Good Food For Hard Times: Make Meals From What's Already In Your Pantry

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"Pantry Tuna Niçoise" (Kathy Gunst)
"Pantry Tuna Niçoise" (Kathy Gunst)

You’re stuck at home for weeks. The local supermarket is running low on staples like pasta and rice — not to mention toilet paper — and your home freezer is down to ice-encrusted “mystery” packets. Even in normal times, you don’t have a lot in your pantry. But these times aren’t normal.

Still, you need to eat. You love good food. You’re tempted to order take-out, but most of the local restaurants are closed.

How will you cope?

Take a deep breath. Let’s take a look at some of the options.


The thing about grocery shopping these days is that it’s hard to shop in the traditional way you’re used to — with a list. You kind of have to go with the flow: shop what is there versus what you wish was there. Look for the freshest ingredients you can find and buy food that will last or that you’ll use in the next few days.

Don’t hoard, but shop sensibly thinking about what you might eat for a week or 10 days at a time.

It’s worth checking out smaller mom and pop neighborhood stores. Sometimes these smaller shops have items that the big stores have sold out of. Plus it’s always important to support these small businesses.

In many areas, farmers markets are still open. Outdoor activities, while still possible, are always a good idea. Supporting local farmers is crucial right now. Since many of them grow produce for restaurants that are no longer open, they have a whole lot more of their locally grown food to sell.

Buy gift certificates to your favorite restaurants to help keep them in business during these trying times. It could mean the difference between them shuttering forever and reopening when the pandemic has passed.


How do you create community when we are all advised to keep our distance from one another? Here are a few suggestions:

  • When you go shopping, check in with neighbors or elderly people in your building or community who may not be able to get out and see what you might pick up for them.
  • Cook large batches of food like soups, casseroles, or lasagna. Freeze half or bring half to a neighbor.
  • Have a virtual dinner party. I’ve gotten together with friends in three different states on Zoom or Facebook chat and “shared” a meal by eating together and talking during mealtime. It’s a new form of socializing that might make you feel less isolated. Try it with family and friends, both near and far.
  • Make donations to food pantries, soup kitchens and school programs that feed children and families who rely on school meals.
  • Here’s a list of different ways you can support restaurant and food communities.
  • Up to 7 million restaurant workers have been laid off nationwide. Here's some information about restaurant workers and how to help.


Following traditional recipes can get complicated as you suddenly learn that you only have access to half the ingredients — or less. What follows are some tips and loosely written recipes using items you just might have in your pantry or be able to easily pick up at a local store.

A new side dish I created this week searching through my pantry:

Sautéed White Beans Provencal-Style

Sautéed white beans provencal-style (Kathy Gunst)
Sautéed white beans provencal-style (Kathy Gunst)

I found a can of white beans, an onion and some garlic, a few fresh tomatoes (you can also use canned or sun-dried) and a jar of roasted red peppers and created this 15-minute dish. Don’t have tomatoes or roasted pepper? No problem. You’ve still got the makings of a great side dish or lunch. Crusty bread? Pita bread? Add some salad greens and you’ve got a whole meal.


  • One 15-ounce can white beans, or any type of cooked bean or chick peas
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 scallions or 1/3 cup chopped onion, optional
  • 1 cup chopped cherry tomatoes or fresh tomatoes or canned tomatoes or sun-dried tomatoes
  • 1/3 cup chopped roasted red peppers, optional
  • 1 tablespoon dried or fresh rosemary, crumbled
  • Salt and freshly ground black or white pepper
  • About 1/4 cup white wine
  • Grated lemon zest, optional
  • Pinch dry red chili flakes, optional


  1. Drain the beans in a colander and rinse under cold running water. Drain again.
  2. In a medium skillet heat the oil over low heat. Add the garlic and scallions (or onion) and cook 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and rosemary and cook another 4 minutes. Add the roasted red pepper if you have it and then the drained beans and stir. Raise the heat to high and add the wine; bring to a rapid simmer. Reduce the heat and cook another 3 minutes or so until the wine is absorbed in beans slightly. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot with crusty bread.

Here’s a recipe for Shakshuka, a simple, highly satisfying baked egg dish on tomato sauce:

Shakshuka: Baked Eggs, Tomatoes, Chilis And Cheese

This baked egg dish is said to have originated in North Africa but is extremely popular in Israel and throughout the Mediterranean. It works equally well for breakfast, lunch or dinner and features eggs cooked on a bed of roasted spiced tomato sauce. Serve with warm crusty bread and hot sauce.


