Dan Caron, Green Ladle chef, adds some Green Ladle branded raspberry dressing to a couple of grilled kielbasa links he is grilling on his outdoor grill in Auburn on Tuesday afternoon. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Randy Smith shows off an item from his Pinky D’s food truck in 2017. Smith says ground beef is one of his go-to ingredients at home. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Randy Smith tried to make something to eat at home recently.

It wasn’t easy.

“It feels like I’m on an episode of ‘Chopped,'” he said, referring to the popular Food Network show that gives contestant chefs bizarre combinations of ingredients and asks them to make a gourmet-level meal out of them. “I’ve got like a jar of olives, sriracha and cranberry sauce. All right, what are we doing here? That’s what life feels like now, an episode of ‘Chopped.’ It’s like, ‘OK, this kind of goes with this. This kind of goes with that.'”

As a longtime cook — he owns Pinky D’s and The Poutine Factory in Auburn— Smith knows how to get creative. Good thing, since grocery shopping for many is weekly or bi-weekly now and fresh ingredients can be hard to come by.

But if you aren’t a chef — and let’s face it, that baloney sandwich on white bread that you made for dinner last night wasn’t exactly restaurant quality — you could probably use some help.

We spoke to four current and former area chefs to get their advice for this extended period of pantry diving. What staples should you keep on hand? What’s the most versatile food in your kitchen?

And what the heck can you do with sriracha, anyway?

CANNED SOUP, BARLEY, SPAM?

Along with Smith, we spoke to Owen Keene, executive chef at Bates College in Lewiston; Dan Caron, teaching chef at the Lewiston Regional Technical Center; and Eric Agren, former owner and chef at Fuel in Lewiston.

All know how to make a good meal out of a weird combination of ingredients. How weird? Think a grilled tuna melt with cranberry sauce, sriracha and cheese sauce.

Bates College Executive Chef Owen Keene, who is a Spam fan. Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College

“It’s amazing!” Caron said.

Wait. What?

“It was over 35 years ago and times were tough, not much money and (I) had a family. Grocery day was the next day and I looked in the pantry and thought to myself, ‘Let’s get creative.’ I was also a new chef,” he said. “(It tasted) like a tuna melt with cheap cheese. No, it really was pretty good, although I never did it again.”

The chefs generally differed on the best staples for everyone to keep on hand. In Caron’s opinion canned soup is king.

“They can be consumed as is or can be thickened with a roux to easily make a stew or a casserole over noodles,” he said.

Agren listed barley, linguine, cans of crushed tomatoes, Dijon mustard, olive oil, vinegar (balsamic, white, red), flour and yeast.

Smith touted rice and potatoes.

Keene recommended garlic powder, onion powder, olive oil, canned beans, canned tomatoes, cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, canned tuna, rice, dry pasta, flour, cornstarch and . . . Spam.

“(It’s) one of my favorite pantry items, being born in Hawaii,” said Keene, who has two cans of Spam in his own pantry right now and likes to fry it up with eggs for breakfast or put it in noodle bowls, fried rice, sushi, pasta carbonara and tacos.

For sheer versatility, though, Keene likes eggs. Agren likes canned tomatoes, which are key for pasta sauce, pizza sauce, soup and as a base for braised dishes. Caron likes the versatility of pasta or rice since they can be topped with beans, soups and other pantry items.

Smith will vote ground beef every time.

Eric Agren at his former restaurant, Fuel, on Lisbon Street in Lewiston in 2015. Don’t mess with Agren’s Instant Pot. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“We bought a big thing of hamburg and we broke it down into one-pound packages and froze it,” he said. “You can add it to mac and cheese, you can put it on nachos. Ground beef is one of those super versatile (ingredients). Make meatballs. You can make anything. Shepherd’s pie.”

Even for a professional chef, that versatility is important.

“It’s hard, you know, trying not to eat the same thing every night. That’s our thing now, trying to have some variety,” Smith said. “It’s like, hey, you can make your own pizzas or nachos, Mexican food, a lot of tacos.”

WHAT YOU’LL EAT, WHAT WILL KEEP

Because Spam fried rice or a tuna melt with sriracha and cranberry sauce don’t necessarily have great mass appeal, each of the chefs offered their own favorite pantry recipes: a pasta dish with olive oil and cheese. Pot pie topped with cheese croutons. Barley risotto.

