What to Cook When There's (Almost) Nothing in the House

Making do with limited ingredients has taken on new urgency.

©. MargJohnsonVA via Twenty20

I thought I was decent at making meals out of limited ingredients before the pandemic hit, but you should see me now! I do everything to avoid going the grocery store, which means that, day after day, I make meals for five hungry people using what appears to be a mostly empty fridge and pantry. Of course it isn't truly empty, but the ingredients are not necessarily the easiest to assemble and require a bit more forethought than the standard veg-carb-protein trio that most Americans define as a proper meal.

Not surprisingly, I've become obsessed with reading lists of what other people are cooking in quarantine—and not the descriptions of fancy culinary experiments. I want to know how people are scraping by, making do, and stretching their pantries to the max, without sacrificing flavor or nutrition. So now I figured it was time to share my own list of go-to meals when it feels like there's almost nothing in the house.

If There's Rice:

1. Risotto: It is delicious and easy, especially now that I've discovered the almost-hands-off version in "The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook" by America's Test Kitchen. It may not be entirely authentic, but that's the last thing I'm worried about as I scoop spoonfuls of risotto into my mouth. All it takes is a batch of homemade stock and a pile of asparagus, spring peas, or mushrooms (even better if I have a packet of dried porcini). If you have a spare older child hanging around, set them to work with occasional stirring.

2. Fried rice: Whenever I make rice, I make extra so that I can fry it up the next day. Cold rice is best for stir-frying. I keep it simple at lunchtime, starting with onions and garlic in plenty of vegetable oil, adding the rice, then fish sauce, oyster sauce, and sesame oil. At dinners, it gets fancier with shredded carrot, tofu, frozen peas, parsley, and whatever else I have.

If There Are Beans and Legumes:

3. Black bean soup: Black bean soup with smoky chipotle flavoring is a popular dish in our family. I start soaking dried beans first thing in the morning and simmer them in the afternoon. All I need is onions, garlic, homemade stock, beans, and canned chipotles in adobo sauce. I serve with homemade cornmeal muffins and a salad. This is also an easy thing to make in an Instant Pot if you forgot to soak the beans (yes, that happens all the time to me, too).

4. Red lentil dal: Supremely easy and delicious, dal comes together with just red lentils, onions, and a basic collection of spices. It cooks up quickly and is served over hot basmati rice. I serve whatever vegetables I have on the side—stir-fried carrots or zucchini, spinach salad, or steamed broccoli. Thin it out for a soup if that's what you crave the following day.

If There Are Eggs:

5. Spanish tortilla: Potatoes, eggs, and olive oil are a magical combination when you cook them like this. It forms into a soft cake that you cut into wedges and can eat for any meal of the day, at any temperature. Pair with a salad. Kids may want to slather the tortilla with ketchup.

6. Huevos rancheros: My version is probably not what's served in Mexico, but it's still tasty. I start with a quick homemade tomato sauce (made with onions and green peppers), poach eggs in it, and top with shredded cheese and scallions. We eat it with toast and green salad. You could jazz it up with a can of black beans, if you wanted.

If There's Bread:

7. Pizza: You can make pizza out of many kinds of bread—naan, pita, English muffins, even bagels. As long as I have tomato sauce (sometimes I just whirl a can of tomatoes in the blender and add a splash of olive oil and dried herbs) and mozzarella, the kids will be occupied with making their own and happy with the result. Sometimes I use a jar of pesto instead of sauce. On their own, these make a great lunch or snack; served with soup or salad, they're a satisfying dinner.

8. Wraps: As long as I have tortillas, I feel equipped to make a meal. It could be black bean burritos, cheese quesadillas, a felafel wrap, or a roll-up with peanut butter and jam, banana slices, or a thin egg omelet with shredded cheese stuffed with arugula. You can also fry tortillas and turn them into tostadas to make a crispy "plate" for beans, salsa, cheese, avocado, or whatever else you want to pile on.

If There Are Vegetables:

9. Grain bowl: If I have sturdy vegetables like cauliflower, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and fennel, I like to roast them at high heat and stash in the fridge to make grain bowls. I use whatever grains I have (rice, quinoa, barley, couscous), top with the vegetables, some crumbled feta cheese, herbs, toasted nuts, seeds, and vinaigrette.

10. Cream soups: Almost any vegetable can be turned into a cream-of-something soup—cauliflower, broccoli, butternut squash, beets, carrots, asparagus, mushrooms, etc. Start with onions, add the chopped vegetable and stock, simmer till soft, puree, and add cream or coconut milk. Curry powder or dried herbs make it tastier.