The hardest step towards a vegan or plant-based diet is knowing what to buy. These 17 pantry staples will make the transition easy for you.
Vegan or plant-based cooking is often connected with unusual ingredients like nutritional yeast, tempeh and tahini. These are all good products but for your basic pantry essentials, you can happily make many tasty meals with everyday things that you can get at the local supermarket. Once your pantry is stocked with these and you’ve got a repertoire of classic vegan dishes under your belt, you can then start adding the more niche products.
There are two main areas of your pantry you need to stock in order to make your life hassle-free at dinner time. The one is your cupboard with your dry goods and seasoning agents, and the other is your freezer. In some cases, once you have cooked your dry goods, you will then freeze portions of them so the two cross over but we will separate them for simplicity’s sake. Then, in a separate section are your fresh ingredients, which you restock on a weekly basis.
PANTRY STAPLES FOR YOUR CUPBOARD
1. EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
While this isn’t the cheapest one, it’s a good idea to invest in a good quality extra virgin olive oil. It lasts and makes a big difference in salads, dips and sauces. Don’t cook with it though. Keep your good one for the above things and then cook with a normal olive oil blend, coconut oil or cold-pressed sunflower oil.
One nice vinegar is also a good idea as it enhances the flavours of your dish. Balsamic vinegar is a great complement to a good olive oil, or you can get a slightly sweeter flavour from white or red wine vinegar or raw apple cider vinegar.
3. SALT AND PEPPER
Use good quality fine salt that is not iodized or bleached. It doesn’t have to be fancy Himalayan pink salt. You can find a good rock salt and that will do the trick. A black pepper grinder with peppercorns is great because it is freshly ground and therefore has a more peppery flavour than pre-ground black pepper.
4. CAN OF TOMATOES
They can be whole, peeled or chopped, but make sure they have no additives. These can be used to make a quick pasta sauce, curry or soup, so they’re always good to have on hand.
Grains are quick, easy and affordable. It’s good to always have a tin of one or more of these in the cupboard for emergencies, but then buying dried pulses is great for saving on costs. For dried pulses, make sure you soak them overnight in a lot of water. The grains will soak up the water, soften and reduce the cooking time. Make a big batch and freeze them in small amounts. The dishes these pulses can make are endless.
6. QUINOA (PRONOUNCED: KEEN – WA)
This seed is high in protein, gluten-free and has a low GI. It is one of the few plant foods that contain all the essential amino acids, which makes it a complete protein. White and red quinoa are the most readily available. Quinoa, however, is not the cheapest ingredient to use, so you can mix it with lentils or rice to make it go further. It can also be used in salads and to add extra protein to a meal.
We recommend always having your favourite rice (basmati, jasmine, brown, wild, black) in the cupboard. It is quick to make, filling and easy to flavour. Brown rice is the more nutritious option. Some ways of using rice are with a curry, a stew or on its own as fried rice.
This is not essential but it’s really useful in a good chocolate smoothie or oats. It can be blended with tofu and a sweetener of choice for a quick chocolate ‘cream’ or icing. Good cacao powder is raw and contains enzymes and nutrients that are not present in the more affordable cocoa powder. Cocoa powder is usually heated and thus you lose most of the benefits of raw cacao.
9. NUTS AND SEEDS
These can be pricey, but they are very useful. Try to avoid buying lots of 100g bags. Rather, buy a 1kg bag, which will work out cheaper in the end, and you can freeze them in an airtight container. If they ever do start tasting stale, pop them in the oven for 10-15 mins and they’ll become crispy and fresh-tasting again. Good options are macadamia nuts, pecan nuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews, and sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
Medjool dates have trended in the last few years. That’s because they are versatile, naturally sweet caramelly pops of sugar. They are, however, quite pricey. So instead, I’d recommend buying ’normal’ dried dates. Dates are high in natural sugar and fibre, which helps you stay fuller for longer and prevents blood sugar level spikes, unlike other sweet snacks. You can add dates to oats, smoothies, desserts, salads and date balls. If you soak dates and then blend them in the soaking water (make sure they’re pitted), you can create your own date puree, which is useful if you need a healthy sweetener in a dish like pasta or a stew. Dip dates in melted vegan chocolate or nut butter and they make a great snack or after-dinner treat.
11. PURE PEANUT BUTTER
Peanut butter is a vegan’s bosom buddy. You can make any number of sauces from it and it is just so good. Be sure to invest in one with no additives to get the maximum benefit from the peanutty goodness. It is also pretty affordable as far as nut butters go. Other useful nut butters are macadamia and cashew, depending on your tastes.
