We challenged our favourite chefs to cook out of the pantry – ours, not theirs

The Washington Post Staff

THE WASHINGTON POST – We know you’ve been there. We all have: staring at the contents of the refrigerator, freezer and pantry, and thinking, “What the heck do I make with all this?” Whether your larder is bare or flush, unless you’re an expert meal planner, you have surely had moments when you’ve been positively flummoxed. That feeling is exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic, when you’re limiting trips to the store, can’t find quick grocery delivery appointments and are trying to stretch your dollar even further than usual. Falling for a recipe and then filling any gaps needed to make it is simply out of the question.

Sometimes the ingredient you need most isn’t eggs, flour or yeast. It’s inspiration.

With that in mind, we decided to solicit ideas from some of the most creative cooks we know: professional chefs who can look at, say, a few bags of frozen vegetables and think, “Gazpacho!” Five of us filmed quick phone videos of our stashes (some better stocked than others), sent them to the chefs, and awaited word. What we got back were recipes that did more than provide the makings of dinner. They jolted us out of our ruts.

Carla Hall

Chef, author and television personality

Cauliflower Gazpacho
Chickpea Kichidi. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST

When I showed chef, cookbook author and TV personality Carla Hall around my pantry and refrigerator, things weren’t looking so good. I was at a low ebb, with few fresh veggies and only sausages for protein, and a trip to the grocery store wasn’t in the cards for days (though oddly, my La Croix stash was a healthy one). So I knew she had a challenge on her hands, though somehow I didn’t feel embarrassed to show the sad array to Hall, who is every bit as friendly and approachable IRL as she seems on-screen.

She suggested a dish I never would have come up with on my own: a silky cauliflower gazpacho of frozen florets and pistachios, brightened with a swirl of spinach oil (more frozen veg, pulverized to a smooth consistency in the blender). The dish was to be topped with some chopped sausage and green olives. Best of all, it was accompanied by a tempura, which was basically a bunch of vegetables (yep, more frozen stuff) tossed with a simple batter, fried briefly, served with a zippy sauce that made use of my condiment shelf. Hall even incorporated La Croix into both components.

I had to make a few adaptations: I skipped the zucchini in the gazpacho because mine had gone bad, and omitted the green olives because when I finally pulled the jar out from the corner where it was lurking, the little orbs had turned to mush. I loved how it bridged the seasons: Gazpacho is usually a warm-weather dish, but this version had enough heft to serve on one of those in-between days. The tempura was a fantastic, crunchy counterpoint. Overall, the meal taught me I could make something that looked like I’d get at a restaurant (remember those?) while relying mostly on bags excavated from the freezer and a little of my favourite fizzy water. Cold comfort never tasted so good. – Emily Heil

CAULIFLOWER GAZPACHO

Four servings

Carla Hall’s luscious vegan soup gets it creamy texture from nuts and oils. Hall likes to top it with crisp sausage pieces, but you can skip that garnish if you want to keep this filling, nutritious soup vegan. You may have additional spinach oil leftover: Use it to dress salads or drizzle over roasted baked or grilled meats.

Storage Notes: The soup is best stored before adding sparkling water, and can be refrigerated for up to three days. (Add the sparkling water just before serving.) Spinach oil can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to three days. Bring it to room temperature before using.

Ingredients

FOR THE GAZPACHO

3 teaspoons kosher salt, divided

2 cups (8 ounces) frozen cauliflower florets

1 medium zucchini (7 ounces), diced

2 dinner rolls, outer crust removed and processed into about 1/4 cup coarse bread crumbs

1/2 cup (3 ounces) unroasted shelled pistachios

1/2 cup diced red onion (about 1/2 medium onion)

2 cloves garlic (may substitute 1 teaspoon garlic powder)

2 tablespoons white vinegar

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup chilled sparkling water

FOR THE SPINACH OIL

1/2 cup frozen spinach, thawed and excess liquid squeezed out

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

FOR SERVING

1 link sausage (about 4 ounces), diced

1/4 cup chopped green olives (12 to 14 olives)

Steps

Make the gazpacho: In a medium saucepan, combine two cups water and two teaspoons salt and bring to a boil. Add the cauliflower florets, bring back to a boil and cook until the cauliflower is fork tender, three to five minutes. Drain, reserving one cup of the blanching liquid.

