5 Delicious Dinners from Pantry Staples

Sometimes the seasons (I’m looking at you, icy driveway) or just the busy pace of our lives stand in the way of routine grocery runs. For those hungry moments, it’s a good idea to keep a few long-lasting, shelf-stable items on hand to whip up a yummy meal on the fly.

Chef Mario Batali, food personality and co-owner of dozens of restaurants and artisanal shops (including Chicago’s Eataly), recommends a few items he likes to keep on hand for just such an occasion:

  • dried Italian pasta
  • good sea salt, both fine and coarse varieties
  • good-quality extra virgin olive oil
  • red wine vinegar
  • anchovy fillets in oil or salt
  • homemade breadcrumbs (Batali keeps his in the freezer in a sealed baggie.)
  • capers or caper berries
  • pancetta in the fridge
  • a small piece of Parmigiano Reggiano (Batali says he likes to “grate or eat the parmesan with a slice or two of pear or apple” and suggests buying smaller pieces more often as they tend to dry out in the home fridge.)

Batali notes that “with these, all you might need is a head of cauliflower or a couple of chicken thighs and you can make something quick, nutritious and delicious.”

Here are five easy dinners you can make using pantry staples. These recipes will take you from pantry to fancy in no time at all, which means they’re suitable for feeding the kids on a weeknight or an impromptu dinner party on Saturday.

Pasta with Parmesan and Toasted Breadcrumbs

Serves 4-6

This recipe is a kid-pleaser with its long pasta, crunchy breadcrumbs and the joy of grating fresh parmesan on top.

  • 1 pound dried linguine or spaghetti
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1/4 cup dried breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, grated
  • 3 medium garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup dry vermouth
  • ground black pepper to taste


1. Cook pasta according to package directions, reserving 1/2 cup pasta cooking water before draining.

2. Heat butter in small skillet until foaming. Add breadcrumbs and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer crumbs to small bowl and mix in parmesan cheese and 1/2 teaspoon garlic. Set aside.

3. Heat olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes in cleaned skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add vermouth, reserved pasta cooking water, salt and pepper to taste. Cook one minute longer to warm and blend flavors.

4. Toss pasta and sauce in serving bowl. Sprinkle with breadcrumbs and additional parmesan as desired.

Variations: Add 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes for a kick. Add tablespoon of toasted pine nuts to breadcrumb mix for nutty flavor.


Curried Lentils and Potatoes

Serves 4

This hearty dish is great as a main dish or served alongside a spicy turkey sausage.

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons curry powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 large russet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
  • 2 small carrots, sliced
  • 2 cups dried lentils, rinsed and sorted
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 4-6 cups chicken broth


1. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is soft, but not brown, about 4 minutes. Add the curry powder and cumin and cook for 1 minute.

2. Add the sweet potato, potato, carrots, lentils, salt, pepper and 3 cups of the chicken broth. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, cover and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 25 minutes. Add more broth as necessary during cooking.

3. Serve with basmati rice and a sprinkle of raisins.

Pantry_Pamela Rothbard_BL 03.01.15_pic 3 lentils

Risotto Milanese (saffron risotto)

Serves 6

This is a great “starter recipe” if making risotto feels intimidating—it’s simple and has only a few ingredients.

  • 3/4 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cups Arborio rice
  • 3/4 cup dry white wine
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 3/4 cup parmesan
  • salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


1. In a large saucepan, cook the onion in 2 tablespoons of butter over medium heat until it’s translucent and fragrant, about 5 minutes.

2. Stir in the rice and cook it over medium heat for about 3 minutes. Add the wine, 2 cups of broth and the saffron threads. Turn the heat to high until the broth comes to a simmer and then adjust the heat to maintain a steady simmer.

3. Cook, stirring every minute or two, until most of the liquid has been absorbed. Add another cup of broth and keep cooking and stirring and adding broth until the rice is al dente (not mushy but also not raw or grainy in the center).

4. When the rice is done, stir in the cheese. Add a little more broth until you achieve your desired consistency.

5. Remove from heat and stir in the remaining butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Enjoy.

Pantry_Pamela Rothbard_BL 03.01.15_pic 4 risotto

Three-Bean Chili

Serves 4

On the table in about 30 minutes, this is a quick, easy dish.

  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 cup onion, chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 (15 1/2-ounce) can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 (15 1/2-ounce) can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 (15 1/2-ounce) can black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 (14 1/2-ounce) can chicken broth
  • 1 (14 1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes, undrained
  • 1 tablespoon yellow cornmeal
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro


1. Warm olive oil in saucepan over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and cook until soft, about 5-7 minutes.

2. Add chili powder and cumin to pan and cook for 2-3 more minutes. Add tomato paste, salt, pepper, all three cans of beans, chicken broth and diced tomatoes. Cook for 15-20 minutes to warm through and blend flavors.

3. Add cornmeal and cilantro to pan and stir to combine. Heat a 2-3 more minutes. Top with fresh cilantro and sour cream, if desired, for serving.

Pantry_Pamela Rothbard_BL 03.01.15_pic 5 chili

Roasted Acorn Squash with Rice Stuffing

Serves 6

This vegetarian dish is savory, sweet and salty.

  • 3 medium acorn squash, halved lengthwise and seeds removed
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tablespoon packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
  • 2 medium shallots, chopped
  • 4 celery stalks, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, minced
  • 2 cups basmati rice, cooked
  • 2/3 cup pecans, chopped and toasted
  • 1/4 cup dried cranberries, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


1. Heat oven to 450 degrees and arrange a rack in the middle.

2. Place the squash cut-side up on a baking sheet. Brush 1 tablespoon of melted butter over the tops and insides of the squash halves, sprinkle with the brown sugar, and season with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven until just fork tender, about 25-30 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, place 1 tablespoon of melted butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. When it foams, add the onion, shallots and celery, season with salt and pepper, and stir to coat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until just softened, about 6 minutes. Stir in the thyme and cook until just fragrant, about 1 minute.

4. Remove from the heat and stir in the rice, pecans, cranberries, and salt and pepper.

5. Divide the rice filling among the roasted squash halves (about 1/2 cup for each) and drizzle the remaining tablespoon of butter over top. Continue roasting until the squash is completely fork tender, the edges have started to brown, and the filling is heated through, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Photos by Pamela Rothbard

Squash recipe adapted from Chow.com

Stock Your Pantry at These Local Gourmet and Specialty Food Shops

414 Linden Ave., Wilmette

Convito Cafe and Market

1515 Sheridan Road, Wilmette

43 E. Ohio St., Chicago

2106 Central St., Evanston
338 Park Avenue, Glencoe
1456 Waukegan Road, Glenview
225 E. Westminster Ave., Lake Forest

Harrison’s Poultry Farm
1201 Waukegan Road, Glenview

Old Town Oil
1520 N. Wells St., Chicago

Pastoral Artisan Cheese Bread and Wine
2947 Broadway, Chicago
2945 N. Broadway, Chicago
53 E. Lake, Chicago
131 N. Clinton St., Chicago

Poeta’s Italian Food Market
520 Green Bay Road, Highwood

Reagan Meats
1855 Waukegan Road, Glenview

The Spice House
1941 Central St., Evanston
1512 North Wells St., Chicago

Zier’s Prime Meat & Poultry
813 Ridge Road, Wilmette

What’s your favorite gourmet or specialty food shop? Tell us in the comments!