A well-stocked pantry means a nourishing meal is never more than a cupboard (or freezer!) away. Short on shelf space? We asked cookbook authors and nutrition experts to help us narrow down our list of the most versatile veg ingredients. Here are 10 must-haves—in no particular order—for your kitchen.
1. Chickpeas Not just for hummus, these protein-packed beans also make satisfying scrambles and can be mashed and used in place of canned tuna for chickpea salad sandwiches. Joni Marie Newman, author of Fusion Food in the Vegan Kitchen, loves roasting chickpeas with olive oil, spices, and salt for a snack. Spread chickpeas on a baking sheet, and bake at 400°F for 40 minutes, or until crispy.
2. Oats Rolled oats are great for making your own granola or blending into DIY oat flour for cookies and scones. Save chewier steel-cut oats for oatmeal: “Oats contain soluble fiber and beta-glucans, which may lower total cholesterol and control blood pressure,” says Matthew Ruscigno, MPH, RD, author of Superfoods for Life: Cacao. “They are one of the best breakfast foods for keeping you feeling fuller longer.”
3. Brown Rice Sure, brown rice doesn’t cook as quickly as its white counterpart, but it’s richer in fiber thanks to an intact bran. Terry Hope Romero, author of Salad Samurai, favors aromatic brown basmati: “If I’m going to take the time for brown rice, why not make it a nutty, hearty grain that smells like buttered popcorn?” Basmati rice isn’t just for Indian cooking—add it to burritos, veggie bowls, and stir-fries too.
4. Coconut Milk Swirled into soups or mashed into sweet potatoes, a little creamy coconut milk goes a long way. Newman uses it for everything from curry to coconut cream pie, saving the thick cream at the top of the can as a rich dessert topping. Worried about fat content? “Although coconut milk is high in saturated fat, some of this fat helps to raise good HDL cholesterol,” says Ginny Messina, RD, author of Never Too Late to Go Vegan.
5. Miso Think beyond miso soup: this fermented bean paste, a traditional Japanese staple brimming with antioxidants and beneficial bacteria, “adds depth and umami to everything from spaghetti to stew,” says Miyoko Schinner, author of Artisan Vegan Cheese. Use it in pad Thai instead of fish sauce, sub for Parmesan cheese in pesto, or stir into homemade salad dressing for a rich, salty kick. Kept in the fridge, miso will last up to a year.
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6. Quinoa Truly a culinary powerhouse, nutty-tasting quinoa takes to many flavor profiles, from Indian to Mediterranean. Add it to salads and stir-fries for protein and crunch. To avoid mushy quinoa, try baking it: mix two parts water and one part quinoa in a casserole dish, cover, and bake at 350°F for 20 minutes, or until the liquid absorbs and the tails pop out. “Comes out nice and fluffy every time,” says Newman.
7. Nuts More than an energy-boosting snack, nuts are ideal for bringing crunch, creaminess, or bulk to any meal. “They can be turned into a sauce, or ground to provide a meaty texture,” says Schinner. Before using in recipes, try lightly toasting nuts in a cast-iron skillet. Or make your own healthful substitute for heavy cream: soak cashews in water for two hours or overnight, then blend with an equal amount of water until smooth.
8. Almond Butter Tired of peanut butter? Give almond butter a try: it has less saturated fat and more iron and calcium. Plus, its subtle flavor makes it the perfect addition to baked goods. To swap for oils and other fats, use a 1:1 mixture of almond butter and unsweetened applesauce for the full amount of fat in your favorite muffin, quick bread, and cookie recipes. Look for almond butter without added sugars or hydrogenated fats.
9. Lentils Any lentil variety makes a tasty soup standby, but inexpensive, easy-to-find green lentils are hard to beat. Cook, lightly mash, and try them in sloppy Joes, lasagna, and tacos. Lentils may be small, but they pack a powerful punch: they’re nearly 30 percent protein. Schinner keeps them handy for practical reasons. “Lentils are the fastest legume to cook, so we eat them a lot when I’ve forgotten to soak other beans,” she says.
10. Frozen Blueberries “Blueberries have such a short season,” says Romero. “Once past their explosion in July and August, they command a steep price.” Your best bet? Go for frozen. Toss a few into muffin and pancake batter, swirl into oatmeal with almonds and cinnamon, or use in smoothies instead of ice. Romero likes to let the berries partially thaw, then mix them into plain coconut yogurt for a sweet antioxidant boost.
Isa Chandra Moskowitz writes cookbooks, travels the world to Instagram food, and recently opened Nebraska’s first vegan restaurant.