We’ve all been there.
It’s been a long day, your stomach is devouring itself, and there’s nothing in your fridge but dried-out veggies, eggs, and condiments. Unless you want to gnaw on an onion or partake in some plain toast, it's looking like Chinese takeout again... or is it?
If you’re willing to put in a modicum of elbow grease, there are plenty of legitimate meals that can be made from your pantry's dwindling supplies. And by legitimate, we mean delicious.
Here’s the dish on cooking when there’s almost nothing in the house to eat.
Got pasta? Then your stomach is safe, my friend. Put a pot of water on to boil and let’s take a stroll through your fridge and pantry.
Jarred tomato sauce is wonderful if you have it, but there are plenty of dishes you can make without it. The old classic is melted butter, freshly ground black pepper, and parmesan cheese. Add some dried herbs if you like—sage is especially nice.
Pre-made tapenade makes for a lovely pasta sauce, but if you don't have any, you can just slice up some Mediterranean olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and/or roasted red peppers, and toss the mixture with cooked pasta, olive oil, and pepper. Really, most veggies sautéed with a little garlic and olive oil will do nicely—they don't even have to be particularly fresh.
Once you’ve made a satisfying sauce, toss a poached or fried egg on top to add protein to the meal. (We like them runny, so that they coat the noodles when you dig in.)
If you’re not feeling like Italian tonight, you can use the peanut butter in your pantry to make a simple Thai-style peanut sauce. There are lots of tasty recipes out there, but we usually find ourselves mixing up whatever thematically appropriate ingredients we have on-hand and taste-testing till we’re satisfied.
Peanut butter, a dash of soy sauce or fish sauce, sesame oil if you have it and vegetable oil if you don’t, and a small amount of rice vinegar, cider vinegar, or lemon/lime juice makes up the basic mixture. Ginger (fresh or dried), scallions, and raw or sautéed veggies are nice additions, but not strictly necessary.
Fried rice is the ultimate throw-together-whatever-you’ve-got dish. You’ll need day-old cold rice (although freshly-cooked rice will make a meal too, just a mushier one), but from there it’s pretty much up to you.
The basic gist is you take a large pan or wok, heat up some oil, and add aromatics like garlic or onion. The dish builds from there, with sautéed veggies, then leftover cooked meat or tofu (or nothing), then eggs you scramble until they’re just a little runny, then your day-old rice and any sort of seasoning from soy sauce to hot sauce.
Mix everything together, stir-fry it until everything seems hot and well-combined, and stuff your face. Or, erm... politely consume the rice at a reasonable pace.
We love how easy it is to adapt fried rice to whatever leftover bits and pieces we still have when the rest of the food is gone. Hamburger fried rice? Been there, enjoyed that. Scallop-sausage-scallion? Crowd-pleaser! Anything goes.
We’d recommend heading over to Food52 for more detailed instructions.
If you have some bread available, a near-empty fridge is a call to creativity. Sure, there’s the classic PB&J, and we’d never turn down an old-school gooey-crispy grilled cheese, but desperate times can call for experimentation. (Or homemade pizza bagels.)
Mustard, mayo, and hummus are pretty standard condiments, but there are other ways to spice up your sandwich. How about sriracha or another kind of hot sauce, or mashed avocado? Add any meat leftovers, cooked veggies, perhaps even fruits if the flavors mesh. Add chips for extra crunch. (Or just because you’re an adult, and you can.)
You might enjoy making overloaded, eclectic sandwiches the day after Thanksgiving, but why not carry that approach throughout the rest of the year? Not every sandwich will be a hit, but the phenomenal ones will make it all worthwhile.
Breakfast foods can be a godsend come dinnertime. Eggs—scrambled, fried, sandwiched, poached, quiched, or made into an omelette—are quick and filling.
French toast is as simple as having egg, bread, and milk to work with, and if you have some basic baking ingredients, pancakes are yours for the making.
Try mixing in fruits and/or nuts for a more filling, interesting meal. If you’re out of syrup, top with fruit (raw, or zapped in the microwave until it releases juices), jam, applesauce, honey, yogurt, or nut butter. These ingredients are also lovely on top of a nice, loaded oatmeal, along with nuts, seeds, and spices.
Bacon, sausage, toast, or home fries work well when it comes to side dishes, as does a can of beans sautéed with onions, peppers, a little cumin, and a dash of chili powder.
Okay, so you've scrounged together a surprisingly decent meal, but you still have a sweet tooth to placate. Good news: We have a couple recommendations.
Peanut butter cookies are ridiculously simple. Just mix together a cup of peanut butter, a cup of sugar, and an egg. Form the dough into flat, round cookies on a parchment-covered or greased baking sheet and bake for 6-15 minutes at 350°F. Cookies are done when the top has set. They’ll be soft and gooey until they cool. They’ll also be delicious.
Rice pudding requires just as few ingredients, and can be made with fresh or leftover rice, any kind of milk, any sweetener, and a flavoring of choice. It’s a simple, homey dessert that we have definitely never straight-up eaten for dinner. No, never.
Hero image: Flickr user "thejamiedobson" (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)