Stocking the Vegetarian Pantry

What makes the difference between an adequate pantry and a great pantry-one that's easy to cook from and inspires you to make healthy, delicious meals? The key is to stock your shelves with foods that do at least one of these three things: save time, boost nutrition, and add flavor. Here are some of these must-have ingredients:

Pantry Basics

Click a specific item to read about why it is great, what to look for, and cooking tips:

Easy Beans
Powerful Grains
Colorful Rice
Crunchy Nuts
Chewy Dried Fruit
Protein-packed Tofu and Tempeh
Hearty Whole-Grain Pastas
Flavorful Oils
Zesty Vinegar
Mellow Miso
Garlic & Ginger

Easy Beans

Why They're Great: Beans are tiny bundles of energy, providing complex carbohydrates, protein, soluble fiber, calcium, B vitamins, and folate. They come in such a variety of colors and flavors and can be transformed into so many different dishes (from patties to purées, stews to salads) that you could eat beans every day and not get bored.

Look for: Canned organic beans are perfect when you're in a hurry. Black beans, chickpeas, white beans, and kidney beans are particularly versatile for last-minute meals. Frozen beans, such as lima beans and shelled edamame (green soybeans), are another nutritious option. Dried lentils don't need soaking and cook in 15 to 30 minutes, so they're suitable for weeknight dinners.

Cooking Tips: Make a zesty soup with black beans, diced tomatoes, minced raw red onion, and lime juice. Add white beans to tomato sauce for pasta, or purée them with garlic, lemon juice, salt, and pepper and spread on toasted country bread. Sauté lima beans or edamame with corn kernels, diced tomatoes, and onions for a quick succotash.

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Powerful Grains

Why They're Great: Filling, nourishing grains are the foundation of many a meal. Whole grains provide fiber, B vitamins, protein, and even a little vitamin E.

Look for: To get the most from grains, think beyond wheat and oats. Try nutrient-dense whole grains, like quinoa, amaranth, and tef. When you're pressed for time, turn to quick-cooking grains like instant polenta, bulgur, and quick-cooking barley.

Cooking Tips: If the thought of cooking with whole grains intimidates you, quinoa is a perfect grain to try. Not only does it offer excellent nutrition, with a balanced amino acid profile, but it has an appealing nutty taste and a delicately crunchy texture, it cooks quickly, and it's suited for everything from hot breakfast cereal to pilaf.
Many grains, including quinoa, benefit from this cooking method: sauté grains in a little oil for a minute or two before adding cooking water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer. When the grains are completely cooked, remove from heat, leave the lid on and let the grains steam for about 5 minutes. Fluff with a fork before serving.

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Colorful Rice

Why It's Great: Rice is a good source of iron, protein, and B vitamins. While white rice is milled and polished to remove its bran and germ, brown, red, and black rice retain these nutritious components, which gives them twice as much fiber, and a good supply of vitamin E. They also have a terrific texture and look dramatic on your plate.

Look for: Quick-cooking brown rice is a good choice when you don't want to give up convenience for nutrition. Experiment with these delicious, exotic-sounding whole-grain rice varieties-Black Japonica, Camargue Red, Bhutanese Red, Forbidden Black, Wehani.

Cooking Tips: Try whole-grain versions of your favorite white rice, like basmati, jasmine, and arborio. Use earthy, sweet red rice in pilafs and stuffings. Make great risottos, desserts, and side dishes with nutty, soft-textured black rice.
It's important to keep whole-grain rice in a cool, dark place so it won't go rancid. Buying in bulk is fine, but don't buy more than you can use in a month.

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Crunchy Nuts

Why They're Great: Nuts add texture and hearty flavor to meatless meals like salads, veggie burgers, and pilafs. They also add nutrients. Nuts contain arginine, an amino acid, that helps keep arteries clear, and magnesium and potassium, which have been associated with lowering blood pressure. Almonds top the list for calcium, fiber and vitamin E content. Walnuts are rich in ellagic acid, an antioxidant that appears to protect against cancer. Brazil nuts are high in selenium, another anti-cancer nutrient. The monounsaturated fat in nuts helps to lower levels of LDL ("bad") cholesterol while maintaining levels of HDL ("good") cholesterol in the blood.

Look for: Because nuts have a high oil content, freshness is key. Buy nuts from a market that has a high turnover. Buy whole nuts and chop them yourself; small chopped pieces are more vulnerable to oxidation (exposure to air, which can make them stale).

Cooking Tips: Blend cashews and water to make a thick purée and use it to add a creamy richness to soups. Sprinkle walnuts or pine nuts on salads instead of croutons.
Make the most of a modest amount of nuts by toasting them to intensify their flavor. Stir them in a dry skillet over medium heat or bake them at 350 degrees until they turn golden brown and fragrant. Store nuts in a cool place to help keep them fresh.

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Chewy Dried Fruit

Why It's Great: Dried fruit adds a satisfying texture to cookies, quick breads, and hot cereals, but it can also complement many main courses. Dried fruit provides vitamins, minerals, and fiber in concentrated form. And it's an excellent source of antioxidants.

Look for: Choose plump dried fruit with a uniform color and without signs of sugar crystallization. Be aware that many dried fruits are treated with sulfur dioxide to retain their color. (This is why golden raisins are golden, not brown.) This preservative aids the retention of certain vitamins, like beta carotene, but diminishes others, like thiamin, and it can trigger headaches and asthma in people sensitive to it. Check the label if you have concerns.

Cooking Tips: Dried cranberries make a nice addition to spinach or arugula salad. Currants, dried cherries, and golden raisins go well with couscous and other grain dishes. Dried plums and apricots are delicious in stews.

