when the cupboard is bare – how to make dinner out of (almost) nothing

pasta with rosemary & garlic

An all too familiar story…

Long, challenging day at the office. Too tired to even think about stopping on to pick something up for dinner. Decide to risk it and head straight home to an empty pantry.

It can be enough to drive you to the dial-a-meal option.

Next time you find yourself in this position, I challenge you to put down the phone. Step away from the pizza menus. Open your fridge and your pantry. Take a deep breath and keep the following tips in mind.

how to make dinner out of (almost) nothing
i. expect a positive outcome
Like so many things in life, the first step to success is believing that you can. This is just as relevant to the kitchen – particularly when the shelves are less laden than usual.

If you expect to find something to eat, I guarantee you’ll be a lot more likely to succeed than if you are convinced you’ll draw a blank.

ii. get into the habit of topping up pantry staples
At the very least, I always have some good extra virgin olive oil, parmesan cheese, eggs, canned chickpeas and pasta on hand. I feel a little out of kilter if I run out of lemons.

Knowing that you’re always going to have a few things in the house is like a little insurance policy for last minute dinners.

iii. raid the freezer
Another insurance policy it to keep a well stocked freezer. If you’re making a meat sauce for pasta or a lovely soup – it pays to double the recipe and freeze half for a time-poor day.

iv. look thoroughly with both eyes
Rather than just assuming you know what you have. Take the time to have a good look through the fridge and your pantry. Pay particular attention to hidden corners.

v. grow your own herbs
Jamie Oliver has been banging on about this for years and I couldn’t agree more. These days I’m down to just rosemary, sage and some chives but I can’t tell you how handy they are for adding at least a touch of greenery to otherwise pantry meals.

If you really don’t want to try out your green thumb – keep a look out for a local neighbourhood stash. There’s usually someone with a healthy bush of rosemary.

vi. get creative
When expectations are low, it’s the perfect time to try something a bit ‘out there’. I’ve come up with all sorts of new ideas when experimenting with whatever happened to be on hand.

vii. keep some bread in the freezer
A stash of your favourite sourdough means that ‘things’ on toast are always a potential. Particularly when you adopt my cheese stocking strategy (see point ii)

viii. mix and match to use up your half empty packets
I used to have a phobia about mixing up different pasta shapes. But when you’re hungry enough you’ll appreciate it no matter how funny it looks. I like the challenge of looking at the pasta packs to gague when to add each different shape.

I’ve even mixed different types of lentils and rice with some success.

ix. think simple
It always comes back to simplicity.

It’s important to remember that a one bowl meal can be very satisfying on it’s own. Sometimes it is better to work with what you have rather than trekking to the greengrocer for some salad leaves.

pasta with rosemary & garlic

bare cupboard pasta
(spaghetti with rosemary & garlic)

serves 2

This may sound really boring but at the moment it’s my latest favourite meal. Rosemary and garlic work so well together and turn the oil into a surprisingly complex aromatic sauce for pasta.

Normally I love to smother my pasta in grated parmesan cheese but I’ve tried this both with and without and actually preferred the cleaner fresher flavours in the cheese free version. Feel free to cheese up if that’s your thing.

If you aren’t lucky enough to grow rosemary or have a neighbour who does, feel free to leave it out or substitute in any other herbs you happen to have access to. If all else fails, a little dried chilli will make a different but delicious alternative.

200g (1/2lb) pasta
3T extra virgin olive oil
1 large sprig rosemary, leaves picked
1-2 cloves garlic, peeled & finely sliced

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Cook pasta according to the packet directions.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a small saucepan over medium. Add rosemary & garlic and fry until garlic is golden and the rosemary has gone crispy. Remove from the heat.

When the pasta is cooked, scoop up a mug full of cooking water then drain the pasta well. Return drained pasta to the hot saucepan and add the flavoured oil. Toss, taste and season well. Serve hot.

the empty pantry


After a surprisingly overwhelming response, my el Bulli competition is closed.
A big THANKYOU to all those who took the time to enter.
Get all the details about the winner and follow my journey to Spain over at my tumblr page:

New to stonesoup | minimalist home cooking?
Keep up to date and have each issue delivered to your inbox.
Sign up here for email and here for rss.

Print Friendly

Previous post:

Next post: