Alongside the usual savory and sweet items that every pantry needs, there are a few ingredients that are particularly useful for vegetarians or those wanting to eat more meatless meals. As a lifelong (since age five) vegetarian and sometime vegan, here are the items that I like to keep on hand for protein, texture, and flavor. Of course, each household's pantry will vary according to personal taste, ethnic background, and food allergies. Let us know what you would include in the comments.
• Beans. Though I like to keep a variety of dried or canned beans, I always make sure my pantry has at least two: lentils and chickpeas. Lentils cook quickly and are great additions to soups, pilafs, and salads. I like to throw chickpeas into pasta dishes and vegetable braises and stews. Pinto, black, kidney, and cannellini beans are also good to have on hand.
• Tempeh. Once you know how to prepare it, tempeh can be one of the best staple sources of protein. It can be refrigerated for a week or two (check the date on the package) and will keep up to several months in the freezer.
• Tofu. Like tempeh, tofu is not strictly a pantry item, but it's an essential for vegetarian kitchens. I like to keep blocks of refrigerated extra firm tofu for baking and frying, vacuum-packed silken tofu to blend into dressings and puddings, and dried tofu for soups and stir-fries. Stay tuned for a tofu post later this month.
• Grains. Using a variety of grains lends nutrition, texture, flavor, and interest to vegetarian meals. I like to keep my pantry stocked with brown rice, white rice, quinoa, spelt, farro, millet, and bulgur.
• Nuts. I always have almonds and cashews and try to keep pistachios and pine nuts around, too. Whole or chopped nuts can be used in salads and grain dishes. Ground nuts can add body to lasagna. And there's always pesto. Extend the life and freshness of nuts by keeping them in the freezer.
• Dried fruits. Raisins, dried apricots, dates, etc. are not only great for snacking but they can add interest to grain dishes, vegetable braises, and sautéed greens.
• Nutritional yeast. I've sung the praises of nutritional yeast before, and it can be used in sauces, as a coating for tofu, and sprinkled on potatoes and popcorn.
• Miso. I like to keep both light and dark miso paste in the refrigerator for different degrees of savoriness, but if I had to choose just one, it would be the mellow white variety. Miso makes excellent soup as well as dressings for salad, vegetables, and tofu.
• Tahini. Tahini or sesame paste often works in conjunction with miso in my kitchen. A quick tahini-miso sauce (try adding lemon juice and garlic, too) can be poured over steamed vegetables, tofu, or tempeh for simple weeknight dinners.
• Dried sea vegetables. I like to keep several kinds of seaweed, from sheets of nori that can be wrapped around rice and vegetables, to kelp/kombu that adds flavor to broth, to hijiki that can be reconstituted and used in salads and vegetable dishes.
What else would you add to this list?