Ode to My Pantry: Cook Your Cupboard

Learning to feed yourself can be one of the most terrifying things. Am I about to give myself food poisoning? If I eat this too often will I end up with scurvy? How can I get the most nutritional bang for my buck? Why does this still taste like ass?

With Ode to My Pantry, learn to navigate a grocery store without having a meltdown in aisle three. Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a queer to cook and stave off malnutrition for another semester.


My one friend’s favourite style of cooking is Mustgovian. Screw low-cal, vegan, high fibre or Eastern Inspired Fusion with a Westcoast flair! Her food outlook is simply this: this ingredient’ll either feed me today or the earthworms tomorrow. Just put it in the fucking pan and get cooking. If your daikon’s still sitting in your crisper drawer instead of your belly after three weeks, there’ a good chance you just wasted a few bucks. But if you just blindly throw ingredients into the mix and pray for a settled stomach, sometimes it works.  (Desperation and a dwindling bank account are almost as important as salt sometimes.)

But when it comes to your pantry, you’re meeting a different kind of monster. You probably have inherited bottle of something when your roommate moved out or received an edible souvenir from a faraway land or stumbled upon the discount section of your grocer and were too blown away by offers of 78% Off! Today Only! to flag down a stockperson for some guidance. Given that most dry goods have a seemingly infinite shelf life, you’re bound to push a few jars and boxes to the back of the pantry until you feel “inspired.” Add a few samples of low-glycemic index flours and some grains that you thought would cook like rice to that shelf and you’ve met ProcrastiCooking’s evil half-removed step cousin. Soon you’ll be packing your pantry into boxes for the umpteenth time and realize you’ve been carting around the Milk Crate of Mystery for half a decade.

My favourite moving box.

My favourite box to move.

If you’re reaching the back of your pantry and all you can find is a stale pack of ramen, half a jar of peanut butter and an unidentifiable spice that tastes like purple, salt and regret you might be able to come up with a plan, but a lot of times you can’t. You probably can think of one way to eat an ingredient (ie. off of a spoon), but can you turn all of the ingredients into a serviceable meal? Like something you would eat in front of people?

My normal course of kitchen action starts with a brief chant of “fuck fuck fuck” before I crack open my texts and recipe books. Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus is a wealth of information, sorting your flavour arsenal into 16 categories. From there she cross-references representative examples, showing how they pair chemically, botanically or historically. Although I’ve learned I can hide Kalamata chunks in my next bar of white chocolate, what do you do if your weird ingredients don’t show on her pages? The same dilemma shows up with the Epicurious App, How to Cook EverythingRecipe Key and the Food Network homepage. All of them are great at helping you find a known recipe or letting you rely on a professional wisdoms, but what if they’ve made the problem worse?

What if you don’t have the other suggested ingredients for that dish? Or what if they aren’t able to tell what that purplish herb is? What if you already mastered miso, but want to figure out its potential beyond soup? Or what if you get frustrated because although the recipes are all well and good, they still aren’t suggesting a solution to your problem? Fuckit. It it so hard for the foodie world to revolve around you for a nano-second?  (Ahem. The cause of many of my PMS-induced kitchen meltdowns.)

Enter NPR’s Morning Edition as your personal pantry partner that holds your hand and pats your head as you dive into your cupboards shadows. Cook Your Cupboard invites listeners, eaters, readers and overall confused people to shuffle to their pantry and attempt to identify what lies within. Working off of themed rounds, stumped chefs take pictures of their conundrum du jour and wait for other readers’ insight. Ingredients you still haven’t touched? Seasonings that have yet to be sniffed? A seasoned rice mix? A tube of harissa? Four blocks of Glico Curry? Navy beans? A slowly clotting jar of black bean paste? Someone knows the answer.

The Best Pantry Helper Possible via Hugo Burnard

The Best Pantry Helper Possible via Hugo Burnard

And as a special bonus, sometimes Nigella Lawson has something to say! Morning Edition pairs with their cooking comrades to get some seasoned advice on their readers’ riddles. Lawson served as an expert for round one, and after looking at Marcy Misner’s “eclectic” cupboard crafted six generalized recipes to make use of her red beans, almond milk and apple cider vinegar.


But this project is so much more than off the cuff recipes by Food Network personalities with mind-blowing figures lips eyes talent. It’s also a way to connect with the everyday chef that’s too disorganized to run their own food blog! Epicurious tends to only find Gourmet published recipes, but this project lets your family-taught skills hold as much weight as the Food Network. Plus it’ll give a way to teach others non-traditional uses for otherwise foreign ingredients. Do you use dark soy sauce to imitate browning in all of your beef dishes (even the non-Chinese ones)? Do you want to let someone know that Vegemite is a great bouillion stand in? Or that you can brew a tea out of fenugreek? Or that the secret to your mother’s ribs is a dash of whiskey and a bit of sugar? Join the conversation and we’ll all work together to tackle our pantry demons. You can’t hold off on your miso butter secret forever!

Do you have a spring cleaning plan for your pantry shelves? Or a favourite way of attacking your pantry unknown? Lemme know and if you have any fucking clue what do to with the rye flakes I picked up instead of rolled oats, I’m all ears.

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Hailing from Vancouver, Kristen's still trying to figure out how to survive Montreal's Real Legitimate Canadian Winter. So far she's discovered that warm socks, giant toques and Tabby kittens all play a role in her survival. Her ultimate goal is to rank higher than KStew in the "Kristen + Autostraddle" Google Search competition.

Kristen has written 139 articles for us.


  1. “tastes like purple, salt and regret” :) Love it! I’ve been there.

    I love the idea of this project. So what can I do with a can of sauerkraut (can’t recall WHY I bought it), sherry rum peppers sauce (a gift from my sister in law) and a surfeit of chia seeds (don’t ask)?

