Pantry Pile Potluck: What should we make with all of this food?
February 6, 2011 7:19 PM   Subscribe

My boyfriend and I have a cooking puzzle for you: we rather wildly underestimated the price of our groceries when we went shopping this evening, and as a result we decided to try to raid the current contents of our pantry to accommodate two weeks of meals rather than just one. Well, it turns out we have way more stuff than we thought, but we have no idea how to put it all together. Assuming that we can buy $10 or so more groceries if we need to make recipes work, can you tell us how to make the enclosed list of ingredients into 5-7 tasty vegan dinners that are more interesting than just five nights of beans and rice? We know we've got lots of food, we're just not very good at improvising.

In addition to the items below, assume we've got staples like flour, sugar, baking soda, spices, soy sauce, many hot sauces, etc.

Vegetables that should be used in the next day or so:
1 head broccoli
1/2 bag spinach
2/3 bag green beans

half a bottle of cheap white wine
half a bottle of cheap red wine
13 bottles of beer

several clementines
3 tomatoes
1 10 oz. can mandarin oranges in pear juice

1 bag frozen green peas
6 sweet potatoes
1 can of kidney beans
3 cans black beans
2 cans cannellini beans
2 cans black eyed peas
1 can fire roasted green chilis
1 can minestrone soup
2 cans refried black beans
2 cans coconut milk
3 cans baked beans
1 onion
vegetable broth (lots)

Grains, etc.:
1 pound polenta
brown rice (lots)
white rice (2 servings)
1 cup kasha
32 oz. arborio rice
14 oz. Dr. Oetker's apple cinnamon muffin mix
5 oz. Vital Wheat Gluten
5 oz. hush puppy cornmeal mix
oat bran cereal
textured vegetable protein

Nuts and Seeds:
1 pound almonds
1/4 pound pecans
2 oz pine nuts
1 oz raw hulled sesame seeds
1/3 jar Skippy chunky natural peanut butter

5 jars of southern pickled okra

We're trying to get better about planning meals around food we've already got, and seeing how others might use this food would go a long way toward helping us learn.
posted by ocherdraco to Food & Drink (26 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Curry using the vegetables, onion, and coconut milk. Gumbo and hushpuppies would be a nice meal, but I've never made gumbo using pickled okra before.
posted by entropyiswinning at 7:33 PM on February 6, 2011

Response by poster: I should add that in addition to recipes, we welcome general strategies for cooking from the pantry.

Curry sounds like a good plan.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:34 PM on February 6, 2011

My first thought is, you need to buy more onions.

I would use the spinach for a nice salad one or two nights, maybe with nuts and mandarin oranges in.

Here are five ideas for main dishes, you'd want to google up specific recipes:

1. risotto (onion+arborio+veg broth), w/green peas or small-cubed sweet potatoes

2. roasted sweet potato + coconut milk (+onion+veg broth?) + thai red curry paste (or other spicy), in a blender = delicious sweet soup

3. stir fry w/ broccoli or green beans and misc veg, with nuts, over rice

4. fried polenta + tomatoes + onions

5. chili (onion, several types of beans and chilies, tvp) over rice
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:38 PM on February 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

If you get some pasta you can make this:

Cook the pasta (8 oz) with the frozen peas (1/2 bag), mix in chopped broccoli.

Then, mix peanut butter with some of the hot pasta water, thin it to a sauce consistency. Spice it up with Tabasco. Toss with the pasta and veggies. Sprinkle on sesame seeds.

It is something I make. It is good, but I don't have measurements. About 1/2 peanut butter is enough for 1/2 pasta.
posted by fifilaru at 7:41 PM on February 6, 2011

that is 1/2 CUP peanut butter...
posted by fifilaru at 7:41 PM on February 6, 2011

One thing that I know works well with rice and spinach also involves parmaesan cheese and butter -- but I know that's not vegan. However -- I do know of a cheap and easy vegan alternative to parmaesan cheese: saute a handful of bread crumbs in olive oil for a few minutes. So let's assume you do that first; then set that aside. I'm swapping out the butter for olive oil in the recipe as I give it below.

Now you also need a cup and a half of cooked rice (about 3/4 cup uncooked, then just steam it the way you would usually) and the spinach. (This'd probably take all of it.)

* Preheat the oven to 350.

* First, chop the spinach and set aside. Then drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet, then chop up a couple garlic cloves and saute in the olive oil. When it's just starting to brown, toss in the spinach and saute until it's wilted. Then dump in the cooked rice and stir everything around real good, then take it off the heat.

