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Crafting creative meals from the pantry and freezer

We should all have a list of delicious, thoughtful recipes for the days we can’t get to the market, or when nothing’s in the fridge. Pantry meals lean on just a few durable ingredients, easily accessible from the cupboard or freezer, with minimal planning or perishables. But just because they’re simple doesn’t mean these dishes are bland, starchy or boring. With a handful of tricks and a well-stocked pantry and freezer, you can serve up many days’ worth of fresh, light and bold flavors at a moment’s notice.

Hard cheeses add easy flavor

Aged, hard cheeses like parmesan, gruyere, gouda and pecorino can last weeks or even months in a resealable bag in the fridge. Their concentrated flavor is a boon for any last-minute cook, as parmesan is in this family-friendly Parmesan-Crusted Chicken Tenders recipe. Bonus tip: aged cheeses can also be frozen for up to 8 months in a freezer bag. The flavor and texture may be slightly altered, but it can be worth it when you’re trying to stock up.

Keep good butter handy

Very few ingredients are as versatile or impactful as butter. With high-quality Challenge Butter in the fridge or freezer (yes, the freezer), you’re always just a few steps away from a fresh, flavorful meal or treat. For a spur-of-the-moment dessert or afternoon snack using just seven ingredients, make these decadent Brown Butter Cookies. Served beside coffee, milk or dessert wine, they’ll fool everyone into thinking you planned ahead.

Build heartier entrees with beans

A can of beans in the pantry is like money in the bank: always good to have. Canned beans keep months if not years in the pantry, plus their fiber and protein make meals extra satisfying and nutritious. Keep several types of beans on the shelf for maximum versatility. A can of garbanzo beans can be transformed into our Spicy Garbanzo Beans With Caramelized Onions, while navy beans are the centerpiece in this recipe for Baked Beans With Caramelized Bacon Topping.

Change up your pasta

Think pasta is only good with marinara sauce? Think again. Serve a satisfying Tortellini with Brown Butter and Sage or even cook dried tortellini in chicken broth for soup. Stock up on long dried pasta like fettuccine, cappellini and bucatini for dishes with sturdy greens like kale or chard, or hearty cheese garlic sauce as in our Fettuccine with Cheese-Garlic Sauce. Bonus tip: To garnish your fettuccine, did you know you can keep chives or green onions in a cup of water, and the ends will grow back after you’ve snipped them?

A bit of bacon goes a long way

Meats like dry-cured bacon, pepperoni and chorizo have the staying power to keep for up to a month in the fridge. Even better, these ingredients can offer lots of flavor in small quantities. Crumble bits of bacon over our Penne With Roasted Cauliflower, Rosemary and Bacon — a dish that makes good use of several sturdy ingredients — to bring the complexity of savory notes to an otherwise meatless main dish.

Make the most of frozen ingredients

Frozen below 0 degrees F for up to 9 months, fruit, veggies, chicken breasts, pork chops and ground beef serve as the foundation for a wealth of fresh and flavorful dinners. Frozen poultry, pork and other meats need to be thawed safely in the fridge for 24 hours before use. But for just a little planning, the results are worth it in a dish like this Chicken Tortilla Soup. Frozen vegetables can also work beautifully to bring color and nutrition to a pantry-centric main, as it does here for our Creamy Pea And Asparagus Orzo.

Think inside the jar

Shelf-stable goods like sun-dried tomatoes, olives, marinated artichoke hearts, vinegars, oils, jams and chutneys can last many months in the pantry, adding just the right note to your dish. In our five-ingredient (!) recipe for Grilled Breast of Chicken With Apricot-Mustard Sauce, butter, apricot jam and mustard combine for a sauce that punches up an otherwise very simple grilled chicken dish. Don’t forget to pack dried chiles and spices into your cupboards, either. Seasoning is everything; a good selection of basic spices can bump a dish from good to great, as it does with our Sweet and Spicy Sweet Potatoes.

Go back to your roots

When in doubt, head for the hardiest veggies like onions, potatoes, hard squashes, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots and brussels sprouts. Despite their durability, these ingredients can be transformed into elegant dishes like our Roast Butternut Squash and Gruyere Galette. Or try a new jazzed-up take on potatoes with our Balsamic and Herb Roasted New Potatoes.