We already know the benefits of having a well-stocked pantry at all times: After a busy day of work, when the couch is calling your name and your fridge's contents look bleak at best, having a few trusty pantry helpers can really help you eke out a meal in a pinch.
For those following vegetarian or vegan lifestyles, where there is already a great reliance on shelf-stable, pantry-friendly ingredients, getting new tips for keeping the cooking organized, delicious, and exciting are especially welcome.
We turned to cookbook writer Rita Serano for her favorite essentials in the kitchen. She champions accessible plant-based meals in her book Vegan in 7. "I want to show you that cooking and eating wholesome, vegan food is easy, fun, and delicious," she writes. "Beans, grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts never have to be boring, neither does good food have to be complicated. To prove the point, none of the recipes [in the book] contains more than seven ingredients, plus the kitchen essentials of salt, pepper, and occasionally a little oil."
Here are Rita's thoughts on some of her favorite pantry essentials:
Normally I cook my own beans, but if I'm in a hurry, I will use a jar or a can. Make sure that your can is BPA-free, though. I stock many different types of beans, including:
- Red and yellow lentils
- French Puy, black beluga, and brown lentils keep their shape while cooking, have a delightful taste, and are best if they still have some bite to them. Ideal for salads.
- Red kidney beans
- Cannelini or lima beans
- Frozen peas, green beans, and fava beans
- Sprouted beans further bring out the nutrients in beans, and make them easier to digest. Green mung beans are ideal for sprouting.
- Tempeh and tofu: I use bean-derived products sparingly, mostly in Asian dishes or as an egg substitute.
2. Grains and pasta
Like beans, grains are a staple in the vegan or plant food diet. Pair them with nuts, seeds, and vegetables and you have a perfect protein-rich meal. Due to their slow release of sugars into the bloodstream, whole grains will keep you satisfied for a long time. They also contain fiber, minerals, and vitamins. All grains need to be washed before you cook them. There are so many delicious grains out there to try, including:
- Rice: Round brown, long-grain, black, and red rice
- Rolled oats: You could eat them daily in oatmeal, or add them to cookies, granola, and other sweet treats. (If you are gluten intolerant, check the label: They can be cross-contaminated with wheat.)
- Other gluten-free grains: Millet and millet flakes, as well as buckwheat or quinoa (which in fact aren't grains but seeds). Sometimes I buy other grains like freekeh, spelt, barley, corn (for making my own popcorn), or polenta.
- Pasta: Whole grain pastas (like the ones made from spelt or rice), and rice or buckwheat noodles
3. Flours and baking products
I stock a variety of gluten-free flours to bake with and other essentials for baking. My pantry includes the following:
- Chickpea flour: Used in both Indian and Mediterranean cuisine, it is super versatile, has a slight nutty taste, and can act as an egg replacer in many dishes. It is very high in protein and can be mixed with other gluten-free flours, such as rice or buckwheat flour.
- Blanched almond flour: Wonderful in cakes, and I keep it in the fridge because of its high oil content.
- Oat flour: I usually make it myself by grinding the flakes in a blender, then use it in cookies or mix it with almond flour to make pastry.
- Chestnut flour: Made by grinding dry chestnuts and common in Italy and France, it has a mildly sweet and nutty taste. Combines well with buckwheat flour or polenta.
- Whole-grain spelt is great for fast bread making.
- Other essentials for baking: Baking soda and aluminum-free baking powder, to give my baking some lift; arrowroot, as a thickener and binder. I use it instead of cornstarch and as an egg substitute in baking, too.
4. Nuts and seeds
Nuts and seeds are essential in my cooking. Store them in a dark place, or even in your fridge, to prevent the oils turning rancid. My favorites are:
- Almonds: Super versatile and the only nuts to have an alkalinizing effect on the body. If you have a strong food-processor it is easy to make almond butter: Just let the machine run for about 10 to 12 minutes with the S-blade.
