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Lean on your pantry’s staple items for a family-favorite dinner

By Arthi Subramaniam and Gretchen McKay
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Correction: In the Peanut Butter And Jelly Pinwheels recipe, the instructions should have read: In a large bowl, microwave butter uncovered on high for about 45 seconds or until melted.

Food brings comfort, which is much needed in these unsettling days.

So how about turning to the pantry to find that comfort in the staple canned, bottled, boxed and bagged items that you might already have or that you stocked up on when the COVID-19 news broke?

As long as your cool and dry cupboard has a decent variety, you will be able to whip up family favorites and even prepare a surprise or two while you are all hunkered down at home.

In the event you don’t have something called for in a recipe, don’t rush out to the store to get it. Social distancing and substitution should be your mantra. Be creative and make do with what you have. Use water for stock, combine flours if you run short of one, replace one spice with another of your liking and don’t get hung up over the type of rice or fret over the shape of pasta as they matter only to some degree.

Here are some essential pantry items, with a good shelf life, which can be used in a range of recipes that provide comfort.

Tomato rice with garbanzo beans topped with a boiled egg.

Canned tomatoes: They are a popular panty staple because they’re super inexpensive and come in many different varieties — whole peeled, chopped, fire-roasted, pureed. They’re also versatile, adding a bright, zesty flavor to meat vegetarian and vegan dishes. And leftovers freeze well if you don’t need to use the whole can. They’re perfect for Italian sauces, Indian curries, Mexican salsas and all sorts of soups and chilis.

Canned vegetables: Even those living in a cave know by now that the beloved green bean casserole swears by three items — green beans, mushroom soup and fried onions — and they are all from cans. Sweet peas, carrots and corn are key players in casseroles like potpies, and can be tossed with salads and pastas, tucked into tacos and used for bulking up soups. The dinner-savers also are relatively inexpensive.

Lentils and beans: Variety is boundless when it comes to the size and color of lentils and beans. Grab a pot, some stock and add lentils to make a soup or combine them with roasted vegetables or meats. Or smash canned beans or cooked dry beans to make a burger patty. Then there are the rice and bean combos, bean dips, and lentil and bean salads. The results are not only tasty but packed with protein, fiber and nutrition.

All-purpose flour: It’s the rare cook who doesn’t have a bag of all-purpose flour at the ready. It’s an essential ingredient in baking products, from cakes to cookies to pies to biscuits, and a cornerstone for bread from every part of the world. Flour also is what gives fried foods a crispy crust. Remove it from its paper bag and store it an airtight container to protect it from humidity.

Rice: It often gets a bad rap, especially from ketonians and Atkin-heads, for being carb heavy. But think of how versatile rice is and how handy it comes in for making a quick pilaf, risotto or simply mixing with tomatoes, lemon juice or yogurt. Whether it is long-grain, short-grain, black, brown, red or nutty, it can be served as a meal in itself, as a side and even dessert. When cooking rice, typically the ratio of water to rice is two is to one.

Pasta: Everyone has at least one box of dried noodles in their pantry, right? From elbow macaroni and egg noodles to dried spaghetti, penne, rigatoni and mini or jumbo shells, pasta is the ultimate comfort food. Even better, it has a super-long shelf life and is inexpensive. All you need is a pot of boiling water and a simple sauce — or maybe even just butter and grated cheese — and voila, dinner is ready.

Tuna fish casserole is a pantry classic. Crushed potato chips and Parmesan cheese add a modern spin.

Canned tuna: Canned tuna isn’t as popular as it was in the 1950s, when it was America’s most popular fish. But it’s still a relatively inexpensive source of protein that can transform a pot of cooked noodles into a quick and easy casserole. Tuna also can pitch-hit for crab meat in a patty and add substance to a bed of greens.

Cereal: There’s nothing like an all-day-breakfast fare, especially when it comes to cereal. Whether it is alt-grain, loaded with dried fruits and nuts, riff on a cookie, frosted with sugar, flavored with chocolate or cinnamon or “burst” with yogurt, it is unfussy and satisfying. Cereal can go well beyond a bowl with milk, and be used as a base for cookies, crunchy pie crusts and cheese crisps. Just think outside the box.

