Food pantries are an extraordinary community resource, but because their inventory is often donated, they can sometimes be stocked with less familiar food items, or ingredients that take a little more preparation or creativity for use. Here are a few items you might find at your local food pantry that are a bit more versatile than they seem.
Cactus - Fresh cactus paddles are wonderfully refreshing and make a great addition to salads, salsas, or even smoothies. Canned cactus (or cooked fresh cactus) is great for adding to soups and stews, adding to scrambled eggs, or sautéing with beef for use in tacos or chili.
Canned Chicken - Canned chicken is one of the easiest and most versatile shelf-stable proteins you can get your hands on. Because of its neutral flavor, it can be added to just about anything. Try canned chicken in burritos or burrito bowls, casseroles, soup, quesadillas, pot pie, or add it to any salad, pizza, or pasta for extra protein.
Canned SPAM/Ham - Spam sometimes gets a bad rap, but once sliced or diced and fried until crispy, it can provide a versatile salty bite to any recipe, just like bacon. Add your crispy spam to fried rice, breakfast hash, use in place of a ham hock in split pea soup or when cooking dry beans, use it to top pizza or salads, or even as a topper for ramen.
Shelf-Stable Milk/Powdered Milk - If you’re not a milk drinker, having powdered milk on hand for the occasional use in recipes is a life saver. In addition to reconstituting powdered milk at regular strength, you can use it to make a homemade coffee creamer, or even to make a whipped cream substitute. Powdered milk can also be added to dishes like oatmeal or mashed potatoes for a creamy touch, without having to add fresh milk or cream.
Canned Salmon - Canned salmon is a wonderful way to get those omega-3 fatty acids, and can be used for so much more than salmon cakes. Add canned salmon to salads, make easy sushi bowls, add to pasta salads, fried rice, or make a quick salmon chowder.
Canned Yams - Go beyond candied yams! Well-drained canned yams can be substituted in any recipe that calls for pre-cooked mashed sweet potatoes. Canned yams also make a great addition to soups, cornbread, cake, breakfast grits, or even a creamy dip.
Pie Pumpkins - There are an endless number of recipes out there for canned pumpkin, but finding a ways to use fresh pumpkin can be a bit trickier. One option is to make your own pumpkin puree for use in any recipe that calls for canned pumpkin puree. Fresh pumpkins can be made into puree by baking, boiling, microwaving, or even using a slow cooker. If you prefer not to puree, fresh pumpkin can be diced and roasted, similarly to any fall squash, and served as a side dish, added to salads, stews, curries, or chili.