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Pantry philosophy helps get quick dinner on table

We had been phone friends and business colleagues with Margaret Bernstein for five years, and the fact that we'd finally eat lunch together, face to face, seemed practically miraculous.

The topics we needed to discuss stretched almost as far and wide as the distance between us - Margaret lives in Cleveland where she's editor of The Plain Dealer newspaper's "Everywoman" section, and I live 675 miles away in Raleigh, N.C. Even with our crowded agendas, what was the first thing this full-time working mother of two preschoolers wanted to talk about as we settled into our chairs? The difficulties of putting a family meal on the table night after night."I've been trying to be better about cooking," she said, "but my biggest problem is, how can I tell what I should keep in my pantry?"

It would have been easy to rattle off a list of staples I like to have on hand, but my list might not work for Margaret - or for you. What we can all benefit from is learning how to evaluate our pantries based on a few key principles. In our new cookbook, "Desperation Dinners!" Alicia and I call it the Whole Kitchen Pantry Plan.

First, consider shelf life. If an ingredient lasts for several weeks (or even months) in your pantry, refrigerator or freezer, it can bail you out when you need it most. The Canadian bacon in today's recipe, for example, can be refrigerated (unopened) for a month.

Second, buy ingredients that have some of the work already done for you. Canned tomatoes are now available with a whole range of seasonings already cooked into them, so you get a long-simmered flavor instantly. If you drain canned beans and rinse off the excess sodium, they work beautifully for 20-minute chilies and soups.

Finally, work toward collecting a week's worth of pantry-based recipes that your family loves. Then stock your cupboard, refrigerator and freezer around those recipes. (There's no point in hoarding tomatoes if half the family won't eat them.)

Start to think of every storage space in your kitchen as a tool for keeping you out of the supermarket fast lane, and you'll come to find that our pantry philosophy can save your sanity.

Menu:

Creamy Twists with Canadian Bacon

Raw, already-peeled baby carrots

Sourdough rolls

CREAMY TWISTS WITH CANADIAN BACON

6 cups (12 ounces) rotini pasta (twists)

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 package (5 or 6 ounces) sliced Canadian bacon

1 cup frozen chopped onions

1 teaspoon bottled minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon dried basil

1 can (14 1/2 ounces) pasta-style chopped tomatoes

1 can (8 ounces) reduced-sodium tomato sauce

1/2 cup frozen green peas, optional

1/2 cup reduced-fat sour cream (sour half-and-half)

Place the pasta in 2 1/2 quarts of already-boiling unsalted water and cook until just tender, 9 to 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, begin heating the oil on medium heat in a 12-inch nonstick skillet. While the oil heats, coarsely chop the Canadian bacon into bite-size pieces. (Hint: If you leave the bacon stacked from the package, you can cut through several slices at once.) Add the bacon to the skillet and stir to separate the pieces.

Add the onions, garlic and basil, and cook until the onions defrost, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and tomato sauce, and stir. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook until the sauce comes to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer and cook until the pasta is done.

If you are using the green peas, add them to the skillet in the last 2 minutes of simmering, and stir. When the pasta is just tender, drain it well and place it in a 3-quart (or larger) serving bowl. Toss the sour cream with the hot pasta until it is well coated. Add the tomato-sauce mixture to the pasta bowl, stir well and serve at once. Serves 6.

- Approximate Values Per Serving (Using Nutritionist IV software): 358 calories (17 percent from fat), 6.5 g fat (2 g saturated), 21 mg cholesterol, 15 g protein, 59 g carbohydrates, 2 g dietary fiber, 691 mg sodium.