The Bare Essentials
There are some evenings when time and energy to spend in the kitchen are in short supply.
Sometimes life's just too short to prise seeds from a pomegranate to toss through a tagine - especially on weeknights.
There are some evenings when time and energy to spend in the kitchen are in short supply - that's why supermarkets have freezers and chillers packed with ready meals and there's a queue at the local takeaway. But somewhere between the frozen pizza and the home-cooked pork belly with parsnip remoulade, there's a middle ground - fast food made from cupboard staples that deliver healthy dinners in minutes.
With the right ingredients - and a can opener - cupboard cuisine can be surprisingly good, like the speedy version of Italian chickpea soup that was my last-minute dinner for two last week.
The traditional recipe for pasta e ceci calls for slow-cooked chickpeas that have been soaked beforehand. Instead I emptied a 400-gram can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed, into a saucepan with sauteed onions (the kind that come pre-chopped from a supermarket freezer), along with crushed garlic, chilli flakes, a can of tomatoes, two cups of stock and a cup of risoni, that tiny rice-like pasta that cooks quickly in hot liquid - and half a teaspoon of sugar to smooth out the tomato. Lots of white pepper and a handful of fresh basil finished it off. Cooking and prep time, including a salad? About 15 minutes - less than the time it takes to stand in line at the takeaway and much cheaper.
There are two keys to making cupboard cuisine work. The first is a good stash of versatile ingredients with a long shelf life. In the pantry that means plenty of cans including tuna, tomatoes, legumes such as black, borlotti and cannellini beans, as well as chickpeas and lentils.
Also stock up on tomato paste, fast-cooking pastas (think spaghettini and angel hair), wholegrain or kamut couscous (gutsier and more filling than regular couscous), stick soba noodles, olive oil, vinegars and nuts - pine nuts, pistachios, pecans and cashews are good for adding protein to mains. In the freezer, have on hand chopped onion and packs of peas, along with frozen stir-fry mix. It's not in the same league as fresh broccoli and snow peas, but it's still nutritious and can form the basis of an instant dinner when stir-fried with a little fish sauce, chilli, fresh ginger and cashew nuts.
Note the fresh ginger: that's where the second key to cupboard cuisine comes in. You need ingredients that add good flavours and it's best if some of these are fresh. Fresh garlic, ginger and even galangal all keep for a long time in the fridge, as do fresh chillies, though chilli flakes are fine if you're pushed. Fresh herbs provide big flavour boosts, too - use them generously and there's no waste. Olives, capers and anchovies are other good keepers in the fridge. Just remember they're high in salt, so go easy.
With these ingredients, you have the makings of a 15-minute dinner such as tuna or cannellini beans tossed with warm pasta, garlic, chilli, olives, cherry tomatoes and pine nuts, or any number of quick one-pot dishes based on a can or two of legumes. Think soups with borlotti beans, mega salads with fat butter beans and pistachios, or a spicy mix of canned black beans, tomatoes, sweet corn chilli and cumin on wholegrain couscous, with an avocado salad on the side
None of these dishes will make it to MasterChef or the menu at Rockpool. But when time is short, these rescue recipes trump generic-flavoured ready meals, save a bundle on takeaway and give you more control over the ingredients - light on salt, no dodgy fats and a good hit of fibre.