Everyone’s been there: The fridge is bare. Really bare. There’s absolutely no way you have time for the grocery store. You’re not feeling takeout. And if you eat one quick slice for dinner, you will feel horrible.
This happens to me every week or so. When I am loath to order in or go out, I squint into my pantry, trying to compose a supper in my head. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but admit that a large part of making something from nothing is the advance shopping, especially when it comes to stocking shelf-stable proteins. Here’s what I turn to the most, and what I suggest you have on hand at all times.
A handful of peanuts can save a body from the I-need-salt or I-need-protein panic moment first thing in the morning or late at night, but I’ve also learned how to mill them to create the base of a really tasty coconut curry. (Check out the recipe here.) It’s even better if you have a “proper” protein like tofu, chicken, or pork to throw in there, but peanuts will get you through.
I’m new to the cult of coconut milk, but now that I’m here, I’m a card-carrying member. Mixed with canned tomatoes and a few spices, it’s key to excellent Indian dishes such as Madhur Jaffrey’s hard-boiled eggs masala and Instant Pot Indian butter chicken. You can use it for Thai curries, too.
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Turn these into tomato sauce, curries, or casseroles. They’re so flexible and so durable that you should try to have two big cans on hand at all times. In a pinch, I have often done a 1:1 mix of canned tomatoes and coconut milk, added to a base of sautéed garlic and shallots, then added dashes of garam masala, cumin, and coriander and simmering away until it all tastes good.
You knew this one was coming. No shame in running to the Chinese place across the street for dollar rice, but once you start cooking it properly, it’s tough to go back to someone else’s less-fresh version. I like to rinse mine three times to get off any starch, salt it well, and season it with rice vinegar before topping it with curry, stir-fry, or whatever else I’ve thrown together.
I mean, come on. If you’ve got a bit of onion and butter and those canned tomatoes, you can make Marcella Hazan’s super-simple tomato sauce and feel like a champion, or add your favorite jarred sauce and a flurry of Parm or Pecorino. My current flame is this gorgeous, bright-green kale-sauced pasta. It’s just as good as pesto, it delivers vegetables, and it is a snap to make: You boil the kale briefly in the same salted water you then use to boil the pasta.
This humble tinned fish is arguably having a moment. When I interviewed chef Alex Raij about how to store anchovies, she insisted that you should store them in the fridge, not the pantry, which is something I now do. Follow Raij’s lead and layer them on toast with garlic and tomato, spin them into your Caesar salads if you have greens, or even add them to pasta. (Raij says they play well with sambal oelek in addition to Parmesan.)
Don’t forget this little go-getter! If you have frozen bread, naan, or English muffins in the freezer, you’re in tuna melt territory. If you have capers and olives, you can toss it with pasta, dried herbs, and garlic for a classic Italian dish. (It’s also excellent with noodles and fresh tomato sauce.) If you happen to have produce, layer it in with tuna and hard-boiled eggs for salads. I’ve also been saved countless times by tuna, with mayo, salt and pepper, in a bowl, on its own. No judgment if that’s the sort of day you’re having too.
Alex Van Buren—follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen—is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and content strategist who has written for The Washington Post, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Condé Nast Traveler, and Epicurious.