If you can get to a spice shop, that is a better option because the spices are often ground more recently and so are fresher. You’ll also find they’re very affordable. If this isn’t convenient for you, just purchase spices from your supermarket. As you don’t use spices in large amounts, try and buy smaller quantities as ground spice does lose its flavour after a few months. Whole spices can last up to a year. Basic spices that are good to have are ground cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon, paprika or chilli, your favourite curry powder and whole cumin and coriander seeds.
*Note: see below for a recommendation for storing spices.
13. SOY SAUCE
Soy sauce is made from fermented soybeans and adds an umami (read: savoury and satisfying) element to meals, which is often lacking in plant-based dishes. Try to use a good quality brand. You can buy ones that are low in salt but you do use very little of it at a time. It can often replace salt in dishes such as stews or soups. You can also get mushroom soy sauce, which is a tasty option.
PANTRY STAPLES FOR YOUR FREEZER
14. A BAG OF FROZEN PEAS AND OR CORN
These are easy-to-add staples that also add some good nutritional value, colour and flavour.
15. GARLIC CLOVES
You may think it’s weird that this is in the frozen section, but this trick is going to make your life a lot easier. Next time you’re sitting watching Netflix, peel some garlic cloves. Then put them in an airtight bag (so they don’t lose their nutritional value) and freeze. Garlic defrosts in minutes or you can even grate it from frozen. This saves you time and effort and means you can stock up once to last for a while.
The same can be done with ginger. Buy a good root of ginger – fresh and firm and young. It’s just right when it has a thin, light brown, papery ’skin’ and is firm if you press it. Freeze it with the skin on in an airtight bag. If you have frozen these roots whole, don’t thaw them as they can become soggy. Grate what you need from frozen and return to the freezer.
HOT TIP: Both garlic and ginger can be blended before freezing. Use a bit of oil and water to encourage the puree process. Freeze these purees in ice trays and when you need some ginger and garlic or even chilli, just pop out a cube.
17. FROZEN BANANAS AND BERRIES
These are good to have in the freezer for quick smoothies or blended with non-dairy milk and cacao powder for a quick cold chocolate fix. You can also add some frozen banana slices and berries to your fresh oats in the morning. Be sure to peel and slice your bananas first (slicing them makes them easier to blend) and put them in a Ziploc bag.
WHAT ABOUT FRESH INGREDIENTS?
Once you have the pantry stocked with these staples, the only weekly shopping you need to do is for your fresh goods. You can get vegetables as and when you need them and you can experiment with different combinations and flavours every week.
For herbs, we strongly recommend buying fresh herbs.
HOT TIP 2: Whatever herbs you don’t use by the end of the week can be blended with olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper to make a little paste that will keep for longer. Add nuts if you have some and make sure the paste has a tiny layer of oil over the top of it to keep it preserved and airtight, which will increase its fridge life.
Note 1: Don’t add acid, such as lemon, as it will make the paste go brown.
Note 2: Only use soft herbs. Hard herbs like rosemary are better dried on a windowsill and stored airtight once completely dry, or put into a sealed bag and frozen.
HERE IS AN EASY RECIPE USING VEGAN PANTRY STAPLES
*A MASALA DABBA (SPICE TIN) or THALI BOWL
A Thali is a little spice tray with mini bowls that makes it easy to grab your spices during cooking. The Masala Dabba is similar, except it’s within a tin with a lid. You then keep your bags of spice in the panty and refill your bowls as needed. Otherwise, you can store spices in glass jars.
To keep the flavour going as long as possible, store dried spices and herbs in a cool, dry place out of direct light. Do not store over the stove as all that heat will make them turn bland more quickly. Keep the containers closed when not in use.
While this is not as simple as the rest, it is a good thing to learn to make as it adds a lot to vegan meals. In future blogs, we will cover different ways of cooking this but for now, here’s a basic tofu recipe:
- Fold your block of tofu inside a tea towel and weigh it down with something heavy for two hours to remove any excess moisture. When you unwrap the tofu, it will be quite firm.
- Slice your tofu into blocks or strips.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- Heat a glug of oil in a non-stick pan and once the oil is hot, using tongs or a fork, carefully add your tofu to the pan.
- Fry on one side until lightly golden and turn over. Once it is golden and crispy, remove and drain on a paper towel or serviette.
- Enjoy while warm by dipping it into a soy or peanut sauce or add to basic fried rice, salad, sushi or wraps.
These are little seeds packed with fibre, protein, omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. Make sure you either soak them before use or drink a good amount of water with them. They absorb 10 times their weight in water, which helps keep you fuller for longer. They have no flavour and are ideal to blend into smoothies, add to oats or a salad, and can be used as an egg replacement in baking.
If you are in the local area of Port Elizabeth, pop into our store at 25 Westbourne Road, order online or check your local Spar in the Eastern Cape and try one of our prepared delicious, nutritious, made-with-love plant-based frozen meals. You can view the menu here.