Like many of you probably did, I went grocery shopping last night. I needed to refill my asthma medication, but I’d be lying if I said the trip wasn’t at least a little bit motivated by the same anxiety that’s driving people to fill entire carts with things like Kleenex and spaghetti and cans of beans.
COVID-19 measures at home and abroad have people worried about the future, and that kind of worry can manifest itself in weird ways. It can be scary to see reports of people getting into fisticuffs over the last package of toilet paper or governments temporarily shutting down anything that isn’t a pharmacy or a food shop. It can be scarier to see people clearing the shelves at your own local grocery store. It might even convince you to head to the nearest No Frills and load an entire basket with tubs of pistachio ice cream—a thing I actually saw. (But honestly? Hats off to this man for living his life.)
But I don’t think I can describe what I witnessed last night as panic. There were empty shelves, yes, and lineups of up to 30 minutes at checkouts. But there were also everyday aspects of shopping for food that seemed all the more tender because of their context. People clearly buying for elderly family members. Couples arguing over the best kind of barley to buy. Little kids trying to sneak extra treats into the shopping cart. I truly believe that focusing on those aspects of public life can be helpful at a time when news is developing so fast.
I also firmly believe that whatever the motivation, it’s entirely possible to eat well with tinned and dried goods. I talked to Chatelaine’s food content director, Irene Ngo, about how to stock a pantry before going into self-isolation (or just for plain old peace of mind). Here are a few tips.
What’s worth having fresh?
Some produce, such as root vegetables and alliums (onion, garlic, shallots) have longer shelf lives in or out of the fridge. Carrots, beets, parsnips, sweet potatoes, rutabagas: there are great ways to prepare all of these in hearty cooked dishes or salads.
This doesn’t mean that other perishables can’t be given a second life if you don’t eat them in time. Semi-frozen grapes are one of the best snacks on the planet; many types of fruit can be turned into popsicles before they get too ripe; maybe this time you will get to baking those freezer bananas into bread; overripe citrus can make an incredible tea cake.
Frozen produce has always been your best friend
Picked, blanched, and frozen at peak ripeness, frozen fruit and vegetables are more often than not nutritionally similar to fresh—and sometimes preferable when the item is out of season.
So are protein- and fibre-packed beans
One thing I noticed on my grocery store run was a picked-over aisle of canned beans next door to a relatively well-stocked dried goods aisle: bags of black-eyed peas, red lentils, cranberry beans just waiting to be soaked and cooked. The merits of canned vs. dried beans is a post unto itself, but I’m not here to judge your legume preferences. It’s always good to have dried and canned on hand. The former is space-efficient and tastes way better; the latter is a massive time-saver, which is worth just as much.
If you’re worried about the sodium levels typical to many canned foods, know that you can remove up to 40 percent of the sodium in canned beans if you rinse them properly. This doesn’t mean a quick swirl of tap water in an open bean can. Take the beans out, drain them of the canning goop, and rinse them in a colander.
Beans aren’t the only thing that comes in a can
Anchovies! Sardines! Pickles! Chipotle chillies, coconut milk and passata! So many fantastic meals and snacks can be put together with (relatively) healthy ingredients that mostly come in cans. Two recent cookbooks that demonstrate this well are Jessica Elliott Dennison’s Tin Can Magic and Jack Monroe’s Tin Can Cook. Monroe also makes a bunch of her recipes available online.
Make fresh herbs and spices last longer
Did the dried spice aisle get raided at your local—or do you just prefer fresh thyme, basil, or hot chillies? A lot of aromatics can be blended or infused into oil and refrigerated or frozen.
Much this advice isn’t crisis preparedness so much as good practice in keeping a stocked pantry and reducing kitchen waste. That part should be comforting. What I hope gets a second thought are the many for whom grocery shopping or cooking itself isn’t as accessible. If you do find yourself in one of those 40-minute lineups, consider throwing an item or two in your cart for a neighbour who might need it.