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Five Adaptable Recipes, All From Your Pantry

I’ve cooked my way through some pretty rough times. I baked countless batches of brownies for my local firefighters after 9/11, and waited out Hurricane Sandy next to a simmering pot of pork ragù. When my father died a couple of years ago, there were some days I could barely get dressed. But the ritual of making breakfast for my daughter and husband — buttered toast and jammy eggs, extra-crisp bacon and bowls of creamy, steel-cut oats — lured me into the kitchen and soothed me when I got there.

Cooking something good to eat is a comfort that I always feel grateful for, but especially now. And I can see, from social media and the emails I’m getting, that I’m not alone.

Whether seasoned chefs or complete novices, many people are cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner, day after day, perhaps for the first time in their lives. We’ve all stocked our pantries as best we could, and are now trying to figure out what to do with all those beans and cans of tuna.

This month, as the coronavirus expanded its reach, I began contributing pantry-focused recipes to The Times’s live blog. Each dish — some of which are riffs on old favorites — is highly adaptable, and all keep perishables in mind. Yes, some may mention optional fresh ingredients for color and verve, but use them only if you have them on hand. The idea isn’t to send you to the store for a bunch of cilantro, but to empower you to substitute those celery leaves you already have, or to skip the greenery entirely.

The five here are recipes you can build on, taking them apart and putting them back together again to use available ingredients, and to suit yourself and whomever else you might be sheltering with.

The first solves the “what to do with all those beans” conundrum. A big vat can be a hearty meal unto itself, the starting point of so many others, or both. Eat some right after cooking drizzled with good olive and sprinkled with flaky sea salt, and save the rest — yes, they freeze well — for turning into chili or soup.

There’s breakfast, too: baked steel-cut oats made creamy and rich with almond butter. Baked oats aren’t faster than the simmered kind. But they are more convenient, since you don’t have to worry about stirring them. And the pot won’t boil over if you get distracted.

All that tuna can find a home on top of any kind of pasta. I like to spike mine with anchovies, which melt into the garlicky sauce leaving an umami trail. But they’re not at all necessary. Herbs add freshness here, but any chopped greens (spinach or kale, arugula or those scallion greens you’re cultivating) work just as well.

There’s soup, too, a creamy purée made from root vegetables. I’ve made the same recipe using a mix from my farm share (a never-ending parade of rutabaga and celery roots and turnips). And I’ve made it from just onions, potatoes and carrots. It’s always tasty, and even better if you use stock rather than water as the cooking liquid. Don’t forget to garnish it with really good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon or vinegar for brightness.

Finally, there’s crumb cake. Because now more than ever, we need to bake something sweet, buttery and cinnamon-scented to gladden our souls — and maybe tempt our children away from their screens long enough to help squish up the topping.

Like all of these recipes, I’ll probably still be making it when life returns to normal. And then, I’ll have the formerly taken-for-granted privilege of being able to eat some at the same table as my friends and neighbors, too.

Chances are good you have some dried beans on hand, and that is a great thing. Especially since this basic recipe works for so many kinds, from red beans to white cannellini to black turtle beans. Choose whichever you like, but bear in mind: Sometimes, the best bean is the one already in your pantry. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)

For a simple, filling breakfast, baked steel-cut oatmeal, enriched with almond butter and cinnamon, is a go-to recipe. This version is particularly adaptable: Use peanut butter or almond butter, steel-cut or cracked oats, or any number of warming spices that might be in your cupboard. Then, garnish as you wish. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)

There are about a gazillion ways to cook pasta using other pantry staples — things like garlic, bread crumbs, pecorino, capers, olives and especially, canned fish. This recipe, pasta with tuna, anchovies and capers, showered with lots of green herbs and scallions, is one of my family’s favorites. I like it with a long, thin, twirlable pasta — spaghetti, linguine or bucatini — but you can use whatever pasta you have on hand. Even macaroni works just fine and might even persuade your finicky kid to eat this dish (though, so far, mine abstains). (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)

When it comes to stocking the pantry with root vegetables, most people stop with potatoes (regular and sweet), carrots, onions and garlic. And those are excellent to have on hand. But there are loads of other, more neglected roots, like rutabagas, turnips, radishes and celery root, worth having on hand. All root vegetables will keep for months in a cool, dark place, and they come in very handy, whether you want to roast up a bunch with olive oil and spices, or you want to make them into soup. This soup may not be the most beautiful of dishes, but it’s hearty and nourishing, and highly adaptable, easily made with just about any root vegetables you have on hand. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)

More of a snack or breakfast than a showy dessert, a homey crumb cake doesn’t need the oohs-and-aahs of any guests. It’s the kind of thing a small family can devour in a few days, and a single person can freeze in slices, at the ready whenever the urge for brown sugar and butter hits. (Just wrap each slice up separately and store them in a container in the freezer; a slice will thaw in under an hour on the counter.) This cake is also extremely adaptable: Use whatever spices you like. If you don’t have oats, use more flour or chopped nuts. And feel free to use whatever fruit, fresh, frozen and thawed, or canned, you have on hand. (View this recipe in NYT Cooking.)

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