How to Turn Your Pantry Into Dinner Like a Pro

Ali Slagle explains how to hack pickled peppers, mustard, and other pantry staples to create a memorable meal.

Pantry well-stocked

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Opening the pantry can trigger a sort of guilty anxiety. When did I buy those two other jars of paprika? (And how old are they?) Why do I have four half-full bags of different-colored lentils? What do I do with the rest of this fancy spice paste that I bought for that dinner party?

Recipe developer and cookbook author Ali Slagle has given the quandary of how to smartly stock a pantry plenty of thought — most recently for her best-selling debut cookbook I Dream of Dinner (So You Don’t Have To) (Clarkson Potter, 2022). Because all 150 recipes therein are composed of 10 ingredients or less, she leaned heavily on pantry ingredients — from hefty canned beans to tangy pickled peppers, tinned sardines and the prickly acid of Dijon mustard — to maximize each bite. But the sight of all those jars, cans, and pastes doesn’t stress her out. Having a mix of shelf-stable essentials on hand all the time means “you’ll have so many levers to pull to make dinner on the fly,” she writes. 

Categorizing the bounty of her pantry by flavor and texture makes it useful instead of overwhelming. In the cookbook’s handy pantry guide, titled “All the Pantry Staples,” Slagle breaks down the roughly 100 shelf-stable items she uses in the book into descriptive categories. Think Starches (grains and pasta & noodles), Fats (butter, olive oil, tahini), Umami Oomphs (chicken stock, anchovies), Heat & Smoke (black pepper, salsa, gochujang) Warm & Toasty Spices (cinnamon, coriander, fennel) Crunchy Sprinkles (furikake, coconut chips, toasted rice powder). 

Rather than give into the urge to stock up on every kind of olive, dried herb, and grain out there, she took a hard look at the specific function of each ingredient and its contribution to the broader recipe’s goal, be it saucy comfort or refreshing crunch. 

For instance, if a dish called for both tomato paste and canned tomatoes, she tested it with each, then picked the one that yielded the tastiest, most consistent result, proving that a streamlined pantry can indeed produce more delicious meals. 

“People love my recipes because there are so few ingredients, really because no two ingredients are doing the same thing,” Slagle tells me.

Her Sloppy Lennys, a vegetarian take on the comforting throwback classic, Sloppy Joes, are a lesson in how to turn shelf-stable ingredients into dinner. Containing nine ingredients pulled mostly from the pantry, Slagle’s version delivers the gentle bite of starchy red lentils in sweet, glazy sauce with developed spice and savory tang. 

The dish originated with a borrowed taste memory — of Sloppy Joes made from a seasoning packet that her boyfriend loved as a kid. Slagle wasn’t too impressed by the original, with its one-note flavor (save maybe for the crunchy Fritos topper his family always added). But she fell for the texture of soft beef crumbles suspended in glossy, thick sauce. Taking initial inspiration from Gena Hamshaw’s Lentil Sloppy Joes, Slagle opted for a base of red lentils, which give off enough starch as they cook to get that “bouncy sauciness” without a thickener. From there, she distilled the Joe into its main elements; “then I thought about how to crank up the level of each.”

She began with a chili powder blended with dried chiles, cumin and paprika, so it has “enough going on to provide a good flavor backbone.” Slagle skipped the insipid sautéed bell pepper altogether in favor of the pickled variety, which serves multiple purposes at once. In this case, pickled cherry or Peppadew peppers deliver salt and acid, plus the meatiness of the fruit itself. “Pickled peppers are an especially triumphant pickle variety because you also get heat,” she adds. (In fact, she has to stop herself from putting pickled jalapeños and/or their brine in almost every recipe.)

Two of Slagle’s most beloved pantry heroes — Dijon mustard (Briny, Pickly, Punchy Pop) and low-sodium soy sauce (Umami Oomph) — unsurprisingly made it into the Sloppy Lennys. “When I’m cooking and I’m like, it’s good but not there yet, often I will add Dijon and soy sauce,” she says, adding that a little acid and salt are typically what stand between a good and great recipe.

She leaned on a surprising (to her), though no less crucial, tomato product to bring the dish together, carry its spice and add body: ketchup. She picked up this trick from her mom, whose famous, “completely bastardized” chili (also in the book) boasts generous helpings of jarred salsa and ketchup. 

“I really probed her on the ketchup, which is something I just don’t really use,” Slagle says. “She said it’s important to the texture of the chili, giving it that bouncy, shiny element that usually comes from animal fat.” Its viscous quality adds body without a long simmer — in effect replacing tomato paste and cornstarch in the dish. 

We linger for a few moments on the final (optional and, thus, technically tenth) ingredient: Fritos. One of Slagle’s Crunchy Sprinkle go-tos, these salty corn chips lend a surprise textural element that takes the Lennys over the top. In a way, they also offer a fitting metaphor for using the pantry to inject excitement into the oft-tedious prospect of getting dinner on the table. 

“There’s something important about doing things to your food that add a little sparkle and make them exciting to eat,” she says, encouraging the rest of us to open our cabinets and experiment along with her. 

Said sparkle doesn’t have to come from fancy smoked salt or truffle oil, either. Simply take a second look at the kettle chips or soy sauce you always have on hand. Maybe you crunch a few chips over a sandwich or douse your Caesar dressing with a few drops of soy. It could be your next great inspiration, Slagle says. “Even if you’ve never done it before, just do it!”

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