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Protein-Packed Tofu and Tempeh

Why They're Great: Soyfoods are valued for their protein and cancer-fighting isoflavones. Tofu and tempeh are traditional, minimally processed soyfoods that retain these benefits. Tofu's smooth texture and mild flavor make it endlessly versatile. Tempeh has a hearty flavor and chewy texture.

Look for: Products made with organic soybeans. Silken tofu is good for sauces and dressings. Firm or extra firm tofu is good for scrambles and stir-fries. Try baked, seasoned tofu in sandwiches and salads. Tempeh can be made with just soybeans or a mixture of soy and grains, which gives it a milder flavor.

Cooking Tips: Crumble tempeh into chili or slice and marinate it in barbecue sauce and heat, and then serve in a sandwich.
Try pressing tofu to make it firmer and give it a pleasantly chewy texture. Cut a block of tofu in two equally thick slices, put them in large dish, cover them with a piece of plastic wrap, and place a couple of pounds of weight on top-cast-iron skillets or a cutting board with some heavy pantry items work well. Let tofu drain for half an hour while you prepare the rest of your meal.

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Hearty Whole-Grain Pastas

Why They're Great: There's nothing easier than pasta and sauce; it's a quick meal that satisfies vegans and meat eaters alike. Whole-grain pastas bring fiber and flavor to the mix.

Look for: Spelt pasta is made from an ancient relative of wheat that's high in protein and easy on the digestive system. Buckwheat flour is the main ingredient in Japanese soba noodles. Other healthy pasta choices are those that blend durum semolina with quinoa, amaranth, or kamut.

Cooking Tips: Pair whole-grain pastas with hearty, zesty tomato, mushroom, or other vegetable sauces. Be sure not to overcook these pastas; their lower gluten content means they're apt to fall apart unless served al dente (still slightly firm).

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Flavorful Oils

Why They're Great: A drizzle of oil is a nice finishing touch for many dishes, and it's a healthy alternative to butter (or margarine) on vegetables, bread, and rice. Olive oils that have been infused with citrus, herbs, or spices quickly add layers of flavor, making a simple meal taste like you spent hours in the kitchen.

Look for: Organic extra-virgin olive oil is a worthwhile investment, because extra-virgin oil is unrefined, which means it's not stripped and cleaned like the more bland and colorless cooking oils. Protect your investment by storing it away from light and heat.

Cooking Tips: Naturally flavorful oil, like extra-virgin olive oil, walnut oil, toasted (Asian) sesame oil, and roasted peanut oil work wonders in salad dressings. Try lemon-infused oil on steamed vegetables, drizzle basil oil on beans or pizza, or brush garlic oil on bruschetta.
Note: Unless they contain ascorbic acid or another preservative, oils with herbs or other ingredients added to them should be stored in your refrigerator and used within a couple of weeks, to reduce risk from botulism-producing bacteria.

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Zesty Vinegar

Why It's Great: Vinegar is a low-sodium, low-calorie flavor builder that can enhance a wide range of vegetarian dishes.

Look for: Branch out and experiment with some of the better-quality vinegars like traditional balsamics and wine vinegars made by the Orleans method. Try rice wine, sherry, and Champagne vinegars.

Cooking Tips: Add vinegars, especially better-quality ones, at the end of cooking so their flavor isn't dissipated by high heat.
Drizzle a few drops of high-quality balsamic vinegar on vanilla ice cream or strawberries. Splash sherry vinegar into black bean soup or gazpacho. Perk up steamed vegetables with wine vinegar. Use rice vinegar in vinaigrette-its mild flavor means you can use less oil.

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Mellow Miso

Why It's Great: This fermented soybean paste is a rich source of the isoflavones genistein and daidzen, believed to have a protective effect against cancer. Unpasteurized miso contains beneficial enzymes that aid digestion. Miso has a savory quality (called umami in Japan), which is valuable for meatless cooking. It provides depth of flavor to soups, sauces, and dressings.

Look for: There are many varieties of miso, including barley, rice, soy, and chickpea, but there aren't any rules about which one to use. Just remember that, generally speaking, dark misos have been aged longer and have a more assertive, saltier taste than lighter ones. Unpasteurized miso is sold in tubs in the refrigerated section of the market.

Cooking Tips: Miso is very salty, so add a little at a time, tasting as you go. If you're using unpasteurized miso in soups or stews, add it at the end of cooking to preserve its healthful qualities.

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Garlic and Ginger

Why they're great: These herbs boost flavor and health. Garlic promotes circulation and lowers cholesterol. It also contains sulfur compounds, like allicin, that may prevent cancer cell growth. Ginger is famous for its ability to quell nausea and contains a compound called gingerol that may lower blood pressure and improve circulation.

Look for: If you have access to an Asian market, look for young ginger. The skin is translucent instead of papery beige, and the root itself is less fibrous, so it's easier to chop. When buying garlic, look for heads with firm, plump cloves and no green shoots.

Cooking Tips: Allicin develops upon exposure to air, when garlic is chopped. To maximize its effect, peel and mince garlic ahead of time and let it sit about 10 minutes before cooking with it.
Minced garlic and ginger are classic aromatic stir-fry ingredients. To preserve their health benefits and flavor, wait until your other stir-fry ingredients are nearly cooked, then clear a space in the middle of the pan and add the aromatics.
Braise or roast garlic cloves until soft to give dishes a mellow richness rather than a sharp garlic flavor. Add fresh grated ginger to gingerbread. Chopped crystallized ginger puts zip into fruit salads.

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