- Flax seeds contain the highest plant source of omega-3. They are a great alternative to egg and are especially good for binding baked dishes. Mix 1 tablespoon of ground flax seed with 3 tablespoons of warm water, leave for about 15 minutes, and you have yourself a flax egg!
- Chia seeds: These "super seeds" also contain a lot of omega-3 and can also be used as an egg substitute. I use them to thicken liquid, make chia jam, and add to smoothies or oatmeal.
- Sesame seeds are very high in calcium; they come in black, brown, and white. I also keep sunflower and pumpkin seeds on hand.
- Coconut: I always have coconut flakes, dried coconut, and a can of coconut milk in store.
I don't use any refined commercial sugars at all, but, although I am not fond of processed food and like to eat food that is as natural as possible, I do use a variety of "natural sweeteners," including:
- Maple syrup
- Coconut nectar and sugar: This doesn't taste like coconut and is less sweet than maple syrup. It has a slight caramel flavor, so I substitute it for brown or cane sugar.
- Brown rice syrup: Also less sweet than maple syrup, brown rice syrup becomes more solid and gives a crunchy bite when heated, whereas maple syrup remains sticky.
- Stevia: An herb that doesn't contain any sugar at all, this has no effect on your blood sugar. There are several forms available, the purest of which is ground green stevia powder. I buy liquid stevia, which is a combination of water and powdered stevia. You only need a couple of drops to sweeten your smoothies, ice creams, or desserts.
- Dates: I prefer Medjool dates, which are naturally soft and quite large.
- Carob powder: From the pod of the carob tree native to the eastern Mediterranean, carob powder is naturally sweet, contains no caffeine (unlike chocolate), no gluten, and a lot of fiber and antioxidants.
- Banana purée and unsweetened applesauce: Both provide natural sweetness and can be used in baking cakes, waffles, and cookies as a binder instead of egg.
6. Condiments and flavorings
- Salt: My favorites are Celtic sea salt from France and kala namak (Indian black salt), an unrefined salt that, due to high sulfur content, has the smell and flavor of hard-boiled eggs. It is very rich in umami and great in dishes like quiches, savory cashew cream, and tofu scramble. Find it in Indian or Asian stores or online. I also love truffle salt, which contains small dried pieces of black truffle, and smoked Danish salt, which gives a mild smoky flavor.
- Miso: A salty, fermented paste, typically made from rice, barley, or soybeans, along with water and salt. Miso contains healthy cultures and vitamin B and has a rich umami flavor. Add at the last moment to stocks, soups, and sauces. Miso comes in different colors — the lighter version has a milder taste than darker (aged and saltier) miso pastes.
- Nama shoyu: An unpasteurized soy sauce that adds a deep and salty flavor.
- Tamari: A soy sauce that doesn't contain wheat.
- Vinegar: My favorite is raw apple cider vinegar. You can use it over vegetables roasted in the oven as a substitute for oil. Brown rice vinegar, with its fresh and mild taste, is great for Asian-flavored foods.
- Dried porcini mushrooms: Soak in hot water for 15 to 30 minutes and use the soaking liquid in your dish as well.
- Nutritional yeast: A vegan's dream, this flaky stuff has a savory "cheesy" flavor and is packed with minerals and nutrients.
- Sun-dried tomatoes: I prefer the dry ones to the ones in a jar with oil. Soak them first or simply chop and add to stocks, stews, and sauces for extra depth of flavor. You can also use them as a substitute for tomato paste.
- Olives: Look for ones cured in sea salt and avoid ones that are artificially colored and contain preservatives.
- Seaweeds: I use kombu when boiling beans, or making stock. Nori sheets are ideal for making vegan sushi. And I use agar agar, a vegan substitute for gelatin, in desserts.
- Liquid smoke: A seasoning that will give your dish a smoky flavor without the need for a smoke oven. Choose one that contains only water and a natural smoke flavor, store it in a dark place, and remember that a little goes a very long way! If you can't find liquid smoke, you can substitute it with smoked paprika or smoked Danish salt.
This story was originally published on Food52.com: Vegan pantry essentials for simple, wholesome meals.