Place the blanched cauliflower, zucchini, bread crumbs, pistachios, onion, garlic, the remaining one teaspoon salt, vinegar and oil in a blender and process until smooth, drizzling in the reserved cauliflower cooking water, one to two tablespoons at a time, as needed to keep the mixture loose but not overly liquefied. Transfer the soup to a container and refrigerate for at least two hours or until completely chilled.

Make the spinach oil: Rinse out the blender container. While the soup is chilling, place the spinach, oil, salt and nutmeg in the blender and process until the spinach is very finely chopped, scraping down the sides as needed, about three minutes. Transfer the spinach oil to a container and store at room temperature if using the same day. If you want to refrigerate the oil and use later, let the oil come to room temperature before using.

When ready to serve, in a small skillet over medium-high heat, cook the sausages until crispy, eight to 10 minutes.

Combine the chilled soup and sparkling water in the clean blender and pulse a few times to incorporate. Pour the soup in individual bowls, add a drizzle of spinach oil, then sprinkle the crispy sausage and olives on top.

Nutrition | Calories per serving: 566; Total Fat: 49g; Saturated Fat: 7g; Cholesterol: 16mg; Sodium: 2019mg; Total Carbohydrates: 20g; Dietary Fiber: 6g; Sugar: 4g; Protein: 12g.

CRISPY FROZEN VEGETABLE TEMPURA

Four servings; makes 16 fritters

This is a great way to use a variety of frozen vegetables. You need three cups, but it can be made up of any variety, such as the bit left in a bag of peas or corn. Use a two-inch ice cream scoop to form the fritters to get the perfect size.

You can drizzle the sauce over the top of the fried tempura or serve it on the side.

NOTES: If you don’t have Trader Joe’s Chili Onion Crunch, combine two teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon each freeze-dried onion and garlic with 1/4 teaspoon each chili powder and crushed red pepper flakes in a small bowl.

Storage Notes: Store cooled fritters in the refrigerator for up to two days. Reheat them in an oven or toaster oven.

Ingredients

FOR THE SAUCE

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup Dijon mustard

2 teaspoons Trader Joe’s Chili Onion Crunch

FOR THE TEMPURA

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup seltzer

1 1/2 cups vegetable or olive oil

3 cups frozen mixed vegetables, such as peas, corn and roughly chopped broccoli florets, defrosted

1/2 cup diced yellow onion (1 small onion)

FOR SERVING

Lemon wedges

Steps

Make the sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, Dijon mustard and chili-onion crunch.

Make the tempura: In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, baking powder, cumin, salt and pepper, then slowly add the seltzer while whisking until combined, being careful not to overmix.

In a two to three-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, heat the oil until simmering. If vegetables were frozen, pat them dry to remove any residual moisture. In a large bowl, mix the vegetables with the onion, then pour the batter over the vegetables and gently toss to coat.

Using a soup spoon or a small ice cream scoop, drop the coated vegetables into the hot oil. Cook until crisp, one to two minutes on each side.

Using tongs or a slotted spoon, lift the fritters out of the oil and transfer to a wire rack set over a paper towel-lined large rimmed baking sheet to drain. Repeat the frying with the remaining vegetables.

Serve with the sauce for dipping and lemon wedges to squeeze over the tempura.

Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful analysis.

Stephanie Izard

Girl & The Goat, Chicago

Until the pandemic, cooking at home was rare sport for me; the majority of my meals took place in restaurants. Stephanie Izard was the fresh pair of eyes I needed to see the rich possibilities in my larder. Good for her, discovering in the depths of my freezer packages of frozen pie dough that my mom bought when she visited – last year – then turning them into something I’m eager to make again. The chef and I share a taste for savoury rather sweet dishes; instead of creating a pie from the dough, she tasked me with empanadas.

I’m in love with these hot pockets, filled with ground meat and chopped green beans and served with a cool mayonnaise dip that taps into stray condiments. The chef’s instructions leave room for improvisation. The empanadas can be sized up or down, for instance, and the heat can be adjusted to taste. Izard’s recipe makes more filling than you need for the dish, which is a bonus. Use the cup or so of leftover sauteed meat for a later meal, over steamed rice or in a lettuce cup.

The video preview I sent to the Chicago chef inspired her to make empanadas at home and from scratch. I might follow her lead next time. Ramp kimchi and cheddar cheese sound like a delicious marriage. – Tom Sietsema

MEAT AND GREEN BEAN EMPANADAS

Six-eight servings

Chef Stephanie Izard’s recipe for empanadas is easy to adjust based on what you have in your refrigerator and pantry. Once you have the dough and meat, you can season it any way you like, adding more heat or substituting your favourite dried spices.

