When you get to the hangry stage, it’s easy to feel like you’re out of options. More than once we’ve found ourselves gnawing on a block of cheese straight out of the fridge, or calling a tub of ice cream “dinner.” In that state of mind, pasta and jarred sauce or a plastic bowl of ramen might be the only foods that occur to you.
Well, maybe in college you had your cups of noodles and your stale, half-opened boxes of pasta, and those still work, sure. But you’re a grown-up, and you should have a broader repertoire of pantry staples on hand in a pinch. These are the elements that help us out when the A/C fails in July, when we need an excuse to heat up the house in January, and every other time in between.
1. White Beans
White beans—preferably cannellini, which are delicate and toothsome—can be simmered with extra-virgin olive oil and seared sliced garlic, then finished with lemon juice to become the simplest dinner. Bonus if you have fresh sage, thyme or rosemary, or a few sausages to sear and throw in there, chopped, but no problem if you don’t. Finish the dish with another glug of olive oil and a spritz of lemon. (The pro move with canned beans is to always make sure you rinse them. When just out of their jar, they can retain a slickness that can be distasteful.)
If you see a recipe requiring a complicated homemade salsa verde, consider whether you can swap in the same volume of the jarred stuff. More often than not, as in this recipe, you can. Just check the label for chiles, be sure it has the right amount of heat for your palate, and make chicken chile verde, quesadillas and enchiladas in a flash.
The home cocktail aficionado’s secret best friend? High-quality maple syrup. Mixed with bourbon and lemon juice, it’s an instant bourbon sour. (That way, you can skip making simple syrup, which requires time or a pan.) Maple won’t work for every cocktail—in a margarita with tequila it’s not as good a fit as agave or sugar—but it plays very nicely with whiskey. We also love it in marinades, baked goods, and of course on weekend pancakes.
There’s a reason you so loved it in college. A variety of noodles, from short and stubby to long and slender, is key to have on hand in every season. Pasta salad can require just good olives, fresh tomatoes, olive oil and capers. Baked pasta with cheddar and buttered breadcrumbs is the casserole delivery of new parents’ dreams. You can even make it in the Instant Pot. And nothing is easier than a quick cacio e pepe on a weeknight.
5. Canned Tomatoes
Where there is pasta, there must be canned tomatoes. One of the simplest sauces around is Marcella Hazan’s tomato, butter and onion sauce, but you could also make a simple, garlicky, spicy sauce. You can throw them into the Instant Pot with chicken thighs. Toss them in the slow cooker. Puree them with salt and pepper for a super-fast sauce. Pour them into braises, and use them to thicken a batch of black beans.
6. Black Beans
Whether you’re sautéing them with garlic and onions and layering them into your tacos and quesadillas, adding them to breakfast scrambles, ladling them alongside homemade carnitas, or putting them into an epic platter of nachos for Game Day, black beans in a can are a must-have.
Super-savory, super-salty, and invisible if you treat them right, anchovies are the ne plus ultra of cooking these days. Spin them into Caesar salads, tuck them into chicken dishes, or use them when you’ve run out of fish sauce. (Fish sauce is, after all, mostly anchovies.) They add a salty, unctuous, booming umami note to almost anything, including—wait for it—steak!
When all else fails, open a can of tuna with a tug on a loop or a can opener, and you are fed. For extra credit, add mayonnaise, capers, salt and pepper, then layer on toasts with roasted red peppers and cheddar and pop them under the broiler for open-faced tuna melts. Always have tuna.