Are you, like me, incapable of getting past the 15th of the month with more than about £40 to your name? Do you ever blearily check your bank balance on a Monday after a heavy weekend and have four panic attacks before lunchtime? All thoughts of ordering a pizza and then going TF to bed are then usually quickly thrown out of the window chez moi as I do a mental recap of the contents of my fridge and pantry to try and work out what I can possibly cook for a week or two that’ll keep me going without having to spend like, any money at all.
And thus comes into play the humble pantry supper. There is something really satisfying about just throwing together a delicious dinner based on whatever you have lying around, and let’s face it, feeling smug AF and eating something delicious while you’re too poor to leave the house is infinitely preferable to grimly eating beans on toast for two weeks. Trust me. To that end, I make sure I always restock the following while the sun shines so you can dig in on a rainy day. It’ll make your life so much easier.
- At least 4 tins of beans or chickpeas
- Three tins of tomatoes (I like plum tomatoes, I think they usually have better juice)
- Frozen vegetables (sweetcorn, peas, spinach all good)
- Tomato puree
- Proper thai curry paste. The dry one that comes in a bag inside a tub. Will last forever.
- Coconut milk (or coconut milk powder is a godsend)
- Fast action yeast and bread flour
- Onions, which are so cheap they are basically free and which last months in a brown paper bag
- Lentils! Lots of different colours – red, green, brown and black (urad dal) are all excellent
- Carrots and a cabbage. A wrapped cabbage will last for months and even the saddest carrot can be grated and added to anything provided it is not actually mouldy or slimy
- Greek yoghurt. This lasts for so long. It’s fine waaaay past the use by date and you should only not eat it when there is actually mould on it, and even then you can probably scrape it off if there’s only a bit. Use by dates mean nothing to the committed pantry supper enthusiast. I once ate a block of (unopened) feta that was more than a year past its use by date and it was absolutely fine
- Growing herbs! Coriander and parsley are the best and most useful ones
My fallback super cheap, super healthy, super easy batch dinners are always bean chilli or chickpea dal, which I make with thai red curry paste and coconut milk. Make a massive pot of each. You can freeze the leftovers in individual portions – I do this in those resealable sandwich bags so you can lay them flat on top of each other in the freezer. That’s smart. Legit the easiest, healthiest and most pantry-friendly supper you can make. Even if you don’t have the stuff in, you can make a massive pot of bean chilli for under £3 if you live near a Lidl and you’ve got a good spice rack…
This is also a great time to cook up a big ol’ batch of those slightly annoying grains you got in because they looked nice in Waitrose but then you saw that they took 30 mins to cook and that’s just a really long time… Red rice I’m looking at you… Secret tip: cooked rice freezes really well. Cook up a load of red/brown/wild rice, and freeze it in portions (again I do this in sandwich bags) and then you can just pour boiling water over them or whack them in the microwave when you want to use them.
PANTRY BEAN CHILLI
Will make 6-8 servings depending how hungry you are and if you have any vegetables in the fridge… DON’T WORRY if you’re missing half the things below. This is super adaptable. Basically chuck in whatever beans, spices or vegetables you have and it’ll be tidy.
- 2 tins plum tomatoes
- 3 tins mixed beans (whatever you’ve got: butter, black, cannellini, kidney, pinto… Anything goes)
- 1 tbsp smoked paprika
- 1/2 tbsp cumin seeds (use ground instead if it’s all you’ve got)
- 1/2 tbsp coriander seeds, crushed (or use ground, as above)
- 4 large cloves of garlic
- 2 onions
- 1 small tin sweetcorn, or ½ cup frozen, if you have it (optional)
- 1 tbsp tomato puree
- 1/2 tbsp cocoa powder
- Whatever veg you have around: carrots, courgettes, sweet potatoes, squash, even aubergine
- 2 small chillies (I often buy a massive bag of those tiny rocket chillis and whack them in the freezer, then you’ve always got a proper chilli in. Freeze ginger, too. It grates really easily and won’t go all mouldy and squidgy if you don’t use it)
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- Dice and gently soften the onions in olive oil. If they start to stick (I always use one of those enamelled dutch ovens and I have a ferocious hob and everything sticks) just chuck in a little bit of hot water and they’ll wet fry and it’ll keep everything moving about. Don’t add more oil!
- Once softened (about ten minutes) add in the spices, chopped garlic and chopped chillies.
- Cook gently for a couple of minutes then add in the tomatoes, tomato puree, beans and grated or chopped vegetables. You can mash up the whole tomatoes a bit if you like, but I quite like the big chunks.
- Put the cocoa powder in the bottom of one of the tins of tomatoes and rinse out with some hot water to slake the powder and get up the last bits of tomato, then chuck it into the pan.
- Simmer gently for 20 mins or so and serve with rice. If you’ve got some yoghurt, cheese or coriander hanging around, these are fine accompaniments too.
OTHER great pantry suppers include:
Make a broth with some curry paste, grated ginger/garlic, a bit of veggie stock. Season with lime juice/fish sauce/soy sauce – whatever you’ve got or whatever you like. Add to this any vegetables you have: julienned carrot/courgette are great, thinly sliced cabbage, dried mushrooms (these are also a great pantry item) and then at the end add in some cooked noodles. Don’t be tempted to cook these in the broth as they will make it very thick and starchy. You might like that, in which case, go nuts. Top with any herbs you’ve got in – coriander, mint, basil – and a squeeze of lime juice and slurp happily from a massive bowl.
This is a super underused pantry item, I always think. It takes all of 10 minutes to whip up a batch of creamy and thick polenta, if you happen to have a bag lying around (coarse cornmeal is the same thing FYI) and it’s absurdly comforting for those bleak old Mondays. You can top it with pretty much anything you have around, but some ideas include:
- Roasted tomatoes and a crumble of feta, sprinkling of dukkah
- Sautéed mushrooms with soft herbs & some toasted walnuts, maybe a fag end of blue cheese if you’ve got some
- Grilled veggie sausages with onions and BBQ sauce
- Wilted spinach and a crispy fried egg
- A quick spicy bean stew: 1 small onion, softened, 1 tin beans, 1 tin tomatoes, reduced down with some chilli & smoked paprika, topped with feta & herbs. Will serve 2.
I know bread is the cheapest thing you can buy… But it is SO much healthier and so much more rewarding to make your own, and I can’t stress to you how important it is to feel smug rather than sorry for yourself when you’re on a poverty diet. It won’t have any preservatives and you can use any type of really worthy flour you’ve got hanging around. When I’m feeling most destitute it is not only super economical to make bread but is also incredibly cheering, and it takes a while so if you’re too poor to leave the house, it’s as good a way as any to spend some time. I know it’s a cliché but there is nothing quite like the smell of freshly baked bread, and when you’ve made it yourself it smells (and tastes!) all the sweeter. And you don’t even need scales! Bread is really good natured like that. Just learn a really simple bread recipe and you’ll be able to knock it up by eye in no time.
A green freezer soup is about as quick a dinner as you can make. Sweat down an onion, add to it frozen peas or spinach, or both, vegetable stock, and any green veg you have lurking in the fridge. Watercress or rocket are also good additions, but add these at the last minute so they just wilt. Simmer until everything is just cooked through and still bright green (don’t let it go sad and yellow!) and blend well. Maybe finish with a bit of cream, if you have some. Sour cream, yoghurt, even a bit of cream cheese will do wonders for the texture. Season well with plenty of pepper, and enjoy with your homemade bread. Super cheap, SUPER smug.
In a similar vein to the above, but you can make a banging soup just out of all the orange things you have. Red lentils, red peppers, sweet potatoes, carrots, squash, pumpkin… These take to lots of garlic and spice ridiculously well. Just simmer until soft with a softened onion, some veggie stock and warm spices – cumin, coriander, chilli, paprika, garam masala – blend and eat heartily. Top with yoghurt and some nigella seeds if you have some lying around. Great with some flatbreads, which you can make by combining equal parts by weight of self-raising flour and greek yoghurt with a pinch of salt, kneading lightly, rolling out and grilling.
This is one of the many brilliant things you can always make if you always have carrots, cabbage and onions. And you can go anywhere with it! I love a hot jacket potato with cold coleslaw on top… Or even hot rice with coleslaw. Is that weird? It’s delicious. Really great also with basically anything frozen and breaded you happen to have around. Man I love coleslaw. Good variations on coleslaw are:
- Coronation coleslaw. Use whatever curry powder, sweet pickle (mango is trad but I love aubergine (brinjal) too). Mix with yoghurt or mayonnaise, or a combination, add sultanas. I like this with chickpeas, which makes it more of a meal
- Jalapeño coleslaw. Add in some chopped jalapeños (or some brilliant homemade pickled chillies) and some smoked paprika. A handful of grated cheese doesn’t hurt in here either
- Maple coleslaw. Make your sauce with mayonnaise, maple syrup and buttermilk or yoghurt. Mix with poppy seeds and pecans. Absurdly addictive
A bowlful of stewed lentils is a really delicious thing. I like to cook up a big batch of green lentils with a soffritto (carrot, celery and onions, finely diced) and a bit of stock and some woody herbs (rosemary, sage, thyme) and a bit of red wine (if you have the end of a bottle lying around) until soft. These are then, like polenta, readily adaptable to a number of different uses. Try topping with some spiced roasted tomatoes, or a poached egg and some parsley. Spice your lentils and serve with yoghurt and some flatbreads. Great with some roasted beetroot, goats cheese and walnuts.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and if you need not to spend any money on food (or anything else) then be inventive with what you’ve got! Chances are you’ll end up making something at least edible and potentially completely brilliant. Good luck, and eat well, you frugal legend.