As frequent readers may recall, I spent a good part of my childhood on top of a mountain, where my dad ran the local television transmitter (I was in high school before cable TV came to Humboldt County.)

It was a 30-minute drive to the nearest grocery store, and 45 minutes to an actual supermarket. Every two weeks (except when we were snowed in … or flooded in, although I’m told they’ve fixed that now) my mom would make the drive to town to grocery shop.

(An aside: I was dropped off at the county library, where I was allowed to check out two grocery bags full of books. These did not usually last me two weeks, because we lived on top of a mountain and did not have cable.)

This is all by way of explaining that I’m absolutely certain that you can, in these uncertain times, eat very well even if you can’t go grocery shopping very often! Once you’ve finished off the fresh things from your shopping trip, turn to your pantry and freezer for another week or two of delicious dinners.

With planning, your pantry is an excellent resource for this. You don’t need to overstock (which is polite for “hoard,” which we do not do.) In a perfect world, you would build up your pantry every time you have a dollar or two extra in your food budget, by buying one or two extra of something you use regularly that is on sale.

This will eventually mean that you have the luxury of rarely buying staples at full price — if you have two cans of sale tomatoes in your pantry from last month, you can spend your money this month on extra of something else that’s on sale.

If you’ve been doing that, you’re all set. If you’re more of a day-to-day shopper, you may need to add a few things to your next shopping trip. What should you buy? Foods that you like, that have a good shelf life, and that can be used in a variety of ways are best. Great pantry items include

  • Plain canned beans
  • Tuna or other fish
  • Boxed tofu (if you eat it)
  • Polenta
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Masa
  • Tomatoes in a variety of forms
  • Olives
  • Pumpkin
  • Canned chiles in a variety of forms
  • Dried mushrooms
  • Nuts
  • Chicken broth
  • Evaporated milk
  • Olive oil
  • Soy sauce

You can make a dozen dishes out of those ingredients alone — Tuna Noodle Casserole, Pumpkin Soup, Tamale Casserole, Homemade Rice-a-roni, Fried Rice, Chicken Noodle Soup, Polenta with Spicy Tomato Sauce, Vegetarian Chili, Tomato Soup, Pasta with Pumpkin Mushroom Sauce, Mushroom Soup, Minestrone — and probably another hundred if you can put your hands on some eggs, cheese and/or vegetables.

On that note, don’t forget the freezer! Frozen vegetables, an extra pound of butter, hard cheeses like Parmesan and melting cheeses like mozzarella, a bit of bacon and bread crumbs made from the ends of loaves are all important frozen pantry items.

What to cook? Here are a few recipes to get you started.

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Pantry Minestrone

Serves 2.


1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 bell pepper, diced
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon oregano
2 cups vegetable broth
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 can cannellini beans
A good handful of pasta
2 cups frozen vegetables

Putting it together:

Sauté onion and pepper in olive oil until fragrant, about 5 minutes.  Add garlic & oregano and cook 1 minute.  Add broth, beans and tomatoes and simmer for 5 minutes.  Add pasta to soup. Cook until pasta is tender. Add vegetables cook until heated through.

Tamal Casserole

Serves 2.


2 cups or 1 can plain pinto or other beans
1 onion, sliced thin
1 bell pepper, sliced thin
½ cup grated cheese
(¼ pound ground un-meat, tofu or beef)
½ cup frozen corn
1/3 cup salsa


2/3 cup masa
3 tablespoons softened butter
1 cup vegetable broth, heated
¼ teaspoon hot pepper sauce

Putting it together:

Make topping first. Cream 1/3 of the masa with the butter. Add hot sauce to vegetable broth. Add enough vegetable broth to masa to make a thick batter and beat vigorously. Continue alternating masa and broth until you have a thick but pourable batter. You may not need all the broth, or you may need additional hot water. Masa’s like that.

Grease a casserole dish. Spread beans in the bottom and layer other ingredients on top in the order given, ending with corn. Pour salsa over top. Check topping to make sure it’s still pourable, and add more broth if necessary. Pour or spoon batter over top of casserole. Bake, covered, for 30 minutes at Serve with salsa, sour cream or chips on the side.

Super Speedy Party Pasta

Serves 4.


8 ounce pasta shapes
2 cups broccoli florets (frozen is fine)
1/3 cup good olive oil
2 cloves garlic
¼ cup almonds, slivered
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 can tuna, well drained
¼ cup olives, slivered
¼ cup finely grated parmesan

Putting it together:

Cook pasta in lightly salted boiling water; add broccoli for the last 2-3 minutes of cooking time. In a non-stick pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and sauté garlic and almonds gently until fragrant. Drain pasta, reserving ¼ cup of the cooking water.

Add red pepper flakes, remaining oil, tuna and olives to the garlic and heat until just warm. Return pasta to pan and add sauce and cheese. Add reserved cooking water, a little at a time, if pasta seems too dry. Serve at once.

