By Jacqueline Church
The urge to do some serious spring cleaning has hit, and I wondered how many others shared my crazy pantry dilemma. I’d buy something on a whim—a block of belacan (Asian shrimp paste), a bottle of green peppercorns, a stash of fenugreek—then tuck it away in the pantry and forget about it. So I took a survey of Nourish Network readers and Twitter followers and found that a theme emerged: The original inspiration to buy the now-buried-in-the-back-of-the-pantry-item was the desire to stretch in a new culinary direction. So I’ve put together a list of the three most common ingredients lurking in cupboards and included ideas for using them.
Lentils. These quick-cooking pulses are truly multipurpose. They can be used in soups and stews. They are terrific in cold salads for added protein and fiber. They can be cooked and mashed in veggie burgers or croquettes. They’re a lovely accompaniment to fish and poultry. If you have some on hand, try our All-Purpose French Lentils (it’s fine to substitute a different variety for the Lentilles de Puy in the recipe).
Dried black mushrooms. Dried shiitake, porcini, morel, and other varieties of mushrooms can seem daunting as they’re usually sold in large quantities. Fortunately, dried mushrooms are packed with nutrition and umami, and they last a long time. They add rich flavor and texture to soups, stews, risotto, and stir-fries. Soak them in hot water, and use the soaking liquid like any broth for a soup base or sauce. Use the stemmed and sliced mushrooms in all manner of recipes. Mushrooms are a perfect way to reduce saturated fat in dishes that call for ground or chopped meat; just replace some or all of the meat with mushrooms (try this with meatballs or substitute soaked and sauteed dried mushrooms for pork in Fumiko’s Gyoza).
Harissa. Two readers said they’d found a jar of harissa kicking around their pantries. Harissa is a pesto-like North African condiment made from chile peppers, garlic, olive oil, and spices. It adds a fiery punch to fish, grains, sauces, and dips. Think of it as revved-up ketchup. In fact, you can use harissa much like you would use ketchup, Tabasco, or Sriracha: on burgers, over scrambled eggs, in deviled eggs. Thin it with yogurt and serve it over fish, or as a dip for crudite. Thin it with olive oil for a rub for roast chicken.
Use your spring pantry cleaning energy, and these ideas, to rediscover the inspiration to try something new, whether it’s a new lentil salad, mushroom dumplings, or harissa-marinated fish.
Jacqueline Church is an independent writer whose work has appeared in Culture: the Word on Cheese, Edible Santa Barbara, and John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. She often writes about gourmet food, sustainability issues and the intersection of the two on her blog Leather District Gourmet. Currently, she’s at work on Pig Tales: a Love Story about heritage breed pigs and the farmers and chefs bringing them from farm to table.