Rock The Pantry
A girlfriend recently sent me some photos of the pantry in a house she had toured. The house had just been renovated and its new kitchen included a bountiful amount of storage space, including yards of shelves lined with meticulously labeled matching jars, each filled with cereals or grains or pastas or snacks, all in neat rows. It was like The Container Store had opened a franchise in the house and this pantry was its demo.
I couldn’t help but compare this OCD vision of organized plenty to my meager space which overflows with recycled Zabars containers, half-empty packages sealed shut with binder clips, and partially filled twist-tied plastic bags from the bulk department at Whole Foods. I do not have a label maker but I’m pretty handy with rolls of half-inch masking tape and a black Sharpie. For the most part, my pantry system works for me, although I will admit that now and then, while digging around my cupboards or freezer, I will find something with a 2011 expiration date.
Such errant discoveries suggesting otherwise, I do try to clean out and refresh my pantry once a year. Preferably in January. That’s because it’s in the winter when I most appreciate having a well-stocked larder because now is when we’re likely to have days when we want to cook but not shop, as when it’s so frigid that even making a detour to the market on the way home is just a few steps too far. This is also when the concept of pantry cooking becomes a relief and the best kind of convenience – to know we can eat well with the least amount of planning. At the same time, to stock a pantry successfully takes some self-knowledge based on how we cook and how we shop.
So to begin with, what’s a pantry? Food storage has its origins in the need to survive periods of scarcity – scarcity of money and scarcity of fresh foods. David Tanis points this out in his recent New York Times recipe, “A Satisfying Soup From The Italian Pantry.”
Italy’s “bare-cupboard cuisine,” also known as la cucina povera (the poor kitchen), was a way to feed a family using inexpensive basics like potatoes and beans along with flavor bombs like aged cheeses, dried chiles, and herbs. Such food was cheap, healthy, and by the way, also delicious.
Today, pantry cooking may no longer be the means to surviving winter, but it can still be a year-round solution to what’s for dinner.
Unless you live in a house with a decent-sized kitchen with a concomitant amount of storage so you can actually have an area called "the pantry," and instead, like me, live in an apartment with limited amounts of space, a pantry is the combination of some cupboards, the refrigerator, and the freezer. Plus I add a counter-top bowl to the mix. I happen to have a good-sized freezer but I know New Yorkers who only have enough room for a pint of Sharon's Lemon Sorbet and two trays of ice cubes. But for the sake of this exercise, I'm going to hope that you have a bit more space than that.
Welcome To My Pantry
Here's what I currently have in my pantry:
My Pantry Cupboard
When we moved into our apartment my very handy husband built me a floor to ceiling cabinet that fills a shallow space adjacent to the fire exit door in our kitchen. It's 25-inches wide, 6-inches deep and has twelve shelves. It is, relatively speaking to anything I ever had before, enormous. Compared to my friend Katherine's pantry in Connecticut, it is the size of a spice rack.
This cupboard currently holds:
- On the top shelves -- 6 quarts of New Jersey tomatoes, 4 half-pints of peach jam, and 4 half-pints of red pepper jelly, all canned by moi last summer
- Canned goods -- chickpeas, cannellini beans, artichoke hearts, oil-packed tuna, anchovies, sardines, San Marzano tomatoes, canned cherry tomatoes, tomato paste
- Back-ups of things I always use and never want to run out of -- Hellman's mayo, Johnny Harris BBQ sauce, boxed chicken stock, Dijon mustard, Near East tabouli, tahini, cornichons, roasted red peppers, capers (to cook with), caperberries (for martinis), chutney, panko, breadcrumbs, fish sauce, red wine vinegar
- Standbys (things I use often but not always but still want to have on hand) -- Gaea jarred olives, Davina tapenade, Tiptree seedless raspberry jam, peanut butter, Heinz Chili Sauce, lingonberries, cooking chocolate, yeast, bouillon cubes
- Shelf-stable things -- honey, salt, vinegars (cider, rice wine, sherry, balsamic), pomegranate molasses
- Tall bottles that fit on the bottom shelf – extra EVOO, canola oil, passata (tomato puree), spare CO2 canister for my Soda Stream machine, dry vermouth
I have a smaller, second kitchen cabinet that primarily holds baking ingredients and things that don’t fit in the tall, skinny cupboard:
- Canisters of all-purpose flour, sugar
- Light and dark brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, molasses, cocoa powder
- Pastas, couscous, fregola, rices, grains
- Large or awkward-sized jars of spices bought in bulk-- dried mint, 2 kinds of oregano (Sicilian and Greek), Espelette pepper, Egyptian cumin, hot sauces, red pepper flakes
- Crackers, nuts, tea
I have a separate spice rack, one of those built into an otherwise useless sliver of space, that holds my other spices. I have my favorite spices and spice mixes that I replenish often enough so that they're fresh, although to be safe, I write their purchase date on the bottom of each jar with a Sharpie: garlic powder, black peppercorns, cinnamon (both sticks and ground), saffron strands, cayenne, paprika, ground ginger, coriander, sumac, fennel seeds, za'atar, curry powder, chili powder. Invariably, when doing my January purge, this is where I’ll find spices that I bought for one recipe and then never used again, making them stale and needing to be tossed, like whole nutmeg or a jar of Herbes de Provence bought on a vacation in Aix-de-Provence four years ago.