* Drizzle a little olive oil in a baking dish. Then dump in the spinach-rice mix, then drizzle some more olive oil on top. Spread the sauteed bread crumbs on top, then bake for about 10-15 minutes.

Note: I am not vegan, so I'm used to cooking this in a non-vegan way and haven't tried a vegan form of this. I'm just kind of punting.

Other random ideas:

* Bake up a batch of biscuits or a quick bread, and you can have a couple slices of bread with soup as a fine meal. You've got the can of minestrone, but you can make your own minestrone by picking a can of the beans, and adding that to a couple cups' worth of each of a bunch of the vegetables (some of the broccoli chopped, some peas, a chopped onion, and one of the sweet potatoes chopped) with a couple handfuls of pasta and enough broth to make soup.

* Get carrots, celery, and onions. Many recipes start with sauteeing chopped-up carrots, celery and onions. You can also make a vegetable broth out of some of them, with a couple other vegetables (think root vegetables for this; try not to use the broccoli; that can make stock taste funky).

* Speaking of soup: get a second bag of carrots, chop 'em up with an onion, and saute them up (if you have fresh ginger, throw some of that in too) and then add a few cups of broth. Simmer about 20 minutes, then run the whole thing through a blender. Then juice one of the clementines and throw that in too. And now you have a lovely carrot soup.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:43 PM on February 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Peas + onion+ arborio rice + vegetable broth + fresh parsley = risi e bisi.

Broccoli + spinach + green beans + coconut milk + spices + rice = Thai green vegetable curry (maybe turn some of that wheat gluten into seitan?).

Wholegrain toast or Italian bread + sliced or diced tomatoes + warmed baked beans + drizzle of extra virgin + fresh basil = beans on toast.

Sweet potatoes (roasted, halved, scooped) + scooped bits mixed w/ green chiles + black beans + spices + olive oil then scopped back into sweet potato shells = nom.

Cannelini beans + olive oil + lemon juice + salt = yummy dip for crudite or Italian bread.

Sweet potatoes in wedges + olive oil + salt + roasted + sesame seeds sprinkled = yummy oven fries.

FWIW, there's a frugal movement devoted tothis sort of shopping - see the $21 challenge.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:44 PM on February 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Enter your list into the Supercook search engine and it will return links to recipes you can make using only those ingredients.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:51 PM on February 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

fifilaru's peanut sauce idea is perfect over veggies (and pasta if you buy some), but you can do better than pasta water and tabasco; I use a version of the recipe in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. Mix the PB with a nice big dose of soy sauce and a dollop or two of the most complex, flavorful hot sauce in the cupboard (vietnamese is good), along with fresh pepper and a dash or two of red wine vinegar. Mix well, thin to the consistency you want with pasta water (or any hot water), or just nuke it in the microwave to heat/thin it that way, then mix it with the veggies, pasta, or whatever. Yum.
posted by mediareport at 8:03 PM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Given this pantry and your parameters, I would attempt:
*black bean and sweet potato burritos (recipe) - buy tortillas
*a curry (this recipe uses the black eyed peas, coconut milk, spinach, and tomato)
*stir fry of the broccoli, green beans, and mandarin oranges, maybe the pepitas for crunch, I'd also buy some red bell pepper to go with it - serve over rice
*fried polenta with the minestrone soup
*a chili with the cannellini beans, kidney beans, and the TVP
*baked risotto with the almonds and peas
*with some more basic veg (carrots, celery) I'd try this recipe of mulligatawny soup with the hush puppies mix

General strategies for cooking from the pantry? Well, the problem I have with *your* pantry is that it's not *my* pantry - you don't have the go-tos in your pantry that I have in mine. Your pantry feels unbalanced to me - full of things that sound good but need ideas - like, I don't ever go-to black eyed peas, not that they're not nice to eat, but I simply don't have an automatic "go-to" recipe I'd use them in.

The best thing you can do, I think, is figure out say ten simple, flexible meals you'd make most often, and then always stock the ingredients for those. Pasta is flexible - stock pasta and sauce. Beans and rice. Quesadillas - stock tortillas and whatever veg you like in a quesadilla. Stir-fry. Salad. Basic soup base ingredients (carrots, celery, onion, tomato, broth/bouillon). Potatoes (you can bake them or make fries). Bread for sandwiches. For me, it's automatic at this point - I have the same fallbacks and every time I look in the fridge/cabinets I think "oh, tonight is a good night for soup" or "oh, I haven't made tacos in a while". Every night doesn't have to be a cooking adventure - in fact I would find that stressful.

