In our quest to eat more fresh, healthy whole foods, we keep our fridges filled with fresh fruits and vegetables in every color of the rainbow. While all this produce is essential to making healthy, plant-based meals, it’s also necessary to keep the pantry stocked with basic staples. A well-stocked pantry allows for more options when deciding what to cook for dinner. That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to buy a gazillion bottles and cans of groceries that may end up unused and collecting dust. When there are limits on space and money, it’s smart to buy staples that are versatile and can be used in a variety of dishes. Versatile groceries are ones you can use again and again in different recipes but won’t make you feel like you’re eating the same dish night after night. To show how this works, I will choose 5 pantry staples and attempt to make 10 different dishes using them. This assumes I have a full fridge of produce and a well-stocked spice cabinet. My pantry staple choices are dried pasta, beans/lentils, tomato sauce, raw cashews and coconut milk. Let’s play!

1. Use the Dried Pasta, Raw Cashews and Coconut Milk

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…and make Mac and Cashew Cheese: In a food processor, combine 1 cup pre-soaked raw cashews 1 cup hot water. Pulse a few times to get it started and then process until completely smooth. Add ¼ cup nutritional yeast, the juice of one lemon, 2 Tbs. Dijon mustard, 1 tsp. vegan Worcestershire sauce, ½ tsp. each of paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, mustard powder, and kosher salt, ¼ tsp. black pepper and a pinch of ground nutmeg. Process until everything is completely combined and smooth. Transfer the cashew mix to a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat. Melt in 2 Tbs. vegan butter, and then add 2 cups coconut milk. Stir until everything is combined and the sauce is smooth and silky. Remove from the heat. Pour the cashew cheese sauce onto the cooked pasta and toss to combine. Garnish with fresh chopped parsley and dig in. Check out How to Make the Most Decadent Mac and Cheese for more tips and recipe ideas.

2. Use the Dried Pasta and Coconut Milk

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…and make Spicy Alfredo with Greens for dinner. Cook up 1 lb. of pasta and reserve some of the starchy cooking water. Heat 2 Tbs. olive oil in a deep saucepan or skillet over medium heat. Add 4 minced garlic cloves and ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Mix in 2 cups of coconut milk. Loosen up the sauce with some of the reserved starchy pasta cooking water, about ¼ cup at a time, until the sauce is thick but pourable. Add in ¼ cup vegan grated parmesan or nutritional yeast. Stir in a pinch of nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste.  Lower the heat to medium and let the sauce cook for 2 minutes. Add the pasta to the pan, tossing to coat it with sauce. Let the pasta sit in the sauce for a minute or two so it absorbs the flavors of the sauce. Mix a big bunch of chopped greens into the pasta and allow them to wilt just a bit. Grate the zest of one lemon over the pasta. Add a squeeze of the lemon juice, if desired. Serve the pasta in bowls with fresh basil for garnish and extra vegan grated parmesan, if desired.

3. Use the Dried Pasta, Beans/Lentils and Tomato Sauce

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…and make many different dishes just by changing up the spices and flavor profiles. For a Spanish dish, make my Sopa Seca. It is a hearty dish of pasta and beans where the pasta cooks directly in the sauce. Skip the pasta, make noodles out of zucchini and make this Sofrito Zucchini Pasta with Beans and Lightly Fried Plantains. Choose lentils instead of beans and make this Pasta with Vegan Bolognese Sauce. Grab some chickpeas and indulge in a dish of this Vegan Linguine with Greens, Chickpeas and Almonds.

4. Use the Beans and the Tomato Sauce

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…and make Puerto Rican Stewed Beans: heat 1 Tbs. olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 Tbs. sofrito and cook for 1 minute. Add 1 Tbs. alcaparrado or pimento-stuffed green olives to the pot. Stir in 2 cups cooked red kidney beans and 1 cup tomato sauce. Let the beans cook in the sauce for 2 minutes. Add 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1 tsp. ground coriander, ¼ tsp. black pepper, and kosher salt to taste. Stir and cook for 1 minute. Add 1 cup water. Cook uncovered for 20-25 minutes until beans are tender and the sauce has thickened. If the sauce gets too thick, add more water. Serve while hot.

5. Use the Lentils and Tomato Sauce

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…and make Sloppy Joses. In a small saucepan, add 1 ½ cups lentils and 3 cups water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and let the lentils cook until the water is absorbed and they are softened, about 30 minutes. Drain the lentils and mash them. Set them aside. In a large saucepan with a lid, heat 2 Tbs. oil over medium-high heat. Add the lentils to the pan and saute until they are browned and starting to crisp. Add 1 diced onion, 1 diced green pepper, 3 minced garlic cloves, 3 chopped scallions, 1 minced jalapeno and 10 sliced green olives to the pan. Mix the lentils into the veggies and add in 2 Tbs. vegan Worcestershire sauce, 1 tsp. each ground cumin, coriander, chile powder, paprika, and kosher salt, and ½ tsp. black pepper. Cook the mixture for a few minutes, stirring often. Add 2 cups diced tomatoes to the lentil mixture along with a half-cup of water. Stir the mixture. You want it to be saucy but not too loose. Cover the pan and let the lentils cook for at least 10 minutes so the flavors marry and intensify. Check to make sure the lentils are not too dry; if the pan seems dry, add a bit more water. The lentil mixture should be thick and saucy. Mix in 2 Tbs. fresh chopped cilantro and taste for any seasoning adjustments. Ladle the Sloppy Jose mixture onto rolls. Top with vegan cheddar cheese, sour cream, avocado slices or whatever garnishes you like. Squeeze some fresh lime juice on top.  For more recipes, read 3 Totally Awesome Ways to Make Vegan Sloppy Joes.