Sometimes I read interviews with famous people who are asked what they have right now in their refrigerators and the answer is a chilled still life of a piece of Parmesan and Champagne. If you opened mine today or any other day, you would find both of those items but much more:
- Eggs. Large, organic and brown.
- Flat-leafed parsley, thyme, rosemary
- Yogurt. Usually Greek and either whole fat or 2%.
- Butter. Always unsalted organic and sometimes also salted French or Irish.
- Mustards. Dijon, coarse, and with horseradish
- Mayonaise. Hellman's, either full-fat or "light"
- Coffee beans
- A bottle of dry white wine, usually pinot grigio, just for cooking, and a bottle of Lillet, just for me
- Bottles of water chilling to be zapped with our Soda Stream. I am addicted.
- Opened containers of various condiments: fish sauce, maple syrup, sesame oil, hoisin, Worcestershire, horseradish, ketchup, sriracha, pickled jalapeños, sweet relish
- Cheeses. French feta, Pecorino, the above-mentioned Parmesan, cream cheese, Friendship 1% cottage cheese (other cheeses come and go but these are my essentials)
- Capers, cornichons, pickles, caperberries
- Panko, breadcrumbs
- A bag of organic carrots and stalks of celery
- Bottle of salad dressing (my own vinaigrette that I make every few days in batches)
I'm lucky in that I have a rather large freezer at the base of my refrigerator and I make aggressive use of it. That means I almost always have a variety of chicken and meats on hand and I date them and then rotate them out, replacing things as I use them, usually buying when on sale. I try not to lose track of what's in the freezer but sometimes do and end up having three pork tenderloins in there at once.
Still, this is what I have there today and it's typical of what I usually keep around:
- Package of Defour puff pastry
- Two quarts of homemade chicken stock, made 3 months ago.
- Duck fat from the last time I roasted a whole bird, which was 6 months ago.
- Bags of vegetables: petite peas, artichoke hearts, spinach, pearl onions
- Two quarts of tomato sauce made last summer with local NJ tomatoes. It's a basic sauce with no seasonings aside from garlic so I can use it in any number of recipes.
- Butter. At the moment, two sticks of organic unsalted.
- Nuts. Pine nuts, a bag of pecans from Schermer’s in Georgia, and a bag of amazing Bronte pistachios I bought on last fall’s trip to Sicily.
- Pesto. Three small containers made in July when local basil was in season and inexpensive. This will taste like summer when I soon use it.
- A plastic bag of Parmesan rinds I collect and add to soups, especially minestrone.
- Meats: 1 lb. of ground lamb, 1 lb. of ground beef, 1 duck breast, 1 package of ground duck (I make Bolognese with it), 4 boneless chicken thighs, 2-pound piece of pork belly, 1 boneless NY strip steak, 2 on-the-bone pork chops from the Hudson & Charles butcher shop on Amsterdam Avenue
- A 1-pound bag of wild shrimp from Whole Foods
- Two ice packs used on my recently re-injured knee
- No ice cream.
I have a large white porcelain bowl in which I keep aromatics, usually red onions, yellow onions, garlic, ginger, and shallots.
So what's the point of keeping so much on hand? For me it's a learned essential: since I make dinner almost every night and I know how I cook, I want to know I have the basic ingredients for my most frequently made recipes so I can just pick up fresh vegetables and a piece of fish or a chicken and know that I can make something interesting. I don't want every recipe to make me start from scratch in assembling ingredients plus I can buy on sale knowing things will get used.
But just in case, I also want my pantry to produce a complete meal. There are days when plans will change and I'll unexpectedly have to make dinner when there's no time to shop. Or the weather turns ugly and I just want to go home but still be able to eat decently, if not well, knowing I can make a complete meal using only pantry items.
Or, as I learned recently, you can have something happen that up-ends your grocery shopping plans, as when I injured my knee for the second time in a year, making me a temporary invalid. Take-out is just not appealing and we want a home-cooked meal even if getting to the market isn't convenient. Or at least this is what my husband said as he explored our pantry for possibilities the night of my knee accident (I am now okay and fully mobile again, and cooking again).
I can’t tell you what to put in your pantry. That’s because what you keep depends upon what and how you cook. But I’m hoping that by giving you a window into what I do, it will help you think about what’s best for you. For instance, my pantry is a mix of basics and condiments that supports the fact that I A) am not a vegetarian, B) primarily cook flavors that tilt European and Middle Eastern, with occasional Asian, C) do a regular amount of DIY (I routinely make my own Worcestershire sauce, chicken stock, granola, vinaigrette, and bread), D) don’t favor high heat or uber-spicy flavors, and E) I’m welcoming to some prepared flavorings (e.g., I add jarred pickled jalapeños to certain salads and sweet relish to potato salad).
