Lessons From Mum: How to Cook From the Pantry

Lesson number one: canned tuna is a pantry powerhouse
April 21, 2020 Updated: April 21, 2020

Cooking from the pantry is what everyone is suggesting now, when many of us are still at home on lockdown. We’re leaning on our bags of pasta and rice, jars of tomato sauce, and cans of tuna and beans. 

Keeping your pantry well-stocked—without excessive hoarding—and using its contents as your main resource is the best way to face a moment of unprecedented crisis. Yet this is how my mum has been cooking for all her life. 

pasta with tuna and tomato sauce
Pasta with tuna and tomato sauce. (Giulia Scarpaleggia)

A Practical Home Cook

My mum is not passionate about cooking, nor curious; she is purely practical. Even now that she is retired, rather than cook, she prefers to read a detective story or to garden, tending to her rose bushes and her rows of tomato plants in the summer. 

Her meals tend to repeat week after week, in a comforting sequence of quick, reliable, nutritious dishes. They are dishes that can be easily adapted to the seasons, and to the ingredients available in her pantry.

When I was a child, she used to work during the day and come back home in the late afternoon. She would shop once a week at a local supermarket for ingredients for that weekly menu, which hasn’t changed through the years. Pantry ingredients helped her cook nutritious meals in a short time, while also juggling a house to clean and a child, then two, to care for.

Her dishes were simple and unpretentious, yet very nourishing. She would often use bags of frozen vegetables to make a minestrone or side dish, and beans and chickpeas to make other soups and salads. Proteins in our meals would come from affettati, pre-sliced cold cuts such as prosciutto crudo and prosciutto cotto; chicken breast or veal cutlets; eggs; and canned tuna.

Eggs were the protagonists of many of her dishes. I can still hear the unmistakable sound of her whisking them with a fork in a ceramic bowl to make the simplest frittata, sometimes enriched with onion and potatoes, often with spinach. Eggs would also become uova al tegamino, fried with a drop of olive oil and topped with a slice of cheese; or uova sode, hard-boiled, sliced, and added to salads along with tuna.

A Pantry Powerhouse

But canned tuna was her most trustworthy ingredient, something she always kept in her pantry as it could become dinner in almost no time at all. 

She often used it as a stand-alone ingredient, served with a green salad or a jar of beans on the side, but it was also the starting point of many dishes—some more successful than others. We still laugh at the thought of her tuna frittata, with tons of parsley and lemon juice, that she cooked for a whole summer straight. It was met with little enthusiasm from the rest of the family.

Her best canned tuna creations were her pasta sauces: sometimes she would cook the tuna with onion and tomato pulp, until it all reduced into a thick and glossy sauce; other times she would opt for a fresher version and mix it with finely chopped parsley, basil, and capers, to toss with the pasta before dousing it all with extra virgin olive oil. 

Canned tuna also found its way into stuffed vegetables—always delicate round zucchini, abiding by my family’s unwritten rules—and a summery tuna loaf, to be drizzled with a lemony olive oil and parsley dressing and enjoyed in the garden. 

tuna loaf
A summery tuna loaf served with a bright lemon-parsley dressing. (Giulia Scarpaleggia)

I inherited my mum’s habits, and now I make sure to always have a healthy supply of canned tuna in my pantry. I try to buy good-quality, sustainably-sourced tuna, preferably packed in extra virgin olive oil. I never discard the oil, but instead use it to dress my dishes: it works drizzled on mixed vegetable salads, with tuna or hard-boiled eggs, or even as the cooking oil to start my tuna-tomato pasta sauce.

I truly believe in the importance of having a well-stocked pantry. The tuna, along with other simple ingredients such as eggs, breadcrumbs, dry pasta, tomato sauce, capers, and anchovies, help me improvise a meal when I’m home late, when my fridge is empty, or when I have some unexpected guests.

This way of cooking—picking ingredients from the pantry, mixing and matching the flavors—is simple, satisfying, and liberating. 

These are some of my favorite recipes with canned tuna, ones I keep cooking week after week, year after year, thanking my mum for the inspiration.

RECIPE: Pasta With Tuna and Tomato Sauce

RECIPE: Tuna Loaf With Lemon-Parsley Dressing

RECIPE: Tuna-Stuffed Round Zucchini

Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan born and bred food writer, food photographer, and author of five cookbooks, including “From the Markets of Tuscany.” Find her online at her blog, JulsKitchen.com