NOTES: For the dough, make your own or buy frozen pie dough, preferably one that can be rolled to any shape, such as Pillsbury, which comes in 14.1-ounce packages of two crusts. Cut the dough in rounds or squares, whichever makes more sense based on the shape of the frozen dough you have. The goal is to reduce the amount of wasted dough.

No need to blanch or thaw the chopped green beans if they’re frozen. The cooking time in the pan with the ground meat is enough.

Anchovies are optional. If they are not used, additional salt may be needed. Use only freshly grated Parmesan.

Storage Notes: Allow baked empanadas to cool before storing in the refrigerator. Baked or unbaked empanadas can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to three days. If baking refrigerated empanadas, there is no need to change the baking time. If freezing, place unbaked empanadas on a parchment-lined rimmed baking sheet and freeze until solid. Once frozen, transfer them to resealable, airtight containers and freeze for up to three months. Add a few minutes to baking time, if cooking frozen empanadas. Fully cooked empanadas also can be frozen, but the crust will probably be less crisp and flaky.

Ingredients

FOR THE EMPANADAS

3 tablespoons ghee or extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 3 cloves)

1 pound ground meat

1 teaspoon ground coriander

1 teaspoon hot sauce, such as Tabasco, or more to taste

1/2 teaspoon salt, or more to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste

1 tablespoon minced anchovies, about 6 fillets (optional)

1 cup small dice green beans (if using frozen, no need to thaw or blanch)

2 tablespoons chinkiang vinegar (may substitute sherry vinegar)

1/2 cup (scant 2 ounces) finely grated Parmesan cheese

2 pieces frozen pie dough, such as 14.1-ounce package Pillsbury, thawed

FOR THE DIPPING SAUCE

1 cup mayonnaise, preferably Duke’s

2 tablespoons gochujang (Korean chile paste) or sambal oelek

Juice of 1 lime

Steps

Make the empanadas: In a large nonstick saute pan over medium heat, add the ghee and heat until shimmering. Add the garlic and stir until aromatic, about one minute. Break the meat up with your hands and add it to the pan. Increase the heat to medium-high. Sprinkle the ground coriander, hot sauce, salt and pepper over the meat, and stir, breaking up meat with a wooden spoon as it cooks.

Once the meat is browned, about 10 to 12 minutes, add the anchovies, if using, and stir until combined.

Add the green beans to the meat mixture and stir until heated through, about three minutes. Add the vinegar and stir until vinegar evaporates, about two minutes.

Remove from the heat and let cool for about five minutes. Stir in the Parmesan cheese until combined. Taste, and adjust seasoning, as needed.

On a clean countertop very lightly dusted with flour, roll both pie crust dough pieces to about 3/8-inch thick. Using a mug or ramekin as a guide, cut each pie crust into a 12 three-and-a-half-inch rounds.

Brush each round lightly with water and add a heaping tablespoon of filling to the centre of each circle. Fold the dough in half and press the edges with a fork to seal. If necessary, add a little bit of water to the edges to completely seal.

Place the filled empanadas on a rimmed baking sheet and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before baking.

Meanwhile, place an oven rack in the centre of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees. Bake the empanadas for 20 to 25 minutes, or until golden brown all over.

Make the sauce: While the empanadas are baking, in a small bowl whisk together the mayonnaise, chile paste and lime juice until combined.

To serve, remove the empanadas from the oven and cool for a few minutes on a wire rack. Serve hot with the dipping sauce on the side.

Nutrition | Calories per serving: 146; Total Fat: 11g; Saturated Fat: 5g; Cholesterol: 19mg; Sodium: 186mg; Total Carbohydrates: 9g; Dietary Fiber: 0g; Sugar: 0g; Protein: 4g.

Vikram Sunderam Rasika, Washington

Almost a whole shelf in our home pantry is devoted to Indian ingredients – ground and whole spices, rice and legumes. It’s our favourite cuisine. And one of our favourite restaurants is Rasika. So it was no surprise I wanted to turn to its executive chef, Vikram Sunderam, to help me cook from my pantry.

He suggested kichidi (also known as kitchadi and kitchari), a comforting mix of rice, vegetables and legumes that is often made for people who are under the weather. But Sunderam’s version wasn’t bland. He combined my dried chickpeas and basmati rice as the base, jazzing the pairing up with crushed tomatoes and a few long-lasting vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes).

