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We challenged our favorite chefs to cook out of the pantry — ours, not theirs

We know you’ve been there. We all have: staring at the contents of the refrigerator, freezer and pantry, and thinking, “What the heck do I make with all this?” Whether your larder is bare or flush, unless you’re an expert meal planner, you have surely had moments when you’ve been positively flummoxed. That feeling is exacerbated during the coronavirus pandemic, when you’re limiting trips to the store, can’t find quick grocery delivery appointments and are trying to stretch your dollar even further than usual. Falling for a recipe and then filling any gaps needed to make it is simply out of the question.

These pantry-friendly cookbooks will inspire you during the pandemic — and beyond

Sometimes the ingredient you need most isn’t eggs, flour or yeast. It’s inspiration.

With that in mind, we decided to solicit ideas from some of the most creative cooks we know: professional chefs who can look at, say, a few bags of frozen vegetables and think, “Gazpacho!” Five of us filmed quick phone videos of our stashes (some better stocked than others), sent them to the chefs, and awaited word. What we got back were recipes that did more than provide the makings of dinner. They jolted us out of our ruts.

Washington Post food reporter Emily Heil prepares chef and author Carla Hall's recipes. (Video: TWP)

Carla Hall
Chef, author and television personality

Make the recipes: Cauliflower Gazpacho and Crispy Frozen Vegetable Tempura

When I showed chef, cookbook author and TV personality Carla Hall around my pantry and refrigerator, things weren’t looking so good. I was at a low ebb, with few fresh veggies and only sausages for protein, and a trip to the grocery store wasn’t in the cards for days (though oddly, my La Croix stash was a healthy one). So I knew she had a challenge on her hands, though somehow I didn’t feel embarrassed to show the sad array to Hall, who is every bit as friendly and approachable IRL as she seems on-screen.

She suggested a dish I never would have come up with on my own: a silky cauliflower gazpacho of frozen florets and pistachios, brightened with a swirl of spinach oil (more frozen veg, pulverized to a smooth consistency in the blender). The dish was to be topped with some chopped sausage and green olives. Best of all, it was accompanied by a tempura, which was basically a bunch of vegetables (yep, more frozen stuff) tossed with a simple batter, fried briefly, served with a zippy sauce that made use of my condiment shelf. Hall even incorporated La Croix into both components.

I had to make a few adaptations: I skipped the zucchini in the gazpacho because mine had gone bad, and omitted the green olives because when I finally pulled the jar out from the corner where it was lurking, the little orbs had turned to mush. I loved how it bridged the seasons: Gazpacho is usually a warm-weather dish, but this version had enough heft to serve on one of those in-between days. The tempura was a fantastic, crunchy counterpoint. Overall, the meal taught me I could make something that looked like I’d get at a restaurant (remember those?) while relying mostly on bags excavated from the freezer and a little of my favorite fizzy water. Cold comfort never tasted so good.

Emily Heil

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema prepares a dish based on chef Stephanie Izard's recipe. (Video: TWP)

Stephanie Izard
Girl & The Goat, Chicago

Make the recipe: Pork and Green Bean Empanadas

Until the pandemic, cooking at home was rare sport for me; the majority of my meals took place in restaurants. Stephanie Izard was the fresh pair of eyes I needed to see the rich possibilities in my larder. Good for her, discovering in the depths of my freezer packages of frozen pie dough that my mom bought when she visited — last year — then turning them into something I’m eager to make again. The chef and I share a taste for savory rather sweet dishes; instead of creating a pie from the dough, she tasked me with empanadas.

I’m in love with these hot pockets, filled with ground pork and chopped green beans and served with a cool mayonnaise dip that taps into stray condiments. The chef’s instructions leave room for improvisation. The empanadas can be sized up or down, for instance, and the heat can be adjusted to taste. Izard’s recipe makes more filling than you need for the dish, which is a bonus. Use the cup or so of leftover sauteed pork for a later meal, over steamed rice or in a lettuce cup.

The video preview I sent to the Chicago chef inspired her to make empanadas at home and from scratch. I might follow her lead next time. Ramp kimchi and cheddar cheese sound like a delicious marriage.

Tom Sietsema

Washington Post food reporter Becky Krystal prepares a dish based on Chef Vikram Sunderam's recipe. (Video: TWP)

Vikram Sunderam
Rasika, Washington

Make the recipe: Chickpea Kichidi

Almost a whole shelf in our home pantry is devoted to Indian ingredients — ground and whole spices, rice and legumes. It’s our favorite cuisine. And one of our favorite restaurants is Rasika. So it was no surprise I wanted to turn to its executive chef, Vikram Sunderam, to help me cook from my pantry.

He suggested kichidi (also known as kitchadi and kitchari), a comforting mix of rice, vegetables and legumes that is often made for people who are under the weather. But Sunderam’s version wasn’t bland. He combined my dried chickpeas and basmati rice as the base, jazzing the pairing up with crushed tomatoes and a few long-lasting vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes).

