Even though spring has arrived, with daffodils popping up and trees in blossom, it’s still mostly cold and damp on the East Coast. It makes a person want to head for warmer climes.

But, alas, there’s no travel in these blighted times. And the warmer spots I dream about are plagued with worry and grief as pandemic illness makes its way around the world. We may take journeys in the kitchen, though. Enticing aromas can conjure happy memories of places we’ve been, and that is a balm for now, when we are required to stay at home.

Let’s take a trip to the pantry instead. It’s a hip destination. Pantry ingredients are suddenly in demand; pantry advice is freely given; quick pantry dinners are the promise. It has always been so, but it is good to be reminded, perhaps especially now, that a surprisingly good meal can happen with a few capers, a couple of anchovies and a box of spaghetti.

Yet a friend said the other day: “I’m sick of all this pantry talk. Who even has a pantry?” Once upon a time, a pantry was a store room, or a large store cupboard, a closet or a cellar. Nowadays, the term refers to all the various places you store your basic supplies: the shelf where you keep the spices, the dried pasta and the canned tomatoes; the refrigerator door stocked with condiments; the freezer. We all have a pantry, and now is the time to make full use of it, adding other supplies from the neighborhood market or delivery service, as possible.

Each of the dishes here utilizes a few pantry elements or basic grocery items and the recipes are meant for different times of day, possibly, though not necessarily, all on the same day. It is not dinner party fare, as this column often features: Instead, it reflects the current reality, presenting an all-day menu to feed yourself and your fellow housemates.

— Savory Steel-Cut Oats With Fried Egg and Za’atar

The menu begins with oat porridge. For breakfast, it is often topped with brown sugar and cream. Though sweetened porridge is delicious, a savory approach makes a nice change. Think of oats as a fine substitute for rice — you don’t always want rice pudding, do you? I often prefer my oats with salt and pepper. Any kind of oats will do, but my inclination is for steel-cut rather than rolled. Steel-cut oats have a nutty whole-grain flavor and retain a nubbly texture. I add a fried egg, a bit of roasted pepper, a generous sprinkling of za’atar and a drizzle of good olive oil. If you can’t find za’atar (a heavenly spice mix of wild thyme, sumac and sesame used throughout the Middle East), try using toasted ground cumin or a pinch of oregano. In truth, this easy, hearty dish is a treat any time of day.


— Grilled Chicken Pita With Yogurt Sauce and Arugula

To make a very satisfying pita sandwich for lunch, you’ll need some common ingredients from the grocery store (chicken breast, cucumbers, olives, yogurt, herbs), but it’s not at all difficult to put together. If you’re in the mood to bake, try making your own pita bread. It’s a fun little project, though a package from the store is perfectly fine. The yogurt sauce is the real star here. You may find other ways to employ it, a dip, perhaps, or to accompany steamed cauliflower or other vegetables.

— Spicy Meatballs With Chickpeas

Meatballs are the ultimate comfort food and these, a mixture of ground lamb and rice, are especially tasty, perfumed with cumin, coriander and cinnamon. They may be prepared several hours, or up to two days, in advance — they reheat beautifully. Make the tomato gravy as piquant as you like, adding a good pinch of cayenne if you wish. The optional saffron adds a floral note. If you have the time, cook your chickpeas from scratch. (It’s best to soak them for a few hours or overnight.) They’ll cook in less than an hour and require hardly any attention. If you prefer, serve the meatballs with couscous.

This cooking voyage transports us to the eastern Mediterranean, in spirit at least, providing a lot of flavor and a bit of sunshine under these troubled circumstances.

Recipe: Savory Steel-Cut Oats With Fried Egg and Za’atar

Total time: 25 minutes

Makes: 1 serving

1 cup steel-cut oats (pinhead, not rolled)


Extra-virgin olive oil

1 large egg

A few strips of roasted red pepper (jarred is fine)

1 teaspoon chopped scallion

Red-pepper flakes



1. Boil 3 cups water in a small saucepan. Add oats with a big pinch of salt, and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes. Cover and let rest off heat for 10 minutes. Taste and adjust salt. Beat in a little boiling water if oats are too firm.

