that couscous is a pasta, too; I really like Maftoul brand—it’s organic, artisanally made, and available at Whole Foods and Amazon. Whatever pasta you buy, it’s smart to always have two boxes of each type on hand; they have the same cooking time, so feeding an unexpected crowd is a breeze. Two shapes to avoid, by the way, are farfalle (aka butterflies or bow-ties), because the ends overcook before the middle is done, and capellini (aka angel hair), which can turn into a gluey, overcooked clump in a nanosecond.
Oils & Vinegars: Extra-virgin olive oil contains less than one percent acidity and hasn’t been treated with heat or chemicals. It’s nice to have an inexpensive brand for cooking and another, with more character, for salads or drizzling over cooked vegetables; one oil that can do double duty without breaking the bank is Paesano, from Sicily. You can read more about cooking oils and specifically about coconut oil in previous columns. If cooking oil will be used with abandon, buy a large tin of it, parcel out a manageable amount in a smaller bottle for daily use, and store the rest in a cool, dark place so it doesn’t turn rancid. (Important cooking tip: Don’t add oil to pasta water to prevent pasta from sticking together; the oil will prevent the pasta from absorbing sauce after cooking.) My two primary go-to vinegars are sherry vinegar, which is wonderful on salads and in cooking, and unfiltered cider vinegar, which adds freshness and acidity to potato salads (sprinkle it over the spuds while still hot) and even soups and stews if a bit is swirled in at the end.
Ras el Hanout: This complex North African spice blend can contain up to 20 spices, including cardamom, fennel seeds, cumin and coriander seeds, allspice, cinnamon, and black pepper. Combined with salt and rubbed on chicken, beef, or lamb, it adds great flavor without tasting especially exotic. Every brand is a bit different; look for it at specialty markets, Williams-Sonoma, and kalustyans.com.
Rice: These days, my go-to rice is basmati; its nutty aroma and subtle flavor are delicious with anything. Brown rice takes longer to cook and it can be heavy. Where it really comes into its own, though, is in this dead-simple chicken and rice soup, from Gourmet. It ain’t pretty, but it is nourishing, cheap to make, and absolutely delicious.
Salt & Pepper: Kosher salt is a terrific all-around salt for cooking; it’s inexpensive, free of additives, and coarse-grained, so it’s easy to grab a pinch or so for seasoning. Sea salt is another (more expensive) option; it comes fine or coarse. A flaky sea salt like Maldon is what’s known as a finishing salt: A scattering of it on a cooked dish adds texture and crunch. For a more in-depth look at the various types of salts, check out this earlier column. Whole black peppercorns are one of life’s most inexpensive luxuries, especially when you avoid buying them at overpriced fancy food stores and order them from kalustyans.com.
Spices: Don’t waste money stocking up on dried herbs that will never be used, but dried bay leaves, rosemary, and thyme can come in handy. And do buy more hot stuff (see hot sauce note on Y chromosome): Cayenne pepper (aside from chile and other spicy dishes, a smidge gives a spark to twice-baked potatoes), Spanish smoked paprika (mixed with salt, it’s fabulous on everything from popcorn to roasted chicken), and dried red-pepper flakes, a real kitchen workhorse.
Soy sauce or (wheat-free) tamari: Buy a Japanese brand, which is more consistent and of higher quality than Chinese brands.
Sweeteners: Pure maple syrup can be used on oatmeal and pancakes, obviously, but it adds a deep sweetness to anything you cook. Grade B is more flavorful than Grade A.
Whole grains: Steel-cut oats for breakfast and versatile farro are great, easy-to-cook starter grains.
Worcestershire sauce: A former Gourmet colleague described Worcestershire sauce as “the world in a spoon,” because of its ability to give depth and complexity to almost anything. If I could take just one condiment to a desert island, this would be it.
GOING THE EXTRA MILE: THE FREEZER PANTRY
Bacon. Trader Joe’s meatballs. A loaf of bread. A quart or two of homemade soup or chili. More bacon.