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Food and Drink

How to make a meal from nothing: a chef’s guide to cooking with store cupboard essentials

Empty fridge? Manteca chef and co-founder, Chris Leach, tells Stylist his top tips for making meals out of basic store cupboard ingredients. 

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There’s nothing worse than staring into your fridge ravenously hungry and finding nothing there but a wilted lettuce head and a mouldering yoghurt. In the midst of our busy lives, it can be hard to find time to fit in a food shop and make sure our cupboards are constantly stocked up.

Luckily, chef Chris Leach knows a thing or two about using food to its full potential. His restaurant, Manteca, which he co-founded with Smokestak’s David Carter, is an Italian-inspired joint specialising in hand-rolled pasta and fire-cooked cuts of meat.

The restaurant’s nose-to-tail philosophy means that the dishes use every inch of the animal. Ducks, for example, are bought whole, with the legs and gizzards used to flavour ragu and extra skin used as an alternative to butter in other dishes.

With this resourcefulness in mind, we asked Chris how to make a delicious meal even when it feels like you have nothing in the fridge.  

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Chris’s store cupboard essentials that will always make a decent meal  

So you’re never in the catastrophic position of having nothing to eat again, Chris suggests stocking up on these ingredients, then you’ll always be able to put a meal together.

“Anchovies, olive oil, dry chilli and fennel seeds, are good to have at all times for flavour,” says Chris. “As well as a couple of vinegars like red and white vinegar.”

“In the fridge, I would always have butter, mayo and eggs – as long as you’ve got eggs, you’ve always got a meal.”

“In your cupboards, it’s good to have dried beans, pulses and lentils as well as tinned beans if you need to eat super quick and tinned tomatoes are essential. Dried pasta, rice and noodles will always come in handy too.”

“I have a lot of Asian ingredients in my cupboard as well, which makes it easy to put together a very quick dinner. These usually come in bulk at Asian supermarkets and will last you for a long time. In your freezer, I’d always have frozen dumplings.” 

how-to-pasta
Pasta makes an easy, quick, simple meal.

Chris’s easy, quick recipes with very few ingredients  

Italian food is famous for its exceptional tasty dishes that can be put together with very few ingredients. Taking inspiration from the Italians’ ingenious approach, here are Chris’s best dishes to put together when the pickings are slim at home.

Cacio e pepe

“I think the perfect example of a dish you can put together with very few ingredients is cacio e pepe. If you’ve got some parmesan, pecorino or a dried hard cheese in the fridge, some black pepper, a little bit of butter and some dry pasta. You’ve got a fantastic dinner.

“Toast your peppercorns or crack your pepper into a pan. While the pasta’s boiling, add a little bit of butter and a splash of pasta water. Let that all boil. When your pasta’s ready, drop it into the sauce, grate in your fresh cheese and toss it. Then that’s dinner.

Garlic chilli pasta

“Pasta with garlic and chilli is another super, super quick one. Just a slice of garlic to a pan, add a little bit of dry chilli, in goes your pasta, toss it together with olive oil and that’s as simple as it can get really.”

Spaghetti alla puttanesca

“There’s a Sicilian dish, spaghetti alla puttanesca, which is famously made from store cupboard food. It’s dried pasta, tinned tomatoes, anchovies, olives, capers – all from jars or tins and all cooked together.”

Chris’s tips for making quick dishes taste exceptional  

Acidity and seasoning

“Acidity and seasoning, in general, is one of the easiest, most effective and cheapest ways to make your food taste much better,” says Chris. 

“Even a tiny splash of sherry vinegar in a sauce will just lift it. Or a squeeze of lemon juice just adds a sharpness, relieves your palate and makes it much more enjoyable to eat. 

“It’s also worth seasoning your food whether that be with salt or soy sauce or anchovies.”

Hold onto pasta water

“The worst thing you can do is tip all your pasta water down the sink,” says Chris. 

“Ideally you should take your pasta out of the pan with tongs, put it into your sauce and then add splashes of pasta water into your sauce. The pasta water has lots of starch in it, which will thicken up your sauce and help it cling to the pasta, so you end up with a properly sauced pasta.”

Sharpen your knives

“Learning to sharpen a knife and maintain a knife is a really good skill because you’ll cut yourself less and your food will taste better,” says Chris. 

“If you cut your food with a sharp knife you’ll get a cleaner cut and won’t push as much oil out of the food. You’ll also be able to cut food more evenly, which means it cooks more evenly. It’s one of the most fundamental things you can do and will make cooking easier and quicker because a sharp knife will do a lot of the work for you.” 

Find out more about Manteca on its website. Find more expert guides and tutorials on Stylist.co.uk

Images: Getty, Sager + Wilde

  • Chris Leach, chef and co-founder of Manteca

    Chris Leach chef
    Chris Leach is the head chef at Manteca

    Chris Leach is the chef co-founder of Manteca, which specialises in nose-to-tail cooking, hand-rolled pasta and fire-cooked cuts of meat. He has previously worked at Petersham Nurseries and was the head chef at Sager + Wilde.