2. In a small skillet over medium-high, heat 1 tablespoon oil. Fry egg sunny side up.

3. Put oats in a low bowl and place egg on top. Garnish with strips of roasted pepper. Sprinkle with scallion, red-pepper flakes to taste, and finish with about 1/2 teaspoon za’atar. Drizzle with a little more olive oil.



If serving more than one person, just fry extra eggs and adjust quantities of condiments.

Recipe: Grilled Chicken Pita With Yogurt Sauce and Arugula

Total time: 25 minutes

Makes: 4 servings

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 8 ounces each)

Salt and pepper

Extra-virgin olive oil

1 cup plain yogurt

1/4 cup chopped green and black olives

1/2 cup chopped cucumbers, from 2 small Persian cucumbers

1 tablespoon chopped mint

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1 garlic clove, grated or very finely minced

Pinch of dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon sumac (or a little grated lemon zest)

Pinch of red-pepper flakes

4 whole-wheat pita breads

A large handful of arugula, watercress or other salad greens


1. Season chicken breasts on both sides with salt and pepper and rub with a little olive oil. Bring to room temperature.

2. Place a cast-iron pan or a stovetop grill pan over medium-high heat. When pan is hot, add chicken breasts, lower heat to medium and cook gently for about 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until firm to the touch. (To keep meat moist, do not overcook.) Set aside to rest and cool to room temperature, then slice crosswise at a diagonal.

3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix together yogurt, olives, cucumber, mint, parsley, garlic, oregano, sumac and red-pepper flakes. Season with salt to taste.

4. Heat pita breads in toaster oven or a dry skillet over medium-high. Cut each pita in half to make half-moon pockets. Fill each pocket with chicken, yogurt sauce and arugula. Serve with extra sauce on the side.


Recipe: Spicy Meatballs With Chickpeas

Total time: 1 hour

Makes: 4 to 6 servings (about 30 meatballs)

For the meatballs:

1 1/2 pounds ground lamb (or substitute ground beef, pork or turkey)

1/2 cup raw arborio rice or any white rice, rinsed and drained


2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 teaspoon toasted ground cumin

1 teaspoon toasted ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 cup finely diced onion

3 garlic cloves, grated or minced

For the gravy:

Extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 cup finely diced onion

Kosher salt

Pinch of saffron, crumbled, steeped in 1/4 cup warm water (optional)

1 teaspoon toasted ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes, or to taste

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick

1 (28-ounce) can plum tomatoes with their juices

1 cup chicken or beef broth (or chickpea cooking liquid)

6 cups cooked chickpeas

1/2 cup chopped parsley, cilantro or a combination


1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Make the meatballs: In a large bowl, combine ground lamb, raw rice, salt, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, onion and garlic. Knead mixture well.

2. Coat a sheet pan or roasting pan lightly with olive oil. With wet hands, form mixture into 1-ounce meatballs and arrange in one layer on pan. Bake, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, until lightly browned. Remove and let cool slightly.

3. Meanwhile, make the gravy: Place a wide heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons olive oil. When oil is hot, add onion, sprinkle lightly with salt and cook, stirring until softened and just beginning to brown, about 10 minutes.

4. Add saffron with soaking water, cumin, red-pepper flakes and cinnamon stick. Crush tomatoes with your hands, and add to pot, along with all tomato juices. Raise heat to medium-high, add broth and bring to a simmer. Taste and add more salt or red-pepper flakes as needed. Carefully add meatballs and adjust heat to a gentle simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes.

5. Warm 2 tablespoons olive oil in a wide skillet over medium-high heat. Add chickpeas and a splash of water and heat through. Season to taste with salt. Sprinkle with chopped parsley or cilantro. Serve each diner 5 or 6 meatballs and plenty of gravy. Add a large spoonful of chickpeas on the side.