We had a well-stocked pantry growing up. It was one of the many things I always appreciated about my mother's kitchen and one of the many habits I adopted. Her penchant for stashing nonperishables is probably rooted in the fact that she grew up on a farm, where the nearest grocery store was a half-hour drive from home. Although we lived 5 minutes from the nearest grocery store, it was always useful to have things on hand, especially with six people in the house.
Now that I live in a household of two, I still like to keep my pantry stocked. Whether it's baking a batch of cookies on a whim or throwing together a last-minute dinner, a stocked pantry comes in handy. The problem occurs when I find myself without a specific ingredient at a crucial point and then overbuy it the next time. Or I purchase food thinking, "Oh, I'll use this to make such-and-such at some point." And then I never do. I get distracted by perishable items and never use the nonperishables. Before I know it, the pantry is overstocked. Items in the front row or at eye level get used, while things in the back sit for months. For example, I have two cans of pumpkin puree that I intended to use for pumpkin bread last fall and a can of artichoke hearts, intended for a quick artichoke dip, that's been there who knows how long. Luckily, these things keep for quite a while.
In conjunction with my recent realization that we need to clean out (and by "clean out," I mean make use of) many of our pantry items came the decision to be more mindful of our spending habits (and groceries make up what is probably a disproportionately large part of our monthly expenditures). So we decided to challenge ourselves to use everything in our pantry before we restock. Within reason. Of course, things like fresh veggies, meat, and dairy products are excluded, and we're not going to wait until we've used up our flour and sugar before we buy more tomatoes.
Saturday was the perfect day to get started. The gorgeous fall weather made it an ideal afternoon for Chicken-Pesto Panini on the roof. (From frozen chicken breast, frozen homemade pesto, cheddar, and whole wheat bread.)
Two cans of corn and half a bag of coarse-ground corn meal in the pantry inspired me to make cornbread. What better accompaniment--and more effective pantry-clearer, as it turns out--is there than chili? Throw in an Arkansas-Georgia football game on ESPN 2 and a six-pack of cheap beer, and you've got yourself a near-perfect autumn evening in. (It would have been perfect, if the Razorbacks had actually won. What an exciting game, though!)
The cornbread recipe came from Cook's Illustrated. I used canned corn where they called for frozen and substituted 3/4 cup plain lowfat yogurt and 1/4 cup 2% milk for 1 cup buttermilk. The cornbread was delicious on its own and even better with butter or molasses! Below is my recipe for Pantry Chili. The ingredients and quantities reflect what I had on hand and can be adjusted as desired.
1 large red onion, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 can cannelini (white kidney beans), undrained
1 can fire-roasted diced tomatoes
1 large can whole, peeled tomatoes packed in puree
1 can corn, drained
4 cups beef broth (Mine came from 4 tsp of "Better Than Bouillon" beef base and 4 c. water)
1/2 jar jalapeño peppers
8 oz frozen spinach, thawed
Cheddar cheese, for serving
In a large pot or dutch oven, brown meat over medium heat, breaking up the meat as it cooks. After a couple of minutes, add onions and garlic. Season with salt and pepper. When the meat is no longer pink and the onions and garlic start to become translucent, add taco seasoning and chili powder. Stir to combine.
Then add the beans, tomatoes (whole tomatoes should be chopped or crushed by hand, but be careful not to lose the liquid), corn, broth, and jalapeños. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil. Then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add more water if it cooks down too much. Taste about halfway through cooking and adjust seasoning as needed.
During the last few minutes of cooking, stir in thawed spinach. Serve topped with shredded cheddar cheese.
Homemade Taco Seasoning
2 Tbsp chili powder
2 Tbsp paprika
4 1/2 tsp cumin
2 1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper
Stir all ingredients until well combined.
Makes about 6 tablespoons and will keep in a sealed container in the pantry for several months.