Concoct your own dishes — easily — from supplies on hand

chef.JPGView full sizeKen Gordon, owner of Kenny and Zuke’s Deli, was diagnosed with diabetes early this year. He will keep a diary of his efforts to help improve his condition with diet and exercise.

Last week I gave you a couple of tasty, sure-fire recipes that required pretty minimal cooking and even more minimal cooking skills. But for me, preparing food is often less about recipes and planning than about assembling tasty dishes from what I have on hand — also known as a well-stocked larder.

You’d be surprised what you can throw together with a little forethought. And without having to resort to store-bought prepared foods, which are often full of hidden sugars, fats and chemicals, and not as good as what you can do on your own.

Here’s a list of some of the things I like to keep around:

Frozen, peeled and deveined prawns — the 16-20 per pound size

Mama Lil’s Sweet Hot Peppas

Corn tortillas


Dried chorizo


Canned clams

Whole-grain pastas such as corn, whole wheat, spelt


Boneless, skinless chicken thighs, wrapped in pairs and frozen

Mexican queso fresca

A head of cabbage

Frozen peas

Frozen whole-grain bread

Cans of sardines and albacore tuna

Good-quality tomato sauce



Lean ground beef, frozen in half-pound packages

Brown rice

Pecorino or Parmesan cheese

Chicken broth


Buckwheat soba noodles

Lots of really cool condiments such as sriracha, hoisin sauce, tamari, banana ketchup, mustards, vinegars, etc. — you can’t have too many!

All of the things on the above list are commonly available at most markets, and all of them have pretty good shelf lives. I used to shop a lot more for specific meals in mind, but lately I tend to try to stock up the house, then add proteins and vegetables that — when combined with what I have on hand — can result in easily prepared, tasty and nutritious meals.

For example, I love tacos, of just about any sort. They’re fast and relatively cheap to make, and mostly pretty healthy. From the list above you have all the fixings for scrambled egg and chorizo tacos; just add some salsa and Mexican cheese. Or grill or sauté those prawns and place them on tortillas with avocado, shredded cabbage, salsa, onion, and voilà — killer shrimp tacos.

Pastas are easy and filling, and there are some pretty good whole-grain ones these days that fit my diet of less dependence on refined carbohydrates. I’ve also changed the ratio of pasta to pasta “stuff.” With the list above you can create a spaghetti with meat sauce using the onions, garlic, ground beef, tomato sauce and pecorino. Or spaghetti with clams — just sauté garlic in a bit of olive oil, add the can of clams, tomato sauce and a few chile flakes, and toss with the pasta.

Or sauté some of those prawns — cut into quarters — with olive oil and garlic, a little diced chorizo, a few frozen peas, a bit of white wine, and toss with penne.

And don’t get me started on stir-fries. These are so quick and easy, and they’ll give you a chance to use that fancy wok you bought when they were all the rage. You’ll need to pick up a few vegetables for these, but once in hand they can be stir-fried in a jiffy with cut-up chicken thighs or prawns, a bit of ginger and garlic and some of those nifty condiments to make one-dish meals that are fast and guilt-free.

I also tend to be partial to sandwiches, and am always looking for new and healthy ones to add to my repertoire. Sardines are underrated by most as a go-to sandwich filling, but with kimchi, a little mayo and some sliced cucumbers on whole-wheat toast they’re pretty terrific. And a good-quality canned tuna with Mama Lil’s Peppers, Dijon mustard, a little olive oil and some avocado on a whole-wheat bun will make you wonder what you ever saw in a Philly cheese steak. Well … maybe.

Of course, this is my pantry we’re talking about; you’ll want to develop your own. Walking through the market takes on new meaning as you eschew the prepared foods sections and browse through all the nifty ingredients you can use to create your own concoctions. Feel free to play a bit. Take a chance on something you’ve never tried before. I think you’ll find that rather than being burdensome, preparing your own food can be exciting and liberating.

Ken Gordon