      • Thanks! I’ll try that! I usually combine them with pumpkin seeds, dried goji berries and agave syrup and form into balls to eat after I run. Unfortunately my wife and I unknowingly both bought big bags of them and now they’re overflowing the cupboard!

        • I have a deep-seated hatred of bananas, so my girlfriend will use chia seeds to thicken our fruit smoothies. Part of me is also tempted to bring back the chia head trend.

          Why not combine the sauerkraut and hot sauce? It could be your own take on kimchi and curtido? The salvadorean restaurant in my neighbourhood has taught me that you can never have enough pickled cabbage on your sandwiches.

          • Chia seeds in smoothies are much, much better than bananas! Due to HRT I have to watch my potassium intake and avoid bananas (but not homegrown tomatoes because otherwise life is not worth living!) I like the kraut and hot sauce idea! I have a deep-seated love of all things kimchi.

            I had an artist friend who once made Chia Elvis heads. I wish I she had made me one.

  2. Love it!

    Now that I’m living in Japan, the ingredients I commonly have aren’t ones that generally show up in English-language recipes (hey there wakame and aforementioned curry), and I can’t get my hands on most American staples. This pretty much renders my Betty Crocker app useless.

    So this comes at the perfect time.

  3. it isn’t hard to cook for yourself or for others…everyone I know has their specialties depending what their background is….I just get fresh ( if possible) organic ingredients and think what would go with it all….have garlic all the time on hand and hot sauces…..many say what is in the meals???. I say everything but the kitchen sink….when things are in season..that is the time to buy things and make batches of food to pull out in the winter…..kind of fun to figure out what is in each meal….everyone does the guessing game! And…always have a decent wine or beer to go with it….heheheheheh

    • That’s the best approach to any kitchen conundrum! (And really, garlic solves everything)Do you have a plan of attack when you see something you’ve never encountered before? I love to learn people’s though processes.

    • i love vegemite and marmite and kids used to tease me when i ate it in middle school and i was just like WHATEVER YOUR LIFE IS SO MUCH WORSE THAN MINE BECAUSE YOUR BAGEL DOESN’T HAVE GOD’S GIFT TO HUMANKIND ON IT, MMMKAY?!


        • okay also, speaking of yeast, this is a fun story:

          every year whenever passover rolls around, jewish people are supposed to give up bread & anything that has yeast in it / rises and eat matzah instead. matzah is basically bread without yeast, aka it’s a giant cracker and it’s okay for a few days but by the eighth day of passover you never wanna see it again. but the whole point is, no yeast! wheeee.

          so as a child who loved marmite, i put it on everything. including my matzah, duh. it was the only way to make matzah appealing to me (clearly i hadn’t seen riese’s mom’s amazing chocolate matzah recipe yet) so i would slather pieces with butter and marmite and go to town being a good jew. well. until i realized, at age 16, that by putting marmite on my matzah i was literally PUTTING YEAST EXTRACT onto my BREAD WITHOUT YEAST. sigh. only i would fucking add yeast to a yeastless product on a holiday that is centered around not eating yeast.

          so that was the end of my butter and marmite matzah on passover but secretly i still eat it sometimes at other points of the year because holy hell it is so good.

          also that story is significantly better (and shorter) when i tell it verbally. but now that i’ve typed it all out i’m certainly not going to delete it SO THERE YA GO ENJOY ALL THESE YEASTY FEELINGS.

        • Oh yes salt… the only thing that trumps vegemite is danish salted licorice coins… heaven!

      • Mmmm marmite! I like to put marmite and butter on pasta with some parmesan. I got the idea, coincidentally, from Nigella!

  4. Kristen – I use rye flakes to make a cold oat melange introduced to me my ex- girlfriend called “Oaties.” You basically mix together ANY flakes that are grain-esq, ie rye, oats, spelt, triticale, quinoa, etc. and put them in a container with any flavours you like, ie coconut, nuts, seeds, cinnamon, dates/fruit/cranberries, etc. then you put in any type of liquid you would like (milk, soy, almond milk, rice milk, yogurt, etc) and let sit over night. Delish in morning, bio-available and soft, not crunchy! You can add fruit in morning too. You could do it with just rue flakes. Enjoy!!

    • !!

      I will try it this week! I like the idea of “thing I can make when I’m lucid and eat when I’m not.” Do you toast your flakes at all or just eat ’em raw?

      • Oh hells yes, having food ready to go when you are not lucid is the BEST. Like me this morning with my Oaties and leftover ginger snow pea chicken dish (recipe from autostraddle thankyousomuch) for lunch when I got called into work at 610 am for example…

        I have never thought to toast the flakes… But you may have just changed my life. Good call.

  5. Zeller! Now I know who this Nigella Lawson is that you speak of ;)

    I was just planning on a pantry diet for this month. Where at least 2/3rds of ingredients for a recipe come from my cupboard. It helps you blow through some of the weird pantry stragglers.

  6. I need to figure out what to do with the 5 boxes of powdered hot cocoa my mom gave me over Christmas. Like wtf, mom, I never drank hot cocoa when I lived with you.

    • If you dislike it hot, blend it with dairy, ice and a bit of ice cream for your own frozen hot chocolate? Because I am like 98% sure that Serendipity 3’s is just that. Or randomly sprinkle it on cakes, coffee and cocktails. Or turn it into pudding. Or give it to a neighbour… (that’s how I ended up with mine).

  7. Sometimes I like to reframe the whole concept of cooking with random cupboard ingredients as my own personal Chopped competition . . . and it becomes kinda fun then :)

    And, come to think of it, I have gotten ideas from Chopped episodes more than once.

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