THE WASHINGTON POST – You could say lots of things about food writers – that we get inordinately excited when the first green tops of garlicky ramps emerge in spring; that we spend a little too much time arguing about whether you should brine your turkeys, and still don’t know for sure; that we take too long to get to the recipe already; or that we seem to have a banana bread breakthrough once a week. What you can’t say about us is that we’re psychics. But you don’t need to be a psychic to know how to optimise a pantry, or do more with less.
So although no one in my profession could have predicted we’d be in the middle of a pandemic, living under quarantine, we all find ourselves having to cook a lot with limited supplies, and food writers can show you how to do that. We have been doing it for years, many of us in cookbooks – without realising just how handy our work would come in.
Four years ago, I started writing a cookbook that would take sets of three ingredients and make three very different dishes that featured them. I relied mostly on pantry items and generally accessible produce. In early April, Kitchen Remix was published. It’s eerily on time. Similarly, in February, The Washington Post food editor Joe Yonan released his paean to legumes, Cool Beans, which he began years before our period of heightened bean cookery saw chickpeas flying off the shelves. Around the same time, Emily Stephenson was putting the finishing touches on the manuscript for Pantry to Plate, slated for publication in October.
These are three of the cookbooks, some new, some old, that are relevant to this terrifying and challenging moment. It’s a wonderfully mixed bag stitched with a common thread: resourcefulness. Their authors tend to limit themselves to standard pantry fare or widely accessible products, and practice economy, but there’s no trace of deprivation or monotony in the recipes.
“I’m not a culinary genius – I’m just organised,” Amy Pennington wrote in her 2011 cookbook, Urban Pantry. It was one of the first to make me aware that with some practical thinking, a well-stocked inventory can cover most of our needs.
Pennington provides a lesson in larder stocking and in maximising minimal space and the stuff you store in your cupboards. She’ll get you full of beans, among other legumes, in addition to grains, nuts and eggs, and she’s full of clever, uncomplicated ideas for how you can incorporate them into breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Alana Chernila is of the same hyper-organised persuasion. Recently, on a FaceTime chat, my friend Nicole A Taylor, since laid off from her job as executive food editor at the website Thrillist, wisely recommended Chernila’s The Homemade Pantry. It’s maybe more a how-to for pantry building than a cookbook, per se, but cooking plays an integral part; Chernila is big on DIY. Why buy things like cereals, pancake mix, crackers, pudding cups, frozen foods (fish sticks, pizza, veggie burgers) or buttermilk, mayo or vanilla extract when you can make them? She offers recipes for meals that utilise all your self-made staples as well.
Homesteading’s not for anyone, even under the best of circumstances. The newest from Lukas Volger, food writer and editorial director of Jarry magazine, Start Simple also deals with the art of building on one good thing, but it’s more about using your stash than accumulating it. He chose 11 (vegetarian) ingredients and devotes a chapter to each, giving you simple (as billed) base recipes for handling them, and then shows you how you can build on those.
I flagged every single dish in the sweet potato section, but I’d be remiss not to direct you to the marinated greens: He puts them into a spicy peanut butter sandwich (it’s genius, I tell you), a meatless carbonara with capers, baked potatoes, and then some.
A tweet from the San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic, Soleil Ho, led me to an update on Namiko Hirasawa Chen’s blog, ‘Just One Cookbook.’ It isn’t a cookbook proper; it’s an ongoing digital analog dedicated to traditional and popular Japanese dishes. This ‘pantry meal guide,’ as Chen describes her recent post, ‘26 Stay-At-Home Japanese Recipes Everyone Can Make,’ is organised by staple – rice, udon and soba noodles, tofu, flour and so on. (Wondering about “flour”? You, too, can learn to make gyoza wrappers from scratch.)
Now, let’s say you’re a stockpiler and you’ve got a penchant for things in jars, cans or tins, or you’ve been presciently wise about filling your kitchen with items that have long shelf lives. Nancy Silverton’s got your number. In fact, she’s had it since 2007, when the visionary behind Los Angeles’s Mozza and Chi Spacca restaurants gave us her ballad of store-bought goods, A Twist of the Wrist. It puts ease first, but because it comes from the mind of a chef, it’s a touch more clever about making chicken salad (don’t worry, the bird is roasted, and you don’t have to be the one to do it) or butternut squash soup (a brilliantly doctored-up version of the stuff that comes in a box).
Amsterdam-based Bart van Olphen is in the same boat, but he’s focussed on aquacultural material. This month, The Tinned Fish Cookbook arrives (again with the uncanny timing) to show us all the things we can do with mackerel, mussels, salmon, tuna and the rest of the conserved, sustainable bunch. As someone who made a beeline for the sardines when talk of quarantining began, I’d personally like to thank van Olphen for showing me what they can do when paired with hummus or baked into a tart with leeks and tarragon.
The undisputed master of canned-good cookery is British food personality Jack Monroe. Her Twitter handle is @BootstrapCook, and she’s currently hosting a daily live chat on that platform, answering people’s questions about what to cook with what they’ve got in their larder. Tin Can Cook debuted last year and is the definitive cookbook in this genre. It’s also a must-have for anyone on a tight budget.