Creamed Anything On Toast

This is a flexible dish, and was traditionally a vehicle for leftover bits of meat. That still works, but seems less likely now that very few people cook a large piece of meat for Sunday dinner. Vegetables work very well, and something like baked tofu would be good, especially if it were highly seasoned.

Fish of any sort works nicely, if you like fish. Meat replacement works well. The milk, of course, could be cow’s milk (I use 2%) or soy (I think rice milk might be a bit too sweet) or whatever you normally use for milk. The fat can be vegetable oil, or butter, or the leftover fat from whatever leftover meat you’re using.

For one serving:

1/2 cup cooked anything, cut into small dice
1 cup milk, warmed
1 tablespoon fat
1 tablespoon flour
2 slices toast, buttered if you like
salt and pepper

Putting it together:

In a small skillet, heat the fat. Add the flour and mix with a fork until there are no lumps. Let cook over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the milk in a thin stream, stirring with a fork the whole time to avoid lumps.

Let cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sauce begins to thicken. Add the cooked anything and let it heat through. If sauce thickens too much, add more milk a tablespoon at a time until it has the right consistency. Serve immediately over hot, crisp toast, with salt and pepper to be added by the diner.

Tuna Casserole

This is labelled “Tuna Casserole,” but it’s really a formula — you can use any fat, protein, vegetable or liquid you like.

Serves 4.


3 tablespoons butter or oil
½ onion, diced
12 mushrooms, sliced thin
1 tablespoon flour
8 ounces uncooked pasta (shells or noodles)
6-ounce can tuna
1 can (about 2 cups) uncondensed cream soup
2/3 cup low-fat milk (regular or non-dairy)
1 cup artichoke hearts, cut into slivers
½ cup fresh breadcrumbs or crushed crackers

Putting it together:

Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and reserve. In a small skillet, place 1 tablespoons oil. Sauté onion until limp, about 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and sauté another 2 minutes. Sprinkle flour over top and stir. Remove from heat.

In a small skillet, heat remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. Add breadcrumbs or saltines and cook, stirring frequently, until lightly browned.

In a large casserole, mix all ingredients together except breadcrumbs. Sprinkle breadcrumbs over top. Bake 350 degrees for about 20 minutes.


You can make this same recipe substituting any cooked protein from baked tofu to chicken. You can use almost any vegetable, as long as it is at least partially cooked. Some people are fans of cheese in their casseroles. I’d use ¼ cup of grated hard cheese (parmesan, asiago) or 1/3 cup of grated firm cheese (cheddar, pepper jack).

Winter Squash Fritters

Winter squash keeps really well, but you can also make these fritters with canned pumpkin or frozen squash. I like these with rice.

Serves 4.


2 cups pureed squash
½ cup minced onion (about ½ an onion)
¼ cup finely chopped pecans
1 cup fine bread crumbs
1 egg
6 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon nutmeg
olive oil

Putting it together:

Mix all the ingredients except the olive oil. Add just enough olive oil to coat to heavy frying pan. Drop fritter batter by the teaspoonful into hot pan. Cook over medium heat until golden brown (about 4 minutes).

Turn and cook other side until brown, 2-3 minutes. Repeat, adding more oil to pan, until all fritters are cooked.

Pureed Winter Squash

1 pound raw squash equals roughly 1 cup cooked pureed squash. Wash squash and cut carefully in half. Scoop out seeds and strings. Put cut side down on a lined cookie sheet and bake in a 350-degree oven for about 1 hour, until squash is soft.

Let cool. Scrape squash from rind and puree in food processor, put through a food mill or mash with a potato masher.

Spicy Hash Brown Casserole

Boxed silken tofu is full of protein and is shelf-stable, so it’s a great pantry choice. Chia seeds are an excellent egg substitute for baking.

Serves 2.


2 tablespoons chia seed
1/3 cup water
olive oil
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
¼ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
14-ounce can diced tomatoes, well drained
canned chiles to taste
6 ounces tofu
¼ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon adobe sauce
8 ounces 2 cups frozen hash browns
spray oil
1 teaspoon garlic powder
¼ cup finely grated parmesan

Putting it together:

Mix chia seeds and water and set aside to rest.

Slice onions thinly and sauté in oil until tender. Reduce heat and add pressed garlic cloves, cumin and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, one minute. Turn off heat and add tomatoes and chiles to taste (we used ½ can). Spread evenly in bottom of a 9-by-12 baking dish.

Puree tofu with salt and hot sauce or adobe sauce. Add chia mixture and stir. Spread evenly over vegetable mixture.

Place hash browns in a bowl. Spray lightly with cooking oil. Mix together garlic granules and cheese and toss with hash browns. Spread evenly over top of casserole. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Place under a low broiler until nicely browned.


Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise

Published online on April 14, 2020| Printed in the April 15, 2020 edition on page A4