Also think of complementary uses for what you buy - the recipe list I have above uses cilantro in the burritos, and cilantro again in the curry as a garnish; whenever I buy cilantro I make guacamole as well. If I buy lemons, I make tabouli one night, and I make curried lentil soup another night (both use fresh lemon). If I buy TVP, I make chili one night, and I make vegetarian shepherd's pie another night. Always have in mind, specifically, how you're going to use up what you buy, especially perishables.
posted by flex at 8:12 PM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

More specific curry recipe, if you're looking for it:

Sautee olive oil, onion, 2T garam masala, 1T cumin, and 1.5t coriander. Peel and cube two sweet potatoes, and add the cubes to the pan. Cook until the onion is golden, the spices smell amazing, and the sweet potato is starting to soften. Add some garlic and let that cook for about a minute. Then add some tomato (either a chopped tomato or ~2T tomato paste), a half cup of broth, a tin of coconut milk, the green beans, a tin of cannellini beans, some spinach, some chili, and a squirt of lemon juice. (If you have other veg that need used, toss those in, too--cauliflower and sweet peppers are favorites in our house. You can also add some ground almonds to help thicken the sauce, though I never bother.)Simmer until the sauce is slightly thickened and the potatoes are cooked through, and serve with rice. It keeps like a dream, too.

Other meal suggestions:
*Sweet potato quesadillas are delicious and easy. Boil up some sweet potato, drain it really well, and mash it. Buy or make tortillas, and spread one with refried beans and one with mashed sweet potato. If you do vegan cheese, this would be an excellent place for some cheddar-esque stuff--if not, it's still delicious. Cook in a pan with a bit of oil until the insides are heated and the outsides are golden brown. Also good with spinach in them. I like to eat the leftovers for breakfast.

*Cannellini beans, onion, spinach, tomato, and pasta are delicious together.

*Polenta is a fantastic base for just about any roasted veg you have around--polenta with spinach, onion, and tomato sounds great to me

*Use the black-eyed peas to make pseudo-falafel.

*Kidney bean burgers are tasty and can be spiced in a lot of different ways--there are a ton of recipes if you google.

*As others have mentioned, chili would be fantastic, and if you've got dry polenta mix, you can use it to make cornbread--it's basically the same stuff as cornmeal, just more finely milled. I use them interchangeably.

Re: Cooking from the pantry: My suggestion is to pick out a handful of ingredients that you really like, and start combining them with things and finding ways to make them work with different foods. I can probably tell you a dozen things to do with sweet potatoes, for example, and because I have that knowledge and I almost always have sweet potatoes on hand, it's easy for me to open the pantry and say okay, I have X and Y, and I can put them with the sweet potatoes and that's a meal. Once you've got a dozen or so staples, it gets easier to branch out into variations on those staples.
posted by MeghanC at 8:32 PM on February 6, 2011

Not vegan specific, but check out Stonesoup's recipe book for ideas.
posted by robotot at 9:23 PM on February 6, 2011

Onion, sweet potato, green beans, a tomato/can of chopped tomato and a buttload of spices get you this stew. You don't have the lentils or the bell pepper, but you could easily omit them, reduce the added water, and serve over rice.

I recommend browsing that site in general for ideas...he makes some delicious stuff and I'm not even vegan.
posted by cabingirl at 9:35 PM on February 6, 2011

Look up a few veg cassoulet recipes and find one that seem adaptable to your ingredients.

A veg tuscan white bean soup would also work with your ingredients.

If you don't make polenta or cornbread, you could make some corn pancakes.

Make a couscous dessert by cooking it in coconut milk and adding some nuts, the canned oranges and baking-type spices.

I might make some sort of casserole with the refried beans, onion, canned chilies and rice.

I'm wondering why you have no canned tomatoes/tomato paste. I rely upon both pretty heavily.

Personally, I would use the extra $10 on fresh things given you have so many dried/canned goods.

As far as cooking from the pantry (and in my case I also have a CSA to contend with), I substitute the hell out of recipes. I'm pretty liberal with how I sub root veggies. Spinach adn other greens are all pretty interchangeable as well. I've made a number of versions of veg cassoulet, all depending on what's on hand. No white beans? Well I guess I'll make it with whatever the hell else beans I have on hand. If you taste as you cook, you can make adjustments. The other thing is that I have a crapload of spices on hand. So maybe it's gonna be a lot of rice the next few weeks, but that rice doesn't have to taste the same way every time.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:22 PM on February 6, 2011

Don't throw away the broccoli stems. If you peel the rind off the stem, you can slice it into sticks or rounds. Eat them raw or chopped up in a salad.