I wanted to make it as soon as I read the recipe, which Sunderam himself had tested twice. The date raita, made with Medjool dates, yogurt, cumin and salt, was an extra enticement.

The result was an absolute triumph. The rice and chickpeas were a perfect match, and the tomatoes brought vivid colour and flavour. Thanks to a jalapeño in the mix, the dish boasted a little heat, a great foil for the sweet, salty and tangy raita. This didn’t feel like pantry desperation. This was a destination in itself.

Sunderam said you can mix up the ingredients according to your own pantry supplies. The legumes and rice are flexible, as are the vegetables. Keep in mind that you need to make sure your vegetables are cut small enough to cook through in a relatively short amount of time; if you’re using something on the harder side, such as beets, try cooking them separately first. You can even add chopped meat, sauteing it with the onions and garlic and allowing it to cook through with the rice. In other words, don’t be afraid to experiment.

Regardless of what you throw in, know you’ll be in for a filling and even celebratory meal. “It’s a like a one-stop-shop sort of thing,” Sunderam said. And all I had to do was shop my pantry. – Becky Krystal

CHICKPEA KICHIDI

Four-six servings

This hearty, colourful dish (aka kichadi, kitchari and other regional spellings) is an ideal way to scrape together a meal using a variety of pantry and produce bin staples. It would be great on its own, but if you have the ingredients for the raita, we highly recommend it. The sweet, tangy and salty dip pairs well with the subtly spicy kichidi.

You may substitute two 15-ounce cans of chickpeas (drained and rinsed) for the dried chickpeas. If you do, just add them to the pot at the same time you would have added the cooked beans. Feel free to experiment with different types of rice, legumes, vegetables and even meat. Harder vegetables, such as beets, may need to be cooked before going in the pot.

Make Ahead: The dried chickpeas need to be soaked at least eight hours. The kichadi can be refrigerated for up to three days. The raita can also be refrigerated during that time, though the consistency will thicken as the dates absorb the moisture from the yogurt.

Ingredients

FOR THE KICHIDI

1 cup dried chickpeas

1 cup basmati rice

3 tablespoons ghee (may substitute vegetable oil)

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 medium yellow onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup canned crushed tomatoes

1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

1-inch piece fresh ginger root, minced (about 1 tablespoon)

1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/8 teaspoon sweet paprika

1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper

1 large carrot, cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 1 cup)

1 small sweet potato, cut into 1/2-inch dice (about 1 cup)

2 teaspoons salt

2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro

Mango chutney, for serving (optional)

FOR THE RAITA

1 cup plain whole yogurt

8 ounces (about 11) Medjool dates, pitted and coarsely chopped (generous 1 cup)

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Steps

Make the kichidi: Soak the chickpeas overnight (or at least eight hours) in four cups of water. Transfer the beans and the soaking liquid to a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium and cook until soft, 35 to 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, give the rice a quick rinse and soak it in water in a medium bowl for 30 minutes.

While the rice soaks, in a Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, heat the ghee until it shimmers. Add the cumin seeds and let them crackle for a few seconds. Reduce the heat to medium. Add the onion and garlic, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and just starting to brown, five to six minutes.

Add the tomatoes, jalapeño, ginger, turmeric, paprika and cayenne. Simmer vigorously, stirring frequently, to reduce the mixture to the consistency of a thick marinara sauce, three to five minutes.

Add the carrot, sweet potato, cooked chickpeas and four more cups of water. Increase the heat to medium-high. When the mixture comes to a boil, drain the rice and add to the pot. Add the salt, reduce the heat to medium-low and cover the pot; uncover and stir occasionally. The mixture should be gently simmering, not boiling, so adjust the heat as needed. Cook until the rice has absorbed almost all the water and the mixture is thick and soupy, about 15 minutes. Sprinkle with the cilantro.

Make the raita: While the kichidi cooks, in a medium bowl, stir together the yogurt, dates, cumin and salt. Serve the cold raita with the hot kichidi, along with the mango chutney, if using.

Nutrition | Calories per serving (based on 6, using all the raita): 520; Total Fat: 13 g; Saturated Fat: 7 g; Cholesterol: 11 mg; Sodium: 740 mg; Total Carbohydrates: 88 g; Dietary Fiber: 12 g; Sugar: 37 g; Protein: 14 g.