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Shelf-stable. Even the name is comforting, the antithesis of a viral threat. Contrary to the pillars of contemporary food culture — fresh, seasonal and inherently fleeting — it’s the canned, dried, jarred and otherwise hardy that we can rely on in a pinch. Forming the unsung foundation of so many meals when times are good, social distancing amid the COVID-19 pandemic has given these foods new meaning.
Staples hum in the background during days of plenty. Some of them are so far back in the recesses of our pantries that we’ve forgotten they were there at all. Often reserved for last-resort cooking on sleepy weekends, times of sickness, or hectic weeknights, we’re occasionally actively thankful for their existence. But once we have fresh bounty back at our fingertips, they fade into the shadows of the cupboard.
As people avoid going to restaurants and making unnecessary trips to the store, shelf-stable foods have been thrust into the spotlight. Sturdy and reliable, beans, grains, canned vegetables, pickles, pastes and condiments are a practical choice. Beyond the functionality of these foods, though, they embody an innate assurance that’s especially welcome in times of uncertainty.
“It’s just so reassuring to know that they’re always there,” says Raleigh, N.C.-based author and restaurateur Margaret (Mei) Li . “That I always have the capability to make something if I’m tired and haven’t gone grocery shopping. If I’ve just come back from vacation. If I’m scrambling at the last minute because people are coming over. Any situation — in the situation we’re in right now — there’s a comfort in having those staples and having those building blocks that you can then use as a base.”
For Halifax-based food writer Aimée Wimbush-Bourque of the blog Simple Bites , it’s the ease of pantry cooking that she appreciates most. “I can feed my family something that’s comforting, something that’s nourishing, and something that’s affordable, too,” she says. “I’m an advocate for Zero Hunger, and I love reassuring readers and home cooks that stocking up with Canadian grains, Canadian pulses, potatoes and rutabagas … is super affordable and super good for you.”
Given that their very presence is heartening — holding the promise of nourishment as long as you can still crack open a can, twist a lid or bring a pot of water to the boil — it’s no surprise that people started stockpiling these shelf-stable foods first, to the point that beans, canned soups, pasta and rice have disappeared from many grocery store shelves. (Shoppers have snapped up frozen vegetables as well, but it bears mentioning that you can still buy fresh vegetables and freeze them yourself. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a helpful guide on its website .)
For some, staying home in an effort to “flatten the curve” means more time to make foods they would have normally considered too laborious, like baking sourdough bread, folding dumplings or making pasta from scratch. Social distancing cooks are embarking on ambitious projects and sharing their journeys on social media: #pandemiccooking — and #pandemicbaking — is now a thing. In a real-time version of Netflix’s Chef & My Fridge (which makes for fine quaranstreaming, by the way), celebrity chefs and high-profile cooks are offering cooking advice on Twitter: “Tell me what’s in your fridge/pantry and I’ll tell you what to make.”
For Chitra Agrawal — chef, author and owner of condiment company Brooklyn Delhi — having a pantry full of grains, dried beans and lentils, and a stash of onions, ginger and garlic means endless meal opportunities. “I can make a lot of different things with those staple ingredients. Right now I’m relying on tons of different spice powders and mixes, and different spices that can flavour these things in different ways so we don’t get sick of the same thing,” she laughs.
Isolation to some may equal more time for cooking, but for Agrawal — who is now running a business from home, and caring for her toddler and baby — it’s even more critical to be able to pull together meals quickly. To that end, she’s been using her Instant Pot to cook beans in advance, and then flavour on the stove right before serving. She had chickpeas on the go while we spoke, destined for chole (a.k.a. chana masala).
Rajma, a kidney bean dish, is another of Agrawal’s favourite pantry meals. To its onion-ginger-garlic base, she adds bay leaves, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, coriander powder, cumin, amchoor (dried mango powder), tomato paste and canned tomatoes. If she doesn’t have tomatoes, she substitutes tamarind for brightness.
“And of course dal. I just made some the other day where all I did was (fry) onion, ginger, garlic and then cumin seeds and nigella seeds. Then I put the cooked lentils in there with butter, and finished it off with some spinach and lemon juice,” says Agrawal. “We have tons of lemons and limes right now because I use them in a lot of my cooking. You can stick them in the fridge and they’ll last. And if need be, I could squeeze and freeze the lemon juice in little containers, too.”