However, those aren’t their own go-to meals right now.

Caron grills. A lot. And makes use of his pantry items there.

“I like to create marinades and dry rubs for meats and vegetables using items such as dry spices, fresh herbs, mixing remade sauces, honey (and) maple syrup to create my own marinades,” he said.

Agren goes for roasted chicken.

“Hands down,” he said. “I make one every week regardless. Then I have leftovers for sandwiches, and I use the carcass for stock. I use the Instant Pot for all my stocks now. Rich, collagen filled stocks in an hour and a half.​ I typically cook almost every night, even before COVID, but I have found myself doing more elaborate recipes because I have more time.”

Not a fan of chicken? Can’t stand spice? That’s OK.  The best pantry is the one you’ll actually eat from. A sriracha-and-cranberry-sauce-infused tuna melt might be intriguing once, but it’s probably not going to be repeated. And it’s definitely not going to get you through a pandemic.

Smith’s advice: Find things you like and things that will keep, and fill your pantry with those.

“That’s the biggest thing today, stay out of the grocery store,” he said.

RECIPES

Randy Smith’s crusted potato wedges

Ingredients:

6 medium potatoes cut into wedges

1/2 cup melted butter

Salt and pepper

1 cup crushed Doritos or crushed corn chips or anything you chose

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Cut potatoes into four wedges.

Dip them in the melted butter and sprinkle with salt.

Roll in crumbs and place on greased baking sheet.

Bake for 40 minutes.

Serve hot.

 

Dan Caron’s chicken or beef pot pie served over pasta and topped with cheese croutons

Ingredients:

12-ounce can chicken or beef vegetable soup (or 12 ounces of plain vegetable soup and sauteed chicken)

4 ounces of flour

4 ounces of butter

One package egg noodles, cooked

Heat soup and thicken it by mixing in flour and butter as a roux.

Serve over egg noodles. Top with fresh-made cheese croutons.

Cheese croutons

4 bread slices, diced

2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

2 tablespoons melted butter

2 teaspoons dry basil

1 teaspoon salt and pepper

2 teaspoons parsley

Toss all items together and bake at 300 degrees until dry.

 

Owen Keene’s Cacio e Pepe

Ingredients:

1 pound of spaghetti

Kosher salt to taste

Black pepper to taste

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta in salted boiling water until desired firmness.

Drain, but reserve some of the liquid once pasta is cooked.

Toss pasta with olive oil and cheese.

Add a half cup of the pasta water and toss.

Serve with fresh cracked black pepper.

 

Eric Agren’s barley risotto with chicken. Submitted photo

Eric Agren’s barley risotto with braised chicken thighs

Note: Recipe calls for chicken thighs and an onion, but they can be left out if needed.

Ingredients:

1 cup of pearled barley (yes, you probably have some, tucked in the back corner of your lazy Susan)

3-4 cups of stock (I prefer chicken, but vegetable would work fine. Water too, but it does reduce the flavor quite a bit)

1 can of diced tomatoes

1 teaspoon of cinnamon

1 teaspoon of chili powder (dark if you have it)

1 teaspoon of cumin

Salt and pepper

1 onion, chopped up​

4 chicken thighs

This recipe is awesome in an Instant Pot and just as good in a Dutch oven. Most of it is the same prep except for cooking times.

Instant Pot: Add a little oil to the pot. Choose the saute function and set to high.

Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper, sear on both sides, then remove.

Add the onion.  Saute until cooked through.

Add all the spices and stir.

Add the barley and cook for a couple minutes.

Add the stock and the diced tomatoes (do not drain).

Add the chicken back into the pot.

Set the Instant Pot to manual high pressure for 25 minutes.

When done, natural release for 5 minutes. Open the lid, remove the chicken. If the barley has not absorbed most of the liquid, turn the pot to saute again and cook until most all the liquid has been absorbed. It will resemble risotto.

Dutch oven: Add a little oil to the pot and turn to medium-high heat.

Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper, sear on both sides, then remove.

Add the onion.  Saute until cooked through.

Add all the spices and stir.

Add the barley and cook for a couple minutes.

Add the stock and the diced tomatoes (do not drain).

Add the chicken back into the pot.

Cover the pot and lower the heat to low. Cook for about 45 minutes to an hour.  The barley should be al dente and most of the liquid absorbed.


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