I wanted to make it as soon as I read the recipe, which Sunderam himself had tested twice. The date raita, made with Medjool dates, yogurt, cumin and salt, was an extra enticement.

The result was an absolute triumph. The rice and chickpeas were a perfect match, and the tomatoes brought vivid color and flavor. Thanks to a jalapeño in the mix, the dish boasted a little heat, a great foil for the sweet, salty and tangy raita. This didn’t feel like pantry desperation. This was a destination in itself.

Sunderam says you can mix up the ingredients according to your own pantry supplies. The legumes and rice are flexible, as are the vegetables. Keep in mind that you need to make sure your vegetables are cut small enough to cook through in a relatively short amount of time; if you’re using something on the harder side, such as beets, try cooking them separately first. You can even add chopped meat, sauteing it with the onions and garlic and allowing it to cook through with the rice. In other words, don’t be afraid to experiment.

Regardless of what you throw in, know you’ll be in for a filling and even celebratory meal. “It’s a like a one-stop-shop sort of thing,” Sunderam says. And all I had to do was shop my pantry.

Becky Krystal

Washington Post food editorial aide Kari Sonde prepares a dish based on chef Jessica Koslow's recipe. (Video: TWP)

Jessica Koslow
Sqirl, Los Angeles

Recipe: Yellow Split Pea Fritters

I’m quarantined with my parents (and sister) right now, meaning there are a lot of Indian ingredients and spices around. And that means a lot of dal.

I am not dal’s biggest fan. Kichidi is among my least favorite dishes, a scar from being sick all the time as a little kid, trapped at home while others were having fun, or at least doing something while I was feverish and relatively immobile. Dal, especially yellow dals like toor and chana, remind me of a summer-long childhood trip to India during which we ate yellow dal every single day for lunch for a month, not allowed to leave our street unless we had an adult chaperone. The last thing I feel like eating is soupy lentils, split peas or other legumes that remind me that I’m stuck at home.

Luckily, I had Jessica Koslow from the popular Los Angeles restaurant Sqirl in my corner. She saw the dal in my pantry and got excited. She suggested tackling my dal-aversion by making paruppu vadai, which she playfully called “dalafel” as they are very similar to falafel. A crunchy, fried snack-ish dish with spices my family knows and loves meant the crowd was guaranteed to enjoy it.

Koslow suggested wrapping them up in flatbread, with yogurt or tahini and crisp cucumber to complete the ensemble. It was a smash hit: The pile of crunchy golden dalafel was demolished in minutes, and for once, I’m actually excited to eat dal.

Kari Sonde

Washington Post food reporter and editor Ann Maloney prepares a dish based on chef Jordan Ruiz's recipe. (Video: TWP)

Jordan Ruiz
The Munch Factory, New Orleans

Make the recipe: Uncle Jo’s Spicy Sausage and Shrimp Pasta

When I asked chef Jordan Ruiz to help me cook something scrumptious from what I had in my admittedly well-stocked pantry, I knew I’d end up talking and texting more with his wife than with him. He lets Alexis — or his food — do the talking. But that was fine because I also knew he’d deliver a winner.

The recipe for Uncle Jo’s Pasta is all him. The name of the dish, which features a spicy cream sauce over pasta, shrimp, smoked sausage and fried chicken, is all Alexis. “He’s an uncle who makes great pasta,” she said.

At their New Orleans restaurant, Ruiz makes the dish with spaghetti, jazzing it up with crawfish tails in season. He brushes corn on the cob with oil and dusts it with Creole seasoning before roasting it at a high heat and then scraping off the kernels. He drops chunks of deep-fried chicken breast into each dish to add a crunch that complements the soft pasta.

With a tongue-tingling dose of spicy Creole seasoning, cumin and crushed red pepper flakes, this is not for the timid. It’s the kind of piquant recipe that attracts regulars as well as celebrities such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z to the couple’s three restaurants. (Only the Gentilly business is operating now because of the coronavirus.)

But Ruiz, who is cooking for area health-care workers and doing takeout, was quick to point out that it could be altered to suit anyone’s freezer or pantry. “Everybody loves pasta,” Ruiz said, adding that home cooks could easily sub in different proteins or cut the red pepper flakes and cumin to tone down the spice.

To make it a bit easier for home cooks, we used frozen whole kernel corn, and instead of frying the chicken, we baked it until crispy. And, in fact, when we made the dish again, we were out of chicken, and it was still delicious.

Ann Maloney

More from Voraciously:

How to safely reheat all those leftovers without ruining them

Here’s quarantine cooking advice from the original experts on thrifty meals: Home ec teachers

One no-knead dough will give you focaccia, pizza and cinnamon rolls for days