Even though spring has arrived, with daffodils popping up and trees in blossom, it’s still mostly cold and damp on the East Coast. It makes a person want to head for warmer climes.
But, alas, there’s no travel in these blighted times. And the warmer spots I dream about are plagued with worry and grief as pandemic illness makes its way around the world. We may take journeys in the kitchen, though. Enticing aromas can conjure happy memories of places we’ve been, and that is a balm for now, when we are required to stay at home.
Let’s take a trip to the pantry instead. It’s a hip destination. Pantry ingredients are suddenly in demand; pantry advice is freely given; quick pantry dinners are the promise. It has always been so, but it is good to be reminded, perhaps especially now, that a surprisingly good meal can happen with a few capers, a couple of anchovies and a box of spaghetti.
Yet a friend said the other day: “I’m sick of all this pantry talk. Who even has a pantry?” Once upon a time, a pantry was a store room, or a large store cupboard, a closet or a cellar. Nowadays, the term refers to all the various places you store your basic supplies: the shelf where you keep the spices, the dried pasta and the canned tomatoes; the refrigerator door stocked with condiments; the freezer. We all have a pantry, and now is the time to make full use of it, adding other supplies from the neighborhood market or delivery service, as possible.
Each of the dishes here utilizes a few pantry elements or basic grocery items and the recipes are meant for different times of day, possibly, though not necessarily, all on the same day. It is not dinner party fare, as this column often features: Instead, it reflects the current reality, presenting an all-day menu to feed yourself and your fellow housemates.
The menu begins with oat porridge. For breakfast, it is often topped with brown sugar and cream. Though sweetened porridge is delicious, a savory approach makes a nice change. Think of oats as a fine substitute for rice — you don’t always want rice pudding, do you? I often prefer my oats with salt and pepper. Any kind of oats will do, but my inclination is for steel-cut rather than rolled. Steel-cut oats have a nutty whole-grain flavor and retain a nubbly texture. I add a fried egg, a bit of roasted pepper, a generous sprinkling of za’atar and a drizzle of good olive oil. If you can’t find za’atar (a heavenly spice mix of wild thyme, sumac and sesame used throughout the Middle East), try using toasted ground cumin or a pinch of oregano. In truth, this easy, hearty dish is a treat any time of day.
To make a very satisfying pita sandwich for lunch, you’ll need some common ingredients from the grocery store (chicken breast, cucumbers, olives, yogurt, herbs), but it’s not at all difficult to put together. If you’re in the mood to bake, try making your own pita bread. It’s a fun little project, though a package from the store is perfectly fine. The yogurt sauce is the real star here. You may find other ways to employ it, a dip, perhaps, or to accompany steamed cauliflower or other vegetables.
Meatballs are the ultimate comfort food and these, a mixture of ground lamb and rice, are especially tasty, perfumed with cumin, coriander and cinnamon. They may be prepared several hours, or up to two days, in advance — they reheat beautifully. Make the tomato gravy as piquant as you like, adding a good pinch of cayenne if you wish. The optional saffron adds a floral note. If you have the time, cook your chickpeas from scratch. (It’s best to soak them for a few hours or overnight.) They’ll cook in less than an hour and require hardly any attention. If you prefer, serve the meatballs with couscous.
This cooking voyage transports us to the eastern Mediterranean, in spirit at least, providing a lot of flavor and a bit of sunshine under these troubled circumstances.