Chips: Crunchy munchies of any kind is the definition of comfort for some of us. There is something about the fried snack that eases the mind. In fact, there is even scientific research to prove it. The Journal of Neuroscience published a study 10 years ago that found that “elevated levels of salt in the body lowered stress hormones.” In addition to simply munching on chips, reduce your calorie guilt by building a salad with them. Nacho salad, anyone?

Canned fruits: Fresh fruit lasts only so long on your kitchen counter, and is often limited to a certain season. Canned pineapple, for instance, brings a taste of the tropics any time of year, and can be used in both sweet and savory dishes. Look for one that has no added sugar or is canned in fruit juice instead of sugar syrup.

Quick Tomato Curry

This curry is on the sweet side, so you may want to halve the amount of honey. If you have boneless, skinless chicken breast in the refrigerator or freezer, add thin slices to the sauce and cook for 8 to 10 minutes. Or, for a vegetarian dish, add your favorite vegetable.

3 tablespoons ghee, coconut oil or extra-virgin olive oil

1 large red onion, cut into 1/2-inch wedges

1 (2-inch) piece ginger, peeled, finely grated

4 garlic cloves, crushed

Kosher salt, divided

1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon garam masala

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

2 tablespoons honey

1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes

1 (15-ounce) can coconut milk

12 ounces chicken, cut into strips

1/2 cup whole-milk Greek yogurt

1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro

Heat ghee or oil in a large wide saucepan over medium-high. Add onion and cook, turning occasionally, until undersides are golden brown, about 2 minutes.

Add ginger and garlic and cook, stirring, until softened, about 2 minutes. Season with salt.

Add garam masala, bay leaf and red pepper, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in honey and cook until slightly caramelized, about 1 minute.

Add tomatoes along with juices and bring to a boil, smashing down on tomatoes with a wooden spoon until pieces are no bigger than 1 inch. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring often and scraping up browned bits from bottom of pot, until sauce thickens, 8 to 10 minutes.

Add coconut milk and cook, stirring occasionally until sauce thickens, 20 to 25 minutes. Taste and season with salt, if needed.

Add chicken strips and reduce heat to low. Cook, partially covered, until chicken is cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes. Season with salt.

In a small bowl, combine yogurt, a big pinch of salt and 2 tablespoons of water.

Drizzle yogurt sauce over stew. Top with cilantro before serving.

Serves 6.

— Bonappetit.com

Jalapeno Canned Corn Muffins

Spicy corn muffins.

If you don’t have cornmeal, use polenta or semolina in its place or just plain old all-purpose flour for these dinner muffins. And if you have a can of cream-style corn instead of canned corn kernels, that is OK, too.

1 cup cornmeal

1 (8.5-ounce) can whole kernel corn

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped finely

3 eggs, slightly beaten

1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided

1/2 cup milk

1/3 cup oil

12 pickled jalapeno rings, optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 12-cup muffin pan.

In a large bowl, combine cornmeal, corn kernels, baking powder, salt and jalapeno pepper with a spatula.

Add eggs, 3/4 cup cheddar cheese, milk and oil. Combine all the ingredients together well.

Divide corn mixture among the muffin cups. Top each muffin with the remaining 1/4 cup cheese. Place a pickled jalapeno on top of each muffin, if using.

Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, until a tester inserted into the center of the muffins comes out clean.

Makes 12 muffins.

— Arthi Subramaniam

Lemony Lentil Soup

This soup can be made with small dry orange or yellow lentils — they both cook quickly. Cloves are optional but they add a wonderful flavor. Remove them before serving. If you don’t have stock or enough of it, use plain water.

2 cups orange lentils

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 large onion, diced

2 large garlic cloves, chopped

3 black cloves, optional

1 large carrot, diced

1 teaspoon red chili flakes

Salt, to taste

8 cups vegetable or chicken broth

Juice of 2 lemons

Fried onions, optional

Wash the lentils and drain them well in a colander.

In a large pot, add oil and butter over medium heat.

