As far as I’m concerned, the ability to cook is high up on the list of grown-up skills that everyone should have. Having a clean, well-stocked kitchen and essential kitchen tools on hand are the building blocks of producing tasty, healthy meals that don’t drain your checking account.
And here’s the thing: Cooking can be easy and a whole lot of fun. More fun than going to a restaurant, in my humble opinion. Even if you’ve never done it before. Even if you’re kind of afraid of your stove. But, like anything, if you dive in unprepared, you are not likely to meet much success. With a few good tools, techniques, and ingredients, you can be cooking great food, saving money, and impressing the hell out of everyone.
The first thing you have to do is get pantry or cupboards clean.
Step 1: Clean.
Having a clean kitchen makes cooking significantly more enjoyable. Food keeps longer in a kitchen that is free of mold, bugs, and mice (gross, I know, but more common than you’d think), and such parasites stay away from clean spaces. It’s also much easier to clean up little messes when your kitchen itself isn’t a big mess. A clean kitchen is easier to acquire and requires less than you might think. You’ll need:
- 2–3 sponges (1 for dishes, 1 for counter, 1 for scrubbing)
- Multi-purpose cleaner (diluted white vinegar scented with a little lemon or lavender oil in a spray bottle makes for a totally effective, cheap, environmentally friendly option)
- A broom
- A mop
- Paper towels or a whole bunch of clean dish towels
- Dish soap (dilute a little castile soap for a greener option)
Take everything out of your pantry/cupboards. Go through each item and determine if it’s still good and something you’ll ever eat. If it’s neither, toss it; if it’s both, keep it. If it’s still good but you’ll never eat it (and it’s unopened), donate it to your local food bank. If it’s been opened but you’ll never eat it, attempt to pawn it off on your friends/roommates, but if you’re unsuccessful, toss it (composting if possible).
Before you put all the dry goods you’re keeping back on their shelves, use the abrasive back of a wet sponge to scrub all the grit from the shelves (three-year-old spilled, dried, crusted-over honey will make your pantry like Club Med for fruit flies -- not a good thing).
Once all the yuck has been removed, spray them down with multi-purpose cleaner and wipe away and put back the dry goods you’re keeping.
Step 2: Stock.
In my experience, these are the shelf-stable items I return to over and over again. I find that, when I have them on hand, I need only to pick up a few fresh ingredients (fruit, vegetables, meat or fish, tofu, eggs, etc.), to put together a tasty, healthful, homemade meal.
Obviously if you are vegan, gluten-free or your dietary restrictions prohibit any of these ingredients, you should adjust your pantry accordingly.
The $50 Pantry:
- unbleached all-purpose flour $4.50 for a 5 lb bag
- extra-virgin olive oil (Make sure to always buy olive oil labeled “Extra Virgin,” and buy something you enjoy the taste of. I’m fond of Trader Joes’ California Estate Olive Oil) $6.50 for 12 ounces
- vegetable/canola oil (coconut oil is a good option here too, but it’s generally a bit pricier) $4 for 16 ounces
- kosher salt $3 for 24 ounces
- black pepper (I like the kind that comes in a grinder) $2
- baking soda $3 for a 6-ounce can
- baking powder $3 for a 6-ounce can
- white granulated sugar $3 for a 16-ounce box/bag
- brown sugar $2.50 for a 16-ounce box/bag
- honey $4 for 8 ounces
- balsamic vinegar $4 for 12 ounces
- natural peanut butter (creamy or crunchy, your choice) $5 for 12 ounces
- mayonnaise (store it in the fridge after opening!) $3.50 for 16 ounces
- garlic $0.50 for a head
Step 3: Cook!
Now that your pantry is good and stocked, it’s time to make dinner! Here’s one of my favorite weeknight meals. It utilizes some super-basic pantry ingredients along with fresh, easy-to-find ones. Better yet, it comes together quickly and pleases most everyone.
I like to serve these gnudi (like gnocchi, but bigger and creamier) with a crisp green salad and crusty bread to sop up the yummy sauce.
Basil Gnudi in Red Pepper Sauce
- 8 tbsp all-purpose flour, plus more for dredging and for plate (Pantry)
- 1 15-oz. container of ricotta (drain any extra liquid)
- 4 garlic cloves, minced divided (Pantry)
- 1 large handful fresh basil leaves, finely chopped, plus more for garnish
- 1 egg plus 2 egg yolks, all lightly beaten together
- salt and ground black pepper (Pantry)
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for garnish
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil (Pantry)
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 12-oz jar roasted red peppers, drained and chopped
- 1/4 cup half-and-half
- In a large bowl, stir together the flour, ricotta, 2 cloves of minced garlic, the basil, the egg and egg yolks, 1/2 tsp each salt and pepper and the Parmesan. Continue stirring until a sticky dough forms.
- Lightly flour a large platter or a baking sheet, and make sure your hands are well-floured as well (keep a small bowl of flour nearby--you'll need it to continue flouring your hands).
- Scoop up about 1 heaping tablespoon of the dough, and roll it gently in your floured hands a few times to form a smooth ball. Set the ball on the prepared platter or baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough.
- Set the platter aside (or refrigerate if you want to cook the gnudi later).
- Heat the oil in a medium, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, 7-8 minutes.
- Add the garlic and the drained, chopped red bell pepper and stir. Add the half-and-half, stir again and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-6 minutes, until the half-and-half has thickened.
- Use an immersion blender, regular blender or food processor to puree the sauce until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Cover the sauce and keep it warm at the back of the stove.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
- Cook the gnudi, working in batches (I did it in thirds) for about 5 minutes, until they float. Remove with a slotted spoon and transfer to a large bowl.
- To serve the gnudi, divide the sauce between 4 plates or bowls, and top with the gnudi.
- Garnish with Parmesan and more basil.
What are your favorite and most necessary pantry ingredients? I wanna know!