At the last minute, a well-stocked pantry can save the day and the dinner

April 07, 1993|By McClatchy News Service

Mother Hubbard wasn't a whiz at stocking her cupboard. Lots of us aren't either.

It might seem cheeky for one breadwinner/cook to tell another breadwinner/cook what he or she should hoard in the pantry, meaning cupboard and refrigerator, for last-minute dinners. A pantry, after all, is purely personal.

One woman's chicken salad may not be a man's idea of the evening meal. To say nothing of offspring whose palates have been stunted by weird green teen-age turtles.

But you have to start somewhere.

Thanks to smart wholesalers and distributors, more convenience foods and table-ready fresh produce are available at your neighborhood supermarkets and discount warehouses.

Here is a list of pantry pleasers to promote jiffy dinners:

* Real carrots. Eat raw, cooked solo, or sliced and added to soups or pasta sauces. Give carrots a cooking session in the microwave, add some frozen peas and corn, zap and top with thin slivers of red pepper and a sprinkling of dried thyme and olive oil. A piece of baked fish and boiled potatoes, and dinner is served.

* Lentil soup mix. Lentils cook in less time than most members of tTC the bean family, so it's possible to come home from work and fix a pot of lentil soup. You might try adding smoked sausage, a can of tomatoes, some garlic and carrots or celery. It's a whole meal in a soup plate. Buy a salad from your supermarket deli.

* Pasta. Putting pasta on the list seems redundant. How could anybody think pantry and not think pasta? But you won't want to make every bed of pasta with red sauce. Why? Because, one day, after dinners run red, night after night, the diners will rebel.

We get so used to drowning ziti, macaroni, spaghetti, linguine, lasagna, penne, elbows and shells in sauce, we forget how tasty plain pasta can be.

Here's a suggestion for simple, delicious pasta from cookbook author/chef Jacques Pepin: Cook a half-pound of small pasta shapes. Mix in a bowl, 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon fresh ground pepper and 2-3 tablespoons sliced green onions or chives. When the pasta is tender, add 1/3 cup pasta cooking water to the mixture in the bowl. Drain the pasta and stir into the oil-water mixture. Stir in 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese. Serve on hot plates alone or with a piece of broiled fish or chicken.

* Frozen spinach. Spinach is like a Post-it Note. It sticks to everything. Maybe not to other green vegetables or peanut butter, but cooked, drained frozen spinach enhances the looks and heightens the flavor of egg, cheese, pasta and rice dishes. Not to mention soups and stews.

Lay fish fillets on cooked spinach in the bottom of a baking dish. In a skillet, build a frittata with sauteed onions, hamburger meat, tomatoes, spinach and eggs.

* Bulgur. So it's not a household word. It's easy and quick to cook, nutritious and, like pasta, bulgur is a great dumping ground for all manner of vegetable and meat toppings.

* Canned tuna. Even if you haven't made a tuna-noodle soup casserole in 25 years, when in doubt about dinner, why not have Charlie the Tuna on your side -- for salads, tuna-on-toast and inside a big, fluffy baked potato.

* Bottled pasta sauce. The canned mushroom soup of the 1990s, bottled sauce varies in seasoning, acidity, spiciness, texture -- and price.

* Fresh lemons and oranges. A squirt of fresh citrus juice -- in almost any food -- is like a fresh winter rain in California. From salad dressing to citrus sauce, fresh lemon and orange (or lime) juice incite keen, new flavors. Forget the bottled salad dressing. It's expensive and not always tasty. Drizzle greens with a little olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon or orange juice.

* Boneless chicken thighs, legs and breasts (frozen separately). Fuel for a quick meal. Stir-fry nuggets of chicken thighs and legs with a couple of pretty pre-cut fresh vegetables and a bottled stir-fry sauce. Serve with rice or noodles. Or broil chicken parts, basting with a mixture of soy, water and dried onion flakes.

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