For you, your pantry might have more spices and a variety of chilies, exclude all baking ingredients, have more Asian flavors, or include a big variety of legumes. If you kept a grocery shopping and cooking diary for a month or so, I suspect your pantry profile would become evident quite quickly.
The Pantry As An Investment
Sometimes when I talk with people who say they want to cook at home they complain how expensive it is to do so. They point out how the cost of buying every ingredient to make even a relatively simple meal for two persons -- for example, pan-cooked salmon fillets, mushroom rice pilaf made with boxed chicken stock, shallots, and a little fresh thyme, plus a green salad with homemade vinaigrette -- would cost far more than ordering a similar meal from a neighborhood take-out place.
Of course it would. Because aside from kit sources like Blue Apron, which parcel out tiny packets of recipe-specific portions, ingredients like olive oil, rice, black peppercorns, fresh thyme, or chicken stock are sold in much larger amounts than you’d need for that one dinner. But keeping a pantry means you’re buying for multiple meals. If I were to make the salmon/pilaf/salad meal, all I'd have to buy are the fish, the fresh mushrooms, and the salad greens. Everything else I'd already have on hand in my pantry, having paid what are now sunk costs that are amortized over numerous meals.
When I look at the price of a week's worth of take-out food, I see just the opposite -- that it is very costly, and that I could not only make it for less, I’d also be buying better quality ingredients. I'd even go as far as saying that there are certain foods I will never eat in a restaurant, such as shrimp, having read too many articles about farmed shrimp imports and their toxicity.
Here's another thing about keeping a pantry. If you come to see it as not just storage but also a strategy, then you'll also grocery shop to support that. You'll buy olive oil on sale even if you don't immediately need it because you know that soon, you will. You will stock up on items to support your regular repertoire of recipes (every notice how often you use, for example, canned tomatoes or panko in a month?) and automatically replace them when you run out. And you will find it far more convenient to do quick purchases of fresh ingredients if you’ve already got everything else on hand. It is simply so very much easier to make dinner if you’re prepared.
The Art Of The Pantry
British food writer Claire Thomson is a kindred spirit when it comes to pantry cooking. She is also a chef who runs an interactive food website for kids called Table of Delights which unfortunately isn't fully operational in the U.S. But you can read more about Claire and her creative approaches to food, as well as a link to her recipes for kids published at The Guardian, at her other website, 5oclockapron.com.
In the midst of all this activity, and her taking care of her three children, Claire has written a very appealing book called The Art of The Pantry.
Her book is personal in how she puts cooking into a busy professional and domestic life. She describes flavor with knowledge, as when she explains why Japanese buckwheat noodles are so interesting and then guides us on how to cook them. It's the kind of cooking and food writing that both intrigues and teaches. A new cook could benefit from her lessons and a seasoned cook would enjoy her narrative and probably nod now and then in agreement. And if pantry cooking is new to you, it illustrates how one home cook makes it work.
It’s clever how Claire shows how a single pantry item like barley or oats can be used in different ways since I inevitably buy an ingredient for one recipe and then it sits, unused, until I make that recipe again. There is also an appealing international viewpoint to the book's flavors with recipes from cuisines all over the world. For example, Portuguese Molasses Cake, Jerk Chicken, and Japanese Eggplant with Mirin and Sesame, and Socca, the French popular street food.
There are 150 recipes organized by pantry category: Pasta and Noodles, Pulses (what she calls things that have been dried or canned, e.g., lentils or beans), Grains, Flours, Spices, Refrigerator and Freezer, Vegetables, Meat and Fish, and Sweet Stuff. The recipes include animal protein, but they play a minor role as the recipes are decidedly more vegetarian.
Claire says it best in her introduction: "The pantry, the cupboard, store, or shelf, call it what you will (larder in the UK), epitomizes the nuts and bolts that facilitate good home cooking."
We've been given permission to share two recipes with you and in choosing them, I used as criteria recipes that I could make today with what I have on hand in my pantry. So I chose Lentils and Tiny Pasta, which is a soup-like one-dish meal filled with carrots, celery and garlic, and topped with lots of grated Parmesan. Plus Lamb Kibbeh (I have that pound of ground lamb in my freezer plus a package of bulgur wheat), which is a satisfying and beautifully spiced meatball-like dish found throughout the Middle East, eaten hot or warm, often with tahini or chili sauce. See our links above for the recipes.
As the winter weather still has a way to go, it is smart to assess our pantries and do as our forebears did -- stock up and be ready for whatever may come. As you do, try to consider the pantry as the center of your kitchen. You just might keep it that way when spring returns.