Tips on stocking the pantry

"The Minimalist: Fresh Start for a New Year? Let’s Begin in the Kitchen," NY Times
Tuesday, January 6th, 2009

Why clutter up the pantry with pale imitations of real foods that are easy to prepare, vastly superior in taste and quality, and often less expensive? Mark Bittman's article from The New York Times takes a decidely upscale approach ("Perhaps, like me, you have this romantic notion of shopping daily — maybe even a mental vision of yourself making the rounds, wicker basket in hand, of your little Shropshire or Provençal or Tuscan village.") to managing food stocks, but the results are strikingly similar to results of the frugal approach. So, along with some great tips for using the "real" ingredients, here's evidence that I'm not a skinflint for stocking up on dried beans and grains, but a gourmet cook:

NY Times photo

Photo by Francesco Tonelli for The New York Times

The Minimalist

Fresh Start for a New Year? Let’s Begin in the Kitchen

By Mark Bittman

PERHAPS, like me, you have this romantic notion of shopping daily — maybe even a mental vision of yourself making the rounds, wicker basket in hand, of your little Shropshire or Provençal or Tuscan village. The reality, of course, is that few of us provision our kitchens or cook exclusively with ultra-fresh ingredients, especially in winter, when there simply are no ultra-fresh ingredients.

But if your goal is to cook and cook quickly, to get a satisfying and enjoyable variety of real food on the table as often as possible, a well-stocked pantry and fridge can sustain you. Replenished weekly or even less frequently, with an occasional stop for fresh vegetables, meat, fish and dairy, they are the core supply houses for the home cook.

While you’re stocking up, you might clear out a bit of the detritus that’s cluttering your shelves. Some of these things take up more space than they’re worth, while others are so much better in their real forms that the difference is laughable. Sadly, some remain in common usage even among good cooks. My point here is not to criminalize their use, but to point out how easily and successfully we can substitute for them, in every case with better results.

Here, then, is my little list of items you might spurn, along with some essential pantry and long-keeping refrigerator items you might consider. Note that I’m not including the ultra-obvious, things that are more or less ubiquitous in the contemporary American pantry, like potatoes, eggs and honey.

OUT Packaged bread crumbs or croutons.

IN Take crumbs, cubes or slices of bread, and either toast evenly in a low oven until dry and lightly browned, tossing occasionally; or cook in olive oil until brown and crisp, stirring frequently. The first keep a long time, and are multipurpose; the second are best used quickly, and are incomparably delicious.

OUT Bouillon cubes or powder, or canned stock.

IN Simmer a carrot, a celery stalk and half an onion in a couple of cups of water for 10 minutes and you’re better off; if you have any chicken scraps, even a half-hour of cooking with those same vegetables will give you something 10 times better than any canned stock.

OUT Aerosol oil. At about $12 a pint, twice as expensive as halfway decent extra virgin olive oil, which spray oil most decidedly is not; and it contains additives.

IN Get some good olive oil and a hand-pumped sprayer or even simpler, a brush. Simplest: your fingers.

OUT Bottled salad dressing and marinades. The biggest rip-offs imaginable.

IN Take good oil and vinegar or lemon juice, and combine them with salt, pepper, maybe a little Dijon, in a proportion of about three parts oil to one of vinegar. Customize from there, because you may like more vinegar or less, and you undoubtedly will want a little shallot, or balsamic vinegar, or honey, or garlic, or tarragon, or soy sauce. ...

OUT Bottled lemon juice.

IN Lemons. Try buying six at a time, then experiment; I never put lemon on something and regret it. (Scramble a couple of eggs in chicken stock, then finish with a lot of lemon, black pepper and dill; call this egg-lemon soup, or avgolemono.) Don’t forget the zest: you can grate it and add it to many pan sauces, or hummus and other purées. And don’t worry about reamers, squeezers or any of that junk; squeeze from one hand into the other and let your fingers filter out the pips.

OUT Spices older than a year: smell before using; if you get a whiff of dust or must before you smell the spice, toss it. I find it easier to clean house once a year and buy new ones.

IN Fresh spices. Almost all spices are worth having. But some that you might think about using more frequently include cardamom (try a tiny bit in your next coffee cake, apple cake, spice cake or rice pilaf); ground cumin (a better starting place in chili — in fact, in many bean dishes — than chili powder); fennel seeds (these will give a Provençal flavor to any tomato sauce or soup; grind them first, or not); an assortment of dried chilies (I store them all together, because dried chipotles make the rest of them slightly smoky); fresh — or at least dried — ginger, which is lovely grated over most vegetables; pimentón, the smoked Spanish red pepper that is insanely popular in restaurants but still barely making inroads among home cooks; and good curry powder.

OUT Dried parsley and basil. They’re worthless.

IN Fresh parsley, which keeps at least a week in the refrigerator. (Try your favorite summer pesto recipe with parsley in place of basil, or simply purée some parsley with a