6. Use the Cashews

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…and make Lemon Cashew Cream Sauce. Combine 1 cup pre-soaked cashews, ¾ cups water, the zest and juice of one lemon and salt and pepper to taste in a food processor. Mix until the cream is thickened and smooth. Use with pasta dishes like my Gluten-Free Pumpkin Gnocchi or spoon over roasted vegetables. Check out this article to learn How to Make Rich, Creamy Sauces without Dairy.

7. Use the Beans

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…and make White Bean Dip. My recipe has an Italian spin to it. I saute 4 minced garlic cloves in 3 Tbs. of olive oil that has a pinch of red pepper flakes added to it. Then I add 1 ½ cups of cooked cannellini beans to the pan and season them with 1 tsp. dried sage. If you have fresh sage leaves, by all means, throw them into the pan instead. They will get crispy in the oil. Add 5 Tbs. water to the pan and cook until everything is warmed through. Transfer everything to a food processor and puree until smooth. Squeeze some lemon juice into the dip and season with kosher salt to taste. Another white bean recipe is this Moroccan Grilled Eggplant, Onion and White Bean Spread.

8. Use Tomato Sauce and Coconut Milk

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…and make Indian Eggplant and Spinach in Coconut Sauce. Add 2 Tbs. oil to a deep saucepan and saute 1 large chopped onion for 5 minutes or until softened. Add 1 Tbs. minced ginger, 4 cloves minced garlic, 1 Tbs. mustard seeds, 2 Tbs. curry powder, 1 tsp. chile powder 1 tsp. ground turmeric to the pan. Stir well so that the onion is fully coated in the spices. Let cook 2 minutes until fragrant. Add 2 large chopped carrots and 1 large or 2 small eggplants cut into cubes and toss to coat in the spices. Cook for 4 minutes until the eggplant softens. Add 2 cups tomato sauce, 1 cup canned coconut milk, and ¼ cup water. Stir to combine. Add salt to taste. Cover the pan and let cook on medium heat for 10 – 15 minutes or until the carrots are tender. If the sauce cooks down too much, add more water. After the carrots are tender, add 3 cups fresh spinach to the pan. Cover and let cook until the spinach is wilted. Add 2 Tbs. fresh chopped cilantro the pan and stir to combine. Serve over rice. Check out How to Make Your Own Indian Food at Home for more recipes and ideas.

9. Use Lentils, Tomato Sauce and Coconut Milk

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…and make curries and dals. Red or brown lentils are used to make this Curried Lentil Soup. If you’re in the mood for a light but satisfying salad, try this Spicy Lentil Salad , this Sprouted Green (Moong) Lentils and Peanut Salad or this Sprouted Mung Salad that has mung beans. The word “dal” may mean lentils but it also refers to the thick stew made with them. This Simple Lentil Dal is easy and delicious. Green lentils are used in this Sophie Dal while red lentils are the star of this Masoor Dal. Visit South India via your kitchen with these 3 amazing dishes: South Indian Lentil StewIndian Sambar which has lentils and white pumpkin and this Indian Tangy Lentils with Curry Leaves and Red Chiles which uses Tuvar dal or pigeon peas.

10. Use the Pasta, the Cashews and the Coconut Milk

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…and make Cold Noodles in Cashew Sauce. Cook noodles in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain noodles, rinse under cold water until cool and transfer to a bowl. While the noodles are cooking, prepare the sauce. Take the cashews and Make Your Own Cashew Butter. Whisk together 3 Tbs. cashew butter, 3 Tbs. tamari, 2 Tbs. brown rice vinegar, 2 Tbs. agave nectar, 2 Tbs. coconut milk, 1 Tbs. spicy chili sauce, 1 Tbs. toasted sesame oil, and 1 Tbs. fresh lime juice in a bowl until smooth. Pour the cashew sauce over the noodles. Garnish with chopped cashews. Similar dishes include Cold Rice Noodles in Spicy Thai Peanut Sauce, Peanut Butter Spicy Noodles, Crispy Tofu over Thai Peanut Udon Noodles, and Kelp Noodles in Peanut Miso Sauce.

Look at all we made with just a few pantry items. It just shows that you don’t have to buy a ton of groceries to make a lot of different dishes. Just choose items that are highly versatile and exercise your imagination instead of your wallet. Check out The 10 Most Versatile Foods Everyone Should Have in Their Kitchen (And How to Use Them) and 12 Must-Have Items for Your Vegan Pantry for even more recipes and tips.

Lead Image Source: Masoor Dal