I'm doing a lot of pantry cooking this month during my Frugal April project. It's actually been quite fun to come up with tasty meals with very little money. I may be a huge nerd about this stuff, but I like being resourceful. There's something really gratifying about preparing a meal for four out of whole foods from my pantry for well under $10--and having leftovers for lunch the next day. But how does one do this? What ingredients do you need to have on hand? The answer to this really lies with your personal tastes. I'd be pretty happy eating Mexican/Tex-Mex and Mediterranean food for weeks on end. As such, my pantry is going to reflect that. You may prefer Thai or Indian food. (I certainly go through phases where I'd eat curry for every meal if I could.) But there are basics here, and these basics revolve around a couple of key ingredients--namely, beans and rice. So here are the basics of my frugal pantry. It's not an exhaustive list, and varies from month to month. Take your favorites, make changes, and stock your pantry for penny-pinching times.
Dried beans and other legumes: I always have an assortment of dried beans in my cupboard. I buy in bulk; I store beans in glass jars; I and cook them in my slow cooker overnight. In my pantry as I write this post I have the following legumes: black (turtle) beans, pinto beans, navy beans, chickpeas, brown lentils, red lentils, and de Puy lentils. I use different beans for different purposes, but most of the beans are interchangeable in soups. Lentils cook more quickly, and are good to add protein to pasta sauces and soups.
Canned tomatoes: It's hard to beat canned tomatoes. Many cuisines use tomatoes, and canned are just as good as fresh for pasta sauces, curries, and batches of chili in a pinch. I usually have crushed, diced, and whole peeled tomatoes in my pantry. If you're looking for the least expensive source, the store brands at Target and Wegmans have been the best for me lately. I prefer buying Muir Glen tomatoes because they don't use BPA in their cans, but I can't always afford organic tomatoes.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="400" caption="tester for Alicia Simpson: roasted chickpeas"][/caption]
Spices: Spices are expensive if you don't buy in bulk. And their unit price is high. However, your pantry cooking will be really boring without them. Check out this page for spices categorized by ethnic cuisine. Pick your favorites, and stock up. I have most of the spices on that list, and use them all. I've accumulated them a bit at a time, mostly at international markets.
Coconut milk: Canned coconut milk is an awesome pantry ingredient. It's good for curries of all varieties, some Latin cooking, and as a non-dairy alternative for heavy cream or milk in a pinch. I love coconut. Your best bet for inexpensive brands without preservatives is to go to an international market. I buy 15 oz cans for about $0.65 on sale and stock up.
Grains: Rice, quinoa, millet, corn, oats... All these are great gluten-free whole food alternatives to stocking wheat in your pantry. You can even mill these into flour in a small coffee grinder if you feel so inclined. Quinoa is the most expensive of these, but can be found in bulk. I store these in glass jars, just like the beans. You can cook all of these for sweet and savory dishes.
Potatoes: I usually have both Yukon Gold and sweet potatoes in my pantry, as both are inexpensive and versatile. You know, "Boil 'em, mash 'em, stick 'em in a stew." Try unusual flavors, or cooking them in a different way. The humble potato can do so much for a menu on a budget.
Garlic and onions: I've lumped these together because I adore alliums. Garlic, scallions, leeks, shallots, and all sorts of onions are really great to have in your pantry. They add tons of flavor, and are surprisingly versatile. Raw, they're pretty pungent... But you can pickle them, saute them until golden, or my favorite--caramelize them and make the onions sweet as candy. Pair some leeks with potatoes, add a little butter or oil, and you've got an amazing leek and potato soup.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="400" caption="homemade chili powder"][/caption]
Eggs: Not shelf stable, but eggs keep a long time in the refrigerator and are budget-friendly. I didn't keep eggs on hand for a long time, but I get them with my CSA share now and am really happy about it. I hesitated to include eggs here because good quality, humanely produced eggs are not cheap. But they are versatile, and using 4 eggs in a quiche or six eggs in a souffle as a cheap dinner for a family is frugal even if you're paying $4 a dozen. (It still works out to a meal well under $5.)
Frozen veggies: Again, not shelf stable. But they're good storage foods. And cheap. I can get a pound of just about any basic vegetable for $0.99 even with no sale. Just buy the store brand. I usually keep chopped spinach, broccoli, corn (really a grain), green beans, cauliflower, and edamame (a bean) in my freezer. If you're tight on funds, this is a great way to keep getting your veggies while saving a little money.
Dried fruits: Raisins, dried cranberries, and dried apricots are almost always in my pantry. I can make an impromptu dessert, muffins, and a healthy snack for my kids without forking out tons of money on fresh produce. Which I'd rather have, but sometimes you just can't do it. Raisins are also surprisingly good for cutting acidity in tomato sauces without adding refined sugar. (Just puree them in if you don't want the texture.)
Nuts: Almonds and cashews are good bets for vegetarian cooking, and for healthy snacks. I buy them in bulk on sale, and keep them in my freezer. Roast them and combine with dried fruits for trail mix, or make some of the awesome sauces from Veganomicon for a fancy, yet resourceful dinner. Soaked and pureed cashews make a fantastic substitute for heavy cream, by the way. (And they're more neutral in flavor than coconut milk.)
Flours and oils: Please see the pantry pages for each of these. Homemade is almost always cheaper than prepared when it comes to gluten free foods.
Unrelated: Please consider visiting this week's Allergy Friendly Friday post over at Cybele Pascal's website! She's featured my stuffed veggie burgers this week as well as some other awesome-looking recipes. Also, participate in the fun! I'm looking forward to seeing what every has cooking this week.