Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Budget Cooking from the Pantry ((snag))

Cookbook authors often provide long lists of pantry “must-haves,” those important ingredients that we supposedly can’t live without. But when food costs are up and it’s time to pay the grocery bill, those extra items can put the hurt on overextended wallets.

The trick is to stock what you know you’ll use. Not only will you save money, but storage space, too. After all, your own pantry may be just two crowded shelves in a kitchen cupboard.

Look for sales on your favorite ingredients, and then mix it up with a little creative multi-tasking. For instance, a jar of salsa that’s usually spooned on top of tacos or nachos can be transformed into a lightly spiced, gazpacho-style soup with the addition of a few fresh ingredients.

We all have different tastes, but when asked what five pantry ingredients they always have on hand, an informal survey of family and friends uncovered some surprising similarities.

Pasta topped most lists, and talk about a multi-tasker. It’s quick-to-fix as a main dish or salad base, and can extend vegetable or meat soups. A small selection is all that’s needed. Spaghetti, penne, salad macaroni or orzo, as well as fun shapes such as farfalle (also known as butterflies or bow-ties) or wagon wheels are just a few of the options.

• Toss hot pasta with a mix of diced, fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, zucchini and sweet peppers. Add some minced garlic, sweet onions, and shreds of basil leaves or coarsely chopped parsley with a dash of olive oil. Leftover cooked chicken or fish can be added, while a tiny dice of feta cheese changes things up from the usual mozzarella or Parmesan cheese.
• Sauté broccoli florets and their peeled, sliced stems in olive oil until tender-crisp, adding dashes of crushed red pepper flakes and kosher salt at the end of the cooking time. Toss with hot pasta and finish with grated Parmesan or Romano cheese.
• Save about ½ cup of the pasta cooking water to add to the dressed pasta in case it seems too dry. Not only is it a lighter alternative to adding additional oil to the dish, it’s also lighter on the wallet.

Canned beans, whether Great Northern, pinto, garbanzo, or black, are another winner in the pantry. They’re versatile and a good source of protein.

• Substitute rinsed and drained black beans for the meat or poultry in enchiladas or tortilla casseroles.
• For salads, marinate the canned beans in a little of the dressing for 10 to 15 minutes before adding other ingredients. It’s surprising how much flavor they’ll absorb.
• Baked beans can be doctored with finely chopped sweet onions, hot sauce and maple syrup. Or stir in a can of black beans, add ¼ to ½ cup chili sauce and simmer until the flavors are blended.

Dry beans are less expensive than canned per serving, but not as convenient. With the exception of lentils and split peas, most need some soaking time before cooking.

• Dry beans will soak up all of the liquid they need within four hours, so a long soaking time isn’t necessary.
• Here’s a tip passed along by an Italian friend: Add a tablespoon of flour to the soaking water, which will produce yeasts that tenderize the beans.

Bless canned tomatoes, for what would the kitchen be without them?

• A favorite dish is inspired by cookbook author Ken Hom. Simmer chicken wings in a can of tomato puree that’s seasoned with 1 teaspoon of Five-Spice Powder, 2 cinnamon sticks, 2 tablespoons honey and a tablespoon soy sauce for about 30 minutes until tender.
• Try these aromatic additions to canned tomatoes: a pinch of cloves; a tablespoon of finely grated orange zest; 2 teaspoons curry powder.

Don’t forget the canned broth. Chicken, beef or vegetable are the choices, depending on your personal tastes and diet needs.

• All canned broths can be freshened up with slices of fresh ginger, green onions and chopped garlic. Simmer together for 15 minutes, then drain. Use for Asian influenced dishes such as rice, soups or poached chicken.

Olive oil and vegetable or canola oil are “must-haves” in any pantry.

• Here’s something to consider: In warm summer months, oils can become rancid quickly, so store them in the refrigerator for the freshest taste. Although olive oil will solidify when chilled, it can be reliquified quickly by setting the bottle into a bowl of hot water.

A small selection of quality vinegars will add flavor notes that range from subtle to intense. Choose two or three of the following: balsamic, unsweetened rice vinegar, cider, white wine or red wine vinegars.

• A good, basic vinaigrette can dress salads or be drizzled over fish that’s hot off the grill. Its low acidity is perfect for marinating meat or poultry without changing their texture.
• Add 2 tablespoons crushed black peppercorns to ½ cup vinaigrette, add 2 pounds chicken drumettes and marinate overnight. Then drain and grill or bake in the oven until browned and cooked through.

Keep your options open. Just because a recipe calls for a specific ingredient doesn’t mean it can’t be substituted with another in the same flavor family. So if, for instance, a jar of honey isn’t on your shelf when mixing together the Balsamic, Orange & Honey Marinade, the same amount of brown or turbinado sugar, or perhaps orange marmalade, will flavor and glaze the meat beautifully. And if an ingredient is “optional”, that’s your cue to leave it out. Remember, this is your pantry, and your chance to cut down on the grocery bill.