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Stock the perfect pantry

Restaurateur and Season Five "Top Chef" contestant Ariane Duarte suggests quickly sautéing the shellfish and some minced garlic in olive oil, then tossing with spaghetti and a squeeze of lemon.  © iStockphoto.com Restaurateur and Season Five "Top Chef" contestant Ariane Duarte suggests quickly sautéing the shellfish and some minced garlic in olive oil, then tossing with spaghetti and a squeeze of lemon. © iStockphoto.com

By Susan Korones Gifford
  

In these long winter weeks, you're most likely avoiding your usual round of grocery store, gourmet shop and health food market. That's why it's essential to stock some staples in your pantry, freezer and fridge that'll let you pull together a full, belly-warming meal -- without setting a booted foot into the wintry mix.

You probably keep such basics as eggs, pasta and rice in the house, along with an assortment of spices, oils, vinegars and condiments. Stocking up on the items below will turn those simple standbys into delicious, at-your-fingertips dinners.

Frozen Shrimp

Why
Shrimp possesses a rare quality for a hearty protein: It can defrost in the time it takes to cut up vegetables or boil water for pasta. (To hasten the process, put the shrimp you're using in a bowl under warm running water.)
How
Restaurateur and Season Five "Top Chef" contestant Ariane Duarte suggests quickly sautéing the shellfish and some minced garlic in olive oil, then tossing with spaghetti and a squeeze of lemon. Or, lightly sauté the shrimp and some scallions in vegetable oil, beat eggs in a bowl with a splash of soy sauce and some sesame oil, and add to the pan for an Asian take on scrambled eggs.

Frozen Pizza Dough

Why
Pizza dough is really just an edible plate that holds anything else you have on hand.
How
Place the dough in the refrigerator in the morning so it's defrosted by dinnertime, then stretch or roll out with a pin. Slather with any selection of ingredients: tomato sauce and cheese; caramelized onions, mushrooms, and ground pepper; thinly sliced potatoes brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with oregano and sea salt. Bake at the highest temperature your oven will reach, until crust is brown and toppings are bubbling.

Frozen Fancy Breads and Soft Tacos

Why
Because with the right attitude, you can turn a sandwich into an international feast.
How
Match the bread to its "native" toppings -- pile ciabatta with cold cuts, cheeses, and roasted jarred peppers (see below) and press on a Panini grill. Make a "breakfast" burrito with scrambled eggs, canned jalapeno peppers and a sharp cheese; smear baguettes with brie or layered with thick-cut ham and Dijon mustard.

A Jar of Sun-dried Tomatoes or Roasted Peppers

Why and how
You can't make a meal out of either, but both these ingredients offer up such strong, sunny flavors that you can use them to make the ordinary -- eggs, pasta, sandwiches, chicken breasts -- extraordinary. Refrigerated, they will keep for several weeks.

A Winter Squash

Why
A butternut or acorn squash can sit unscathed on your countertop for four to six weeks, according to the Oregon State University Extension Service Web site.
How
Cut into chunks, brushed with butter and roasted, squash makes a sweet side. For a light vegetarian dinner, make stuffed acorn squash: Cut an acorn squash in half, brush with butter, place cut-side down on a lightly greased baking pan and roast at 350 degrees Fahrenheit to 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 30 minutes, until tender. Fill with a rice, couscous or orzo pasta dish.

Frozen Marinated Flank Steak

Why
It's thin, so it defrosts relatively quickly.
How
Duarte suggests cutting into 3 to 4-inch portions. Place in a zip lock bag, pour on a teriyaki marinade of soy sauce, red pepper flakes, pepper and a little brown sugar, and tuck into the freezer. Defrost, and then pop under the broiler.

Cans of Beans

Why
They're versatile, filling, and cheap.
How
There are countless ways to incorporate beans into a meal: Toss them into a salad; puree white beans with salt, pepper and roasted red peppers, and spread on a ciabatta or baguette; make a white chicken chili, with white beans, chicken breasts (if you've got them in the freezer and have defrosted them overnight), Monterey jack cheese and canned, diced jalapeno peppers. Throw it over rice, and you're done.

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Susan Korones Gifford a former editor at Redbook and Cosmopolitan, has written for such publications as Parents, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and Ladies Home Journal.

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