The 10 Pantry Items to Keep on Hand for Quick and Easy (Vegan) Dinners
Each year, I make a new year’s vow to utilize what’s in the pantry. This means employing whatever legumes and grains and condiments are lying around until they have been used up—rather than continually re-stocking, in spite of having plenty to work with.
By the time I finish with this project, it’s practically summer, just in time for my cooking focus to shift from the pantry to the farmer’s market. The excavation process that can yield surprises: This year, I was reminded of the bag of za’atar I’d found at a middle eastern market in New Orleans. The year before, I unearthed a bulk-sized bag of kelp (I like sea vegetables, but I’m not quite sure what I was thinking when I bought it).
Most of the time, though, I’m presented with a glut of the usual staples: chickpeas, lentils, rice. There’s a reason these are always so well-stocked in my home. They’re inexpensive, versatile, and form the backbone of countless, low-stress meals. Here are the 10 vegan pantry ingredients that keep me fed again and again, from January through the spring.
It’s hard to say enough about the versatility of the mighty lentil. From hearty pasta sauces and chilis to lentil soups and curries, lentils can form countless winter dinners. The buck doesn’t stop with soups and other bowl meals: Lentils are perfect for adding to dinner salads, using in place of chickpeas for a spin on hummus, or even making plant-based meatballs.
I’m never without a few cans of diced or crushed tomatoes at home. A 28-ounce container can be the start of pasta sauce, chili, or soup; I also use them in homemade chana masala, which is an easy, batch-cooking staple (I love Leanne Brown’s budget friendly recipe).
Sure, peanut butter is perfect for breakfast toast, sandwiches, and snacking. But it’s also an intriguing addition to soup, a perfect marinade base for tofu, the start of a sweet and spicy salad dressing, and heavenly addition to soba or udon noodles. If you’re hoping to make a last minute baked good, so much the better: add the last of your peanut butter jar to cake, cookies, granola, or homemade snack bars.
I like miso and miso noodle soups, but I’m actually far more likely to use my jar of miso in salad dressing, cold noodle dishes, or even as a glaze for roasted vegetables. If you do use miso in soup, a traditional miso soup doesn’t have to be the result. I love this recipe for a rich, sweet and salty butternut squash soup with miso and coconut.
There are usually sexier grains than rice hanging out in my pantry. But I keep coming back to rice-based dinners partly because I love the hearty and satisfying texture of rice, and partly because (depending on the rice) it’s so darn cheap. I also appreciate the mild flavor of rice, and the fact it soaks up whatever flavors you’re cooking with. There’s a time and a place for the nuttiness of quinoa, the bitterness of buckwheat, or the sweetness of millet. Sometimes, though, I want something a little plainer to serve as my canvas.
I use rice in stir-fry (preferably with a killer sauce), risotto, and, when I’m craving something sweet, rice pudding. More often than not, though, I use rice as the base of a homemade grain bowl—my go-to dinner when I’m dining solo.
I’m a broken record with my cashew obsession, but it’s hard to stay quiet. If you’re newly dairy-free and a fan of all things creamy, cashews are a revelation. I use them to add creaminess to homemade mac n’ cheese, crowd-pleasing vegan dips, and my favorite cashew cheese (which I throw into salads, bowls, pasta dinners, and pile on top of roasted summer vegetables).
If you’re not really sure where to start, try making a simple batch of cashew cream, which you can drizzle into pesto, serve with a batch of fritters, pair with whole-grain waffles, and more.
You’re never far from dinner if you’ve got a pound of chickpeas (or a couple cans of chickpeas) in the pantry. Pre-cooked chickpeas will give you curried chickpeas with cauliflower, braised chickpeas (to serve over whole grains, or with crusty bread), meat-free taco bowls, or a flavorful and protein-dense side dish.
I use chickpeas so often and in so many ways—salads, pasta, bowls, soup—that I nearly always soak and cook them in bulk. I make a pound at a time, storing whatever I won’t use in the freezer. When I need chickpeas in a hurry, either for a simple batch of hummus or for something heartier, I can defrost them and get to work.
My second favorite bean, right beneath chickpeas. I use them as a base for vegan chili, but I also love to make a simple batch of black beans and rice on a Sunday and enjoy the leftovers as the week gets underway. Batch cooked black beans are also a perfect staple for summery bean salads.
Much as I love rice, quinoa will always be my go-to grain for a speedy meal. The quick cooking time means I never have to plan ahead in order to use the grain, and I love its nutty, fluffy texture. I love using quinoa in bowls (preferably with some roasted vegetables and a tangy tahini sauce), adding it to soups, and tossing it into grain salads (the lightness of the grain makes it easy to mix with any type of green or vegetable).
And I’m one of many who can attest to the greatness of this one-pot kale and quinoa pilaf, which I make with homemade cashew cheese in place of the goat cheese.
With lentils and beans becoming more and more popular as plant-based protein sources, it sometimes seems as though split peas get short shrift. They shouldn’t. Sure, you can use split peas to make the simplest and most rewarding of soups. But split peas are also a perfect base for daal, for a creamy dip (it’s called fava in Greek cooking, and I grew up with it), and even for vegan vegetable-and-grain cakes.
Do you have a favorite vegan pantry staple? Tell us about it in the comments!