Add onion, garlic and cloves, if using. Saute for about 2 minutes. Add lentils and carrot,and saute. Cook until the onions are translucent, stirring occasionally, about 5 minutes. Add red chili flakes.

Season with salt, and cook for another couple of more minutes.

Add stock and cover the pot with a lid. Cook soup for 15 to 20 minutes. Turn heat off and add lemon juice. Stir well. Remove the black cloves before serving.

If you have a can of fried onions, sprinkle some on top before serving.

Serves 6.

— Arthi Subramaniam

Homemade Flatbreads

For a more savory finish, brush the flatbreads with olive oil or melted butter, either plain or mixed with minced garlic or chopped fresh rosemary. Serve with your favorite dip, rice dish, curry or soup.

31/2 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup milk

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for board

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

In a bowl, combine butter and milk and heat until butter is just melted, on stove or in microwave.

In large bowl, combine butter mixture with flour and salt.

Sprinkle work surface with flour. Then knead dough for a few minutes until it is smooth. Add extra flour if the dough is too sticky.

Wrap with plastic wrap and rest dough at room temperature for 30 minutes or so.

Cut dough into 6 pieces and roll into balls. Then roll out into about ?-inch thick rounds on a floured surface.

Heat oil in a nonstick pan over medium heat. Place 1 flatbread in the pan, cook for around 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. It should bubble up. Flip and cook the other side, pressing down if it puffs up. There should be a smallish golden brown spots on both sides.

Stack the cooked bread and keep wrapped with a tea towel; the moisture helps soften the surface, making them even more pliable. Continue to cook with remaining pieces.

Makes 6 flatbreads.

— Compiled from various websites

Tomato Rice With Chickpeas

A can of crushed tomatoes could be replaced with two 14.5-ounce cans of diced tomatoes, but increase the amount of water to 3 1/2 cups.

2 cups long-grain rice

3 tablespoons neutral oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 large garlic cloves, smashed and chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons crushed chili pepper flakes or 2 small green chilies

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon or 2 small cinnamon sticks

1 (15.5-ounce) garbanzo beans, drained

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

Salt to taste

1 1/2 cups water

1/2 cup cilantro, optional

6 hard-boiled eggs, cut in half

Wash the rice at least 3 to 4 times in cold water, drain well and set it aside.

In a Dutch oven or large pot, add oil over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, chili pepper flakes or green chilies. Stir for 3 minutes. Add ground cinnamon or cinnamon sticks, and stir for 2 minutes.

Add garbanzo beans and stir for 1 more minute.

Add crushed tomatoes and salt to taste.

Add rice and water. Taste and add more salt if needed.

Cover the pot with a lid, and reduce heat to medium-low.

Stir rice after 15 minutes and again after 5 minutes. Turn the heat off once all the water is absorbed by the rice and beans. Keep the lid on for 5 minutes.

Transfer rice into a serving bowl or platter. Remove the cinnamon sticks. Sprinkle with cilantro, if using.

Gently mix 6 halved eggs into rice and place 6 on top.

Serves 6.

— Arthi Subramaniam

Marcella Hazen’s Red Sauce

PG tested

This might be the easiest, and best tomato sauce on earth, and it only requires three ingredients. If you like a little spice, add a pinch or two of crushed red pepper flakes.

For a less chunky sauce, give it a whirl in the blender. For a creamier sauce, add a glug or two of whole milk or heavy cream.

2 cups tomatoes, in addition to their juices (for example, a 28-ounce can of San Marzano whole peeled tomatoes)

5 tablespoons butter

1 onion, peeled and cut in half

Salt

Combine the tomatoes, their juices, butter and onion halves in a saucepan. Add a pinch or two of salt.

Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook, uncovered, for about 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, mashing any large pieces of tomato with a spoon. Add salt as needed.

Discard the onion before tossing the sauce with pasta.

This recipe makes enough sauce for a pound of pasta.

— Marcella Hazen

Tuna Casserole With Elbow Macaroni

This recipe includes Parmesan cheese and crushed potato chip topping to make it even more yummy for kids. If you don’t have potato chips, substitute panko breadcrumbs or crushed cornflakes. I used elbow noodles but you could use egg noodles, bow ties or even spaghetti. Peas give the dish some color but people can be finicky about them, so they’re optional.

