Monday, September 29, 2014

Essential Ingredients of a Broke-Ass Pantry

Singapore Curry Flavoured Noodles, -Mar. 2011 a
Fast, cheap and healthy -- there's a better way!
In an ideal world, we'd all have kitchens full of healthy, nutritious, exotic ingredients on-hand all the time.  In the real world, it seems inevitable that you run into a week (or month) where grocery bills are tight and some of those more exotic ingredients go by the way side.  If you can't afford to stock up on fresh produce and organic meats, here are a few nutritious (and cheap) staples that can keep you fed without resorting to over-processed crap:

Potatoes and sweet potatoes

Keep an eye out on sales and stock up when they become cheap.  Kept around 40 degrees in a dry, dark area, both will last for two to three months so don't be afraid to buy in bulk.  Sweet potatoes are at their cheapest around Thanksgiving.  Potatoes go on sale around St. Patrick's day.  But even in their off-season, both of these are cheap, versatile and filling.
  • Use potatoes in soup to add a creamy consistency.  The starchiness makes for a very filling soup without needing to add dairy (or as much dairy).  Try potato, broccoli and cheese, potato corn chowder or potato with sausage and kale.  
  • Sweet potatoes are amazing in chili.  I like to combine black beans with sweet potato or winter squash and chili spices for a hearty stew-like dish.  
  • Baked potatoes and sweet potatoes are fast and nutritious.  A few minutes in the microwave is all you need.  Butter, salt and pepper make for a fast meal, or boost it up with some greens.  I like twice-baked potatoes stuffed with a slice of crumbled bacon, an ounce or so of cheese and a ton of kale, collard or spinach (you can also cram a ton of greens into mashed potatoes). 


Eggs are a nutritional powerhouse, and they're super versatile.  Organic cage-free eggs will run you $5/dozen, which for the money isn't terrible.  If you're in a bind, you can usually find factory-farmed eggs for under $2/dozen, and I won't tell on you.  Eggs will usually last about a month past their sell-by date, but sometimes they last a lot longer.  Check their freshness by placing them in a bowl of water -- the eggs that sink or stand on their end are safe to eat.  The ones that float have gone bad.
  • Make a quiche by mixing together eggs with a little bit of dairy and whatever else you have on hand, from potatoes to leftover meat to veggies.  You can make a simple pastry crust from flour, butter and water or just serve it crust-less.  
  • Scramble together eggs with whatever veggies you have on hand (I like kale and mushrooms) for a super-nutritious high-protein breakfast.  
  • Add an egg to your soup to boost its nutritional value.  You can make ramen noodles sexy by adding an egg and some greens -- just like traditional ramen in Japan.  Soft-boiled is my favorite, but hard-boiled, fried or poached all work just as well.  Runny yolk mixed into the broth makes for a super creamy texture.  Or, make a simple egg drop soup out of chicken broth (and a bit of sesame oil if you have it) and add in a beaten egg before taking it off the heat.  

Peanut Butter

Commercial peanut butter can last for up to a year in storage, and you can buy a huge tub of it for under $5.  Organic single-ingredient freshly-milled peanut butter is pricier and lasts just a few months, but it's still a very efficient use of your dollar.  Aside from sandwiches, peanut butter is a great protein source to beef up your meatless meals.
  • Make a simple Thai peanut sauce by thinning out peanut butter with a little bit of water and some siracha or  chili sauce.  Use this to coat noodles for a super simple dish that can be eaten hot or cold.  Add any veggies you can get your hands on to it for a nutritional boost. 
  • Use it to add depth and creaminess to soup.  There are actually a lot of soup recipes involving peanut butter and sweet potatoes!  Who knew?
  • Eat it on your pancakes or waffles, stuff it inside french toast or mix it into your oatmeal for a big flavor and protein boost that will keep you full without overloading on carbs at breakfast.  


There is no single ingredient more versatile or long-lasting than the dried bean.  You can find them for less than $1/lb, and a pound of dry beans can keep you fed for a week (around 6 cups of beans!)  For an easy no-fuss cooking method, soak them overnight in your crockpot. swap out the water (use it to water your house plants or garden) and cook them on low all day.  The finished beans can be stored in the fridge or frozen if you won't get to them that week.
  • Make chili.  You won't even notice that the beef is missing.  Just combine an onion, a cup of beans and three cans of tomato sauce with some chili spices (cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper) and leave it to simmer.  You can eat it as-is or served over rice, cornbread, potatoes or any other starch to spread it out.  
  • Smash them.  If the texture of whole beans is off-putting, mash them up.  Mashed garbanzo beans turn into a base for hummus.  Mashed pinto or black beans, combined with a bit of fat and maybe a little cheese, work just perfect as the filling of a burrito or served with some chips.  
  • Replace the meat in many of your favorite dishes. Making tacos?  Smash up about half the beans, leave the other half solid and mix up with a bit of salsa for a spicy filling (we do this with lentils and it's always a hit). 
With just a few other pantry essentials (flour, butter, milk, cheese, and any veggies you can afford), you can put together really simple, healthy meals based around these super cheap ingredients.   I believe in you! 

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