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:

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  • I agree – nothing better than pasta, some olive oil, parmesan, and anything else in the cupboard – fresh chilli is one of my faves.. When you’re on a budget, it’s amazing what you can find in a pantry, especially when you have flatmates!

    Glad you found your partner for El Bulli Jules – he sounds very interesting and I can’t wait to read all about your trip and your meal!! I hope you take some photos..

    Have fun!


  • Just logged on having put a tin of tomatoes, 3 garlic cloves, a pinch of salt and sugar onto the stove for a half hour gentle cook, then a stir, then a further 15 minutes before pouring over my pasta. Believe it or not, the first recipe I have cooked from the Silver Spoon which I received when it first came out (in English, that is).

    And Jules, keep the date blind…have you been to Montreal in the winter ;-)

  • Another option would be butter and parmisan, without adding anything else, I find it the best way to bring out the pasta flavor.

  • I seem to always have a packet of frozen peas in my freezer. My pantry always has lentils and rice. On bare-cupboard days I make myself a Dal (with onions if any, garlic, turmeric powder, chilli powder and salt), a simple side of peas and rice. Sometimes, I skip the side as I can live on just Dal and rice.

  • Jules, Congragulations on finding a date for your grand meal at El Bulli. Techno-emotional, I think is how Adria describes it. Look forward to hearing all about it.

  • Very nice, your date in Roses in El Bulli, seems to be an interesting person. I really hope you find time to visit Cadaqués. Beautiful if you come over de mountain from Roses. Like El Bulli, Cadaqués is a place you have to go to once in your life. I still go there if I have the chance. It’s the place where Salvador Dali spend years of his live, living close to the sea and where a lot of his landscapes are coming from.

  • Congratulations. I think that could be an interesting evening.
    Enjoy your experience and remember my mail. Feel free to keep in touch.

  • thanks for the link wendy
    great minds think alike

    thanks alison
    can’t wait to get to spain

    that’s another of my favourites – pasta with red sauce
    haven’t been to montreal in the winter so will keep your advice under consideration

    butter & parmesan sound like my kind of meal – thanks

    I could live on dahl and rice as well. yum

    thanks janet.
    I love the idea of techno-emotional – really speaks to me as a scientist who sees herself as being creative

    definitely planning a visit to cadaques – thanks for the tip

    thanks ramon. will do

  • Couldn’t agree more that it is a good idea to always have some essentials in stock – pasta, virgin olive oil, canned tomatoes, garlic, some spices,… you can always prepare a yummy quick & simple meal out of this.

    Just the fresh herb part doesn’t work for me – as much as I like them, I seem to have not talent whatsoever for growing plants… I just have to rely on dried herbs in last-minute situations… :-)

  • DUDE (ok i’m in the US now but it’s still anoying). This is a step away from my own signature dish – for which i have been royally mocked. Spagetti with tomato sauce – and yes I am talking Fountain not pasta. Although I must admit I have found that it is much better if you add cheese -particularly parmesan – see you may make a gourmet out of me yet. love BG

  • Good choice of blind date Jules. Hope it works out well. He will have some interesting stories to tell from his work and travels I am sure!
    Pasta with preserved lemons (a staple in my house…and yes, I also get twitchy if I run out of lemons), chilli flakes and garlic, and maybe some parsley from the garden was my stand by meal for a very long time (until I got gluten intolerant…sigh).

  • I very much appreciate the enumerated points for finding “something” when the cupboards are almost bare. I live in Minnesota, US, and I am getting progressively more disabled. I still can drive, but that won’t be for long, and I get a grocery delivery service for seniors every two weeks. I will need to practice the “stocking up” and mental attitudes that you mention. I won’t have immediate access to exactly the food items that I want at all times. You have provided a valuable, useful tool!

    And who knows, if the “peak oil” fears come true, we may all have to become flexible and creative with our diets.

  • i always have a spare packet of soba (japanese buckwheat) noodles in the cupboard. i boil them up while i make the soup (dashi (water and fish stock) mixed with soy and suger to taste). add a little wasabi and some chopped eshallots
    OISHII, DELICIOUS and it is sooo quick.

  • I’m always amazed what I can still make when we have no food. I could live for days from digging through the pantry and freezer. It is a lot easier now that we have a second freezer in the garage. I hate mixing pasta too!! They all take different times to cook.

  • Roasted Garlic on Toast
    Powdered mashed potato gnocci and parmesan cheese
    Toast with Brown sugar and margarine

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