Beans, lentils and grains are the workhorses of both Mei’s and Wimbush-Bourque’s pantries as well. If you have any fresh ingredients, those can be added as building blocks, but if not, there are plenty of shelf-stable and long-life refrigerated elements that can enhance isolation dishes. In topping a grain bowl with a fried egg and sauerkraut, kimchi, soy sauce or spicy chili oil, “it becomes a big bowl of comfort really quickly,” says Wimbush-Bourque.
“Even if you had to make a cold-cut sandwich, and you added fermented or pickled vegetables, it would make a world of a difference. It just brightens things up,” says Toronto-based registered dietitian Amanda Li . Some of her preferred long-life staples include sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled asparagus and green beans, and jarred roasted red peppers and marinated artichokes. She also recommends stocking up on dehydrated vegetables (she likes beet slices and carrot sticks) and especially dried shiitake mushrooms to add umami to soups and broths, and to make risottos.
“I love doing risottos. Recently I made one in my Instant Pot with dehydrated mushrooms, lentils and Arborio rice. The lentils made it even better because they’re so creamy, so you don’t have to add any dairy to it,” says Amanda. “You have your mushrooms, you have your lentils for the protein, you’ve got the rice, so it’s the perfect balance in that sense.”
Finding ways to add freshness and acidity to dishes made almost exclusively with non-perishables is particularly important. For Amanda, this is where freeze-dried herbs come into play. “I love them because the difference with freeze dried (versus dried) is the flavour’s so much better, and they actually hydrate quite well,” she says. “If I make tuna or chicken salad, I’ll just sprinkle freeze-dried dill on it. I find the flavour is much more pronounced (than dried) … and it will still add that pop of colour.”
To boost her pantry cooking, Mei likes to use anchovies, olives, pickles, soy sauce, vinegar, oyster sauce and Thai curry pastes. “I try to always have anchovies because I love them, and I think everyone should love them,” she says, laughing. Among their many uses — and beyond eating them straight from the tin — she likes to mash them with beans on toast, let them dissolve in oil before starting a tomato sauce, and blitz them with mayonnaise, oil, lemon juice and garlic for “a Caesar-ish dressing.”
Rice, lentils, canned tomatoes and coconut milk are also among her pantry mainstays. For a quick meal made entirely with shelf-stable ingredients (and one durable vegetable), she suggests combining spices, onion, coconut milk, canned tomatoes and lentils for an almost instant curry/stew/soup. “There are any number of variations that you could do,” Mei says. “But a little bit of spice in butter or oil, an onion, add in some coconut milk, tomato, lentils and let it bubble away for a little while. And then you’ve got a delicious, healthy, hearty, filling meal.”
Not being able to pop out to the store on a regular basis could end up making us more mindful of secondary uses for ingredients, and more inclined to cook with them in new ways. As much as stockpiling could potentially contribute to food waste, if people are buying more food than they will use, it could also lead to a greater focus on using every possible part of an ingredient.
Mei, who created Food Waste Feast with her sister Irene of Boston, Mass. restaurant Mei Mei, says she hopes with people going to the grocery store less often, they’ll be more likely to consider cooking the vegetable scraps they would have otherwise thrown out. “My opinion on that is you’re getting two vegetables for the price of one. So don’t throw out those beet greens. There’s tons of deliciousness in broccoli stalks,” she says.
The day before we spoke, Mei had made a quiche using kale stems, broccoli stalks (peel before using) and cauliflower stalks. She also uses vegetable offcuts — such as asparagus ends, kale stems and wilted vegetables — in pickles and tosses them in with other vegetables for okonomiyaki (a savoury Japanese pancake). And she regularly uses beet, turnip and radish greens like you would any other hearty green such as collards, kale, spinach or Swiss chard.
Having hardy vegetables and shelf-stable staples at hand is, of course, not a given for all. Food banks and shelters are increasingly under pressure as they cope with COVID-19, and the vulnerable among us have become even more so.
“I know I’m super privileged even to just have the concept of, ‘Oh, I can go restock my pantry.’ ‘I can plan for two weeks of self-quarantine,’” says Wimbush-Bourque. “I know that that is a privilege, and not everyone has that luxury. I would love to encourage Canadians — as those of us who can stock up, are stocking up” — to also plan on making a donation to a local food bank.”
As food banks shift towards emergency food assistance, it’s a good time to make monetary donations to help their efforts, if you’re able.
The circumstances are less than ideal, and the effects devastating for many, but with a renewed focus on the pantry, we have an opportunity. Improving our cooking skills and being more industrious results in greater self-sufficiency. With so many unknowns, we can feel secure in our ability to feed ourselves and our loved ones.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020