8 ounces (about 2 cups) medium egg noodles or elbows, cooked and drained

1 can condensed mushroom soup

1/2 cup milk or chicken broth

2 cans (about 5 ounces each) tuna in water, drained

1 cup frozen green peas

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons butter, divided

1/2 small onion, finely chopped (about 1/4 cup)

1 celery stalk, finely diced (about 1/4 cup)

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Large handful of potato chips, crushed

Smoked paprika, for topping (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and position rack in the middle position.

Coat a 13-by-9-inch casserole dish with cooking spray.

Cook the noodles in salted water until al dente according to package directions. Drain and rinse the noodles in cold water to stop them from cooking.

Pour the noodles into a large bowl and add soup, milk or broth, tuna, peas and cheese. Toss to combine.

In large skillet over medium-high heat, melt 1 tablespoon butter. Add onion and celery and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Add thyme and continue to cook until onion and celery are translucent, about 2 more minutes.

Pour the vegetables over the tuna-noodle mixture in the bowl and mix to combine. Immediately pour into the prepared casserole dish.

Sprinkle crushed potato chips evenly over the casserole. Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in microwave, and drizzle on top. Sprinkle with smoked paprika, if desired.

Bake, uncovered, until the casserole is bubbly and top is golden, about 30 minutes. Serve piping hot.

Serves 4 to 6.

— Gretchen McKay

Peanut Butter And Jelly Pinwheels

Peanut butter and jelly pinwheels.

Forget the P&J sandwich; treat the kids to a P&J pinwheel instead. Anything goes in these pinwheels and so substitute peanut butter with almond or cashew butter and use any fruit spread you might have.

3 tablespoons butter

1 bag (10 ounces) marshmallows or 4 cups miniature marshmallows

7 cups crushed honey-nut frosted cornflakes or plain cornflakes

1/2 cup crunchy or creamy peanut butter

1/2 cup raspberry or strawberry preserves

Line a 15-by-10-by-1-inch baking pan with parchment paper, leaving 1-inch paper overhanging short sides of the pan; spray with cooking spray.

In a large bowl, microwave butter uncovered on high for about 45 seconds or until melted. Add marshmallows; toss to coat. Microwave 1 to 1 1/2 minutes longer. Stir until marshmallows are completely melted and mixture is well mixed.

Add cereal; stir until well mixed. Spoon into baking pan, pressing gently with hands lightly moistened with water.

Transfer parchment paper with cereal mixture onto work surface. Spread peanut butter over cereal mixture.

Then spread raspberry or strawberry preserves.

Tightly roll up cereal mixture, starting with a long end, peeling away paper as you roll.

Place roll on a cutting board. Using a serrated knife, cut roll crosswise into 3/4-inch slices.

Makes 12 to 14 pinwheels.

— “Betty Crocker Cookies: Irresistibly Easy Recipes for Any Occasion” by Betty Crocker Kitchens (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; September 2019)

Nacho Salad

This salad is very accommodating and so you can use any type of greens or onion you have on hand.

1/2 pound bag tortilla chips

1 (5-ounce) bag baby arugula or any type of greens

1 small onion, finely chopped

2 (15.5-ounce) cans pinto or cannellini beans, washed and drained

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

Salt, divided

1 cup chunky salsa

1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes

1 cup cheddar cheese, grated

1/2 cup cilantro, optional

Sour cream, optional

In a large salad bowl, add the tortilla chips.

Then layer with arugula or whatever else greens you are using and onion.

In a bowl, add pinto or cannellini beans, cumin and salt, to taste. Mash the beans, making sure it is chunky and has bits of beans.

Spoon the beans in small mounds on top of the onion.

In a small bowl, combine salsa and diced tomatoes. Stir and add salt if needed. Spread salsa over the beans. Finish the salad by sprinkling cheese and cilantro, if using, on top.

Serve with sour cream, if desired.

Serves 6.

— Arthi Subramaniam