How to Spruce Up Your Pantry Staples: Tips and Tricks from a Top Chef


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We’ve all been there — staring into the fridge or pantry hoping to spark a creative idea for dinner. You’re stocked with a plethora of pantry staples, but you’re just not sure how to spin them into something new. Fear not! We asked Chef Ken Rubin, chief culinary officer for Rouxbe Online Culinary School, to share some tips on how to spruce up your pantry staples and take your favorite recipes to a new level.

Chef Ken Rubin of Rouxbe Online Culinary School

Trust us, you’re in good hands. Rubin is a seasoned chef who has helped both professionals and home cooks reach their full potential in the kitchen. He says his passion for food goes back to childhood, when he was collecting cookbooks and stocking a spice cabinet while other kids were collecting baseball cards and comics. Now, through Rouxbe’s online courses, Rubin can help anyone transition from a recipe-follower to a confident and creative cook.

“Our courses and lessons really open people’s eyes and minds to all of the possibilities of cooking — we get a lot of ‘ah-hah’ moments from our students who learn new ideas and by taking a ‘technique-first’ approach,” Rubin said. “Once you understand the foundations of cooking, it becomes easier to improvise and explore. Rouxbe courses give students confidence to be more creative.”

Here are a few tips from Chef Rubin on how to branch out of the boring and find a more creative side of your kitchen:

We are all guilty of turning to our tried and true recipes, but sometimes we just want something new. What are some simple ways to spruce up your favorite go-to recipes?

Cook with the season. Take a dish and add things that are fresh and readily available. We do a lot of bean and lentil dishes at my house, but I top them with sauteed fresh vegetables and bold flavors depending on what is in season.

What’s a tried and true weeknight meal for you?

Lentil soup with homemade tortillas and quick-sauteed veggies.

Some of us are fans of leftovers… others, not so much. What are some tips and tricks to creating something new with your leftovers?

My go-to is to make tacos from leftovers, or frittatas for my kids. They are both great ways to use up what’s left, but in a new way so it doesn’t seem like you are eating the same thing.

What’s your strategy for taking on the grocery store? Are you a meal planner or do you let the ingredients inspire you?

I shop the perimeter with fresh produce in mind and then focus on what’s fresh and looking interesting to me on the given day and time.

For all the meal planners out there, what are some simple strategies to help us expand beyond our usual go-to weeknight meals?

I look through blogs, magazines, and I ask my friends what they are cooking. I get a lot of ideas from my friends and colleagues; they are always great sources and I know the recipes or ideas have been vetted by people I trust.

What are some staple items you always suggest having on-hand?

I suggest having a very well-stocked pantry; it’s my not-so-secret weapon. I keep an array of dried beans, grains, vinegars, dried spices, various types of flours, dried fruit, seeds and nuts, and shelf-stable foods like silken tofu, noodles, dried chilies, tahini, and assorted nut butters.

What are some of your go-to spices, seasonings or flavor combinations we can try at home?

I use a lot of different chilies, cumin, coriander seed, and dried citrus seasoning blends. I also love to use different vinegars to add acidity and brightness to many dishes.

What are some items you recommend having on hand for creating interesting sauces?

Good vegetable broth, fresh herbs and citrus are all wonderful to have on hand. Also, tomatillos and tomatoes are great for sauces.

And just for fun (cue the game show music), name your favorite ways to use the following pantry staples:

  • Canned tuna: Hmmm, my kids still love a classic tuna sandwich or wrap. They’re also into a plant-based tuna from a cool company called Good Catch.
  • Rice/Pasta: These are big for our family – we eat a lot of beans and rice (or lentils and rice) and vegetable pasta dishes.
  • Chicken broth: We use mostly veggie broth – and use it in soups, risotto, and to reduce in sauces.
  • Peanut butter: Dipping sauce for spring salad rolls. We add soy sauce, sesame oil, and lime juice.
  • Mustard (any kind): We use it in marinades and to add to sauces for depth and acidity.

Be sure to check out more tips and techniques from Chef Rubin and the team at Rouxbe Online Culinary School. Happy cooking!

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