  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 3 pounds ripe tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, or about 4 ½ cups canned tomatoes chopped with juices
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or cilantro, plus more for garnish, optional
  • Salt and black or white pepper to taste
  • 2 large green chilis, such as Anaheim, finely chopped, or two dried chili peppers, or about ¼ to 1 teaspoon dried red chili flakes, depending on how spicy or mild you like it.
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ⅓ cup chopped fresh basil, optional
  • ½ cup crumbled feta cheese
  • 4 large eggs
  • Hot sauce for serving


  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Slice 2 garlic cloves. Toss with tomatoes, onion, 3 tablespoons oil, parsley or cilantro and 1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper in a large bowl. Spread evenly on a large rimmed baking sheet or in a shallow roasting pan. Roast until the tomatoes are shriveled and browned, about 45 minutes.
  3. Chop the remaining garlic clove. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and chilis or chili flakes; cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Add cumin and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Stir in the roasted tomato mixture, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and basil. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are mostly broken down, 6 to 8 minutes.
  4. Using the back of a soup spoon, make 4 deep indentations in the sauce and carefully crack an egg into each. Sprinkle the eggs with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Cover and cook over medium-low until the whites are set, 6 to 8 minutes.
  5. Remove from the heat, sprinkle with the feta and let stand, covered, for 2 minutes. (The eggs will continue to cook a bit as they stand.) Garnish with parsley or cilantro and serve with hot sauce, if desired.

"Pantry Tuna Niçoise"

Yes, you can make tuna sandwiches, salads or even fish cakes. But here’s a recipe I came up with for “Pantry Tuna Niçoise." Serves 2.


  1. Bring a pot of water to simmer. Poach 2 eggs (crack an egg into a bowl and gently slide into the simmering water) for 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon.
  2. Meanwhile, place about 2 cups of greens on a large plate (salad greens, chopped kale, shredded cabbage, spinach, etc.) and top with one can drained tuna. Place the poached eggs on top. Sprinkle with chopped olives or nuts or sliced radishes or whatever you have on hand. Drizzle with olive oil and lemon juice and/or vinegar, salt and pepper to taste.

Other Suggestions

Vegetable scraps: As fresh produce becomes more and more precious you might consider keeping all vegetable scraps (carrot peelings, onion skins, zucchini ends, etc.) to make a pot of vegetable stock. Here’s the recipe:

Recycled Vegetable Stock

The first time I made my own vegetable stock, using scraps of vegetables I had in the refrigerator bin I was amazed at the depth of flavor I got from food I would have otherwise thrown away. This stock takes about an hour and is so superior to supermarket bought vegetable stock you will be hooked. Plus, it’s the ultimate in recycled food.

Start a bag collecting vegetable scraps: Think carrot peelings, the outer layers of onions and garlic, the top, dark green section of leeks, ends of squash or peelings from squash, trimmings from broccoli or cauliflower or cabbage, fennel fronds, potato peelings, celery leaves, parsley stems, roots and more. When you have about 1 or 2 pounds or more, you’re ready to make stock. You can always double the recipe.

The only catch is balance. If you add 3 cups of cauliflower or cabbage or Brussels sprouts trimmings, your broth will have a heavy brassica taste — you want to try to balance out alliums (members of the onion family) with carrots, celery, etc. That’s why it’s good to collect scraps for a few days using a balance of the week’s cooking leftovers. Always be sure to wash vegetable peelings and scraps and thoroughly dry in a salad spinner before making the stock.

Makes about 8 to 10 cups.


  • About 1 to 2 pounds leftover vegetable scraps, about 4 to 5 cups, thoroughly washed and chopped
  • 1 large stalks celery, chopped
  • 3 peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/2 cup parsley, chopped


  1. Place all the vegetable scraps, celery, peppercorns, bay leaf, salt and parsley in a large pot. Add enough cold water to just barely cover the vegetables. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to low, partially cover, and let simmer for about an hour, or until flavorful. Push down on vegetables to fully immerse them in the boiling water. If the stock tastes weak, increase the heat and simmer to intensify the flavor for another 10 to 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning. Strain the stock.

Immune Boosting Foods

I am not a nutritionist or a medical specialist but many nutritionists suggest that these foods are particularly good for helping to build up your immune system — something we can all use these days.

  • Citrus
  • Peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Spinach
  • Yogurt
  • Almonds
  • Turmeric
  • Kiwi
  • Green Tea
  • Sunflower Seeds
  • Papaya

Emiko Tamagawa produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Tinku Ray

This segment aired on March 23, 2020.


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Kathy Gunst Resident Chef, Here & Now
Kathy Gunst is a James Beard Award-winning journalist and the author of 15 cookbooks.



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