If you're trying to save money, don't buy cookbooks. Borrow them from the library or from friends.

I really like Arthur Schwartz's "What To Cook When You Think There's Nothing in the House To Eat : More Than 175 Easy Recipes And Meal Ideas". It's not a vegan book -- but there are some vegetarian recipes.

Do you have friends or neighbors who like to cook? Ask them if you can have some spices and condiments from their pantry. Bring your own jars or bags and take a spoonful from their jars. Many cooks (like me) have overflowing pantries, and would love to share, or trade you for something else.

I don't see kimchi on your list. Kimchi or good quality sauerkraut is a great side dish, topping for steamed vegetable or grains. And it keeps for a very long time.
posted by valannc at 10:35 PM on February 6, 2011

Have you tried epicurious? They have a feature that allows you to search by ingredients.
posted by easy_being_green at 11:41 PM on February 6, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, folks, these are all great! Please, keep em coming.

One thing that my boyfriend and I talked about last night as an issue with the way we currently plan is that we're often making the plan during breaks in our workday, when we don't have access to our pantry to see what's in it. Obviously, the easiest thing to do would be to plan when we're home, instead. But I'm curious; do any of you regularly make meal plans when you're not in your kitchen? If so, how do you remember what you've got?
posted by ocherdraco at 6:08 AM on February 7, 2011

The spinach, green chilies, and pepitas put me in mind of Green Posole Stew. I think this recipe came from one of the Moosewood cookbooks, but I am not sure. In addition to what you already have, you'll need either a can of tomatillos or salsa verde, and a 29-oz. can of white hominy. And to be honest, when I make this I never measure the amounts; I always just chuck in enough ingredients 'til it looks right.

Green Posole Stew
1/2 c. pepitas
1 can (8oz?) salsa verde OR canned tomatillos and green chilies
1 small onion, chopped
1/3 c. spinach, fresh or frozen
2 1/2 c. vegetable broth
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbsp oil
1 - 29 oz. can white hominy, drained

Toast the pepitas in a dry skillet for about 5 minutes; remove from pan, let cool, and grind to a fine meal.

Heat garlic and onion in the oil. Add salsa verde/tomatillos and chilies, spinach, and broth. Heat and blend with blender. Return to heat, add pepitas and hominy, and heat through. Season to taste.
posted by Janta at 6:46 AM on February 7, 2011

I always go to and plug in my pantry contents to see what I can make. It suggests recipes based on those ingredients and sometimes will say "just need onion" for example, when you have almost enough ingredients for a given recipe.
posted by Askr at 8:01 AM on February 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

do any of you regularly make meal plans when you're not in your kitchen? If so, how do you remember what you've got?

Yes, I do this frequently - I usually plan meals during downtime at work. When making my shopping list from my office, I make a list of things I know I have to buy, but I also make a list of things that I think I might have but need to check for when I get home. Before going grocery shopping, I check my cupboards for those items, and then I buy anything I don't have during my next weekly grocery run.

When you plan meals regularly and base those meals on what's in your cupboard, you just kind of naturally stay up-to-date on what you have.
posted by angab at 8:50 AM on February 7, 2011

do any of you regularly make meal plans when you're not in your kitchen? If so, how do you remember what you've got?

Prepare to be nerded. I keep a Google spreadsheet with multiple tabs for this. It's great because since it's online, I can access it from home or work. Usually I do some planning at work and then hit the store on the way home. Once I get a smartphone, I'll have it all right there in the store with me and won't have to print out a grocery list or retype it in a memo in my semi-smart phone. I find that it makes me shop smarter, waste less, and eat good/healthy meals more often. Without a plan, I wind up eating meals like beer + ice cream + peanuts + olives or just something bad like a microwave lasagna. And if I don't have a plan at the grocery store, I either buy the same set of stuff that I get bored with, or I buy stuff scattershot, half of which goes bad because it doesn't fit neatly into some actual recipe or another. If I just plan some simple meals, at least four for a week, I'll buy just what I need for those and will keep track of what I've got and make sure to use it.

One tab of the spreadsheet is the pantry, with categories as column headers, such as meat, fruit, no-cook veg, cook veg, frozen veg, canned, sauces, grains, dairy, etc. It's too easy to forget about that curry paste or pureed sweet potato in the back of the cabinet otherwise, or the cilantro in the crisper that will go bad soon if I don't use it.

One tab I call "store" and it's just like the pantry tab but has all of the options at the store that I might buy in each category. I'll never buy beets or turnip greens, for example, so they don't show up on my potential veg list. So it's not all of the stuff that the store has, just the stuff I'd buy. I keep it because I frequently can't think of something to make and get stuck in ruts. It helps when I'm planning a week of meals.

One tab is a menu that stretches a week, give or take, where rows are days/meals, like Monday lunch, Monday dinner, Tuesday lunch, Tuesday dinner. My lunches are just the night before's leftovers, so I really only plan dinners. Also on this tab, below the calendar area, I keep a handful of go-to recipes for easy copy/paste up into a daily slot. I eat a handful of things quite a bit and one or more will factor into most weeks. All other recipes go...

... on the recipe tab, which I skim as I meal plan to see if I want to add something easy. I rewrite them in minimalist fashion and just have one long column where the rows are titles or ingredients. This isn't a great system but I don't have so many recipes that I can't find something fairly easily. A more ideal setup would be a queryable database. But it's easy enough to have the laptop in the kitchen scrolled to that recipe and work from that.

Another tab is the grocery list. Nothing special, just whatever my pantry and meal plan says I need.

I've got other tabs for cocktail recipes, more complicated individual recipes, or temporary stuff like planning food for a party.

The real value is the smart shopping and smart use of what I buy. I'm too lazy and forgetful and idea-barren to do this stuff in my head.

I bet there are smartphone apps for this if you all use smartphones. Whether both you and your boyfriend could access the same stuff via different phones, I don't know, but one advantage of a shared Google spreadsheet is that you can both access and update it from anywhere. Helps with coordination.
posted by Askr at 11:49 AM on February 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Not so much for the pantry - we just buy the same regular staples (pasta, canned tomatoes, rice, boullion cubes, canned tuna, legumes, sauces etc), then have a 'cook from the pantry' week when we notice supplies are starting to overflow. Donna Hay's Off The Shelf is a good resource for this kind of cooking, as is Ross Dobson's 3 Ways with Stale Bread (probably not a lot of vegan recipes in there, but you can adapt, I guess, and I highly recommend both books for omnivores and lacto or alcto-ovo vegetarians).

For the freezer, which we fill a couple of times a year with bulk buys of pork, beef and lamb from a local farm, we have a list on the door showing all the cuts and weights, which we cross off as we go.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:56 PM on February 7, 2011

I forgot to mention that back in the days when we were vegetarian, we had a simple Excel spreadsheet we'd use to plan meals months in advance.

Across the top, list cuisines: Indian, Thai, Greek, Mexican, Moroccan, Japanese, whatever floats your boat, more is better. Down the side, list your carbs: rice, noodles, pasta, grains, pulses, potatoes, etc. Then, just cross-reference: tomorrow is...Mexican pulses night. So, black bean soup garnished w/ guacamole, onion, feta, diced tomato and cilantro, maybe a few tortillas on the side. Next night is...Moroccan grains, so a roast vege tagine with fruit, nuts and couscous.

Can't think of a combination? Stick both words into Google with 'recipe' and you'll get a result (eg 'Japanese + potato? Oh look - now I know about Japanese potato salad, korroke, I can adapt this nikujaga recipe, and this curry recipe too...'). If a combo is really too hard, just skip it - you'll have plenty to choose from, and you'll almost certainly fill it in later. Thinking about what protein we'd add (eggs, cheese, tofu, tempeh, seitan, tvp etc) was usually enough to prompt a recipe to jump into our heads.

You end up with an enormous grid of meals, some of the fully-fledged recipes with links, some of them ideas or themes. Come weekly shop time, just grab the next seven meals off the list.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:10 PM on February 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: That is a seriously fun way to plan meals.

Askr, your spreadsheet sounds cool—I might try something similar. Having just used one on Sunday to shop, I have to say I'm not a huge fan of the smart phone grocery list. 1) Too much scrolling. I can't just look and see the whole thing. 2) Hard to share with my boyfriend while we're at the store together. 3) If the program is having issues (as it did when we were using it) there are times when you're at the grocery store and the list is inaccessible. Paper works better for me.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:27 PM on February 7, 2011

askr: Prepare to be nerded

Thanks Askr, I just started a new spreadsheet in Google docs!
posted by robotot at 6:06 PM on February 7, 2011

Response by poster: We've just made Thai green vegetable curry, and we're figuring out the rest tomorrow. Thanks everyone!
posted by ocherdraco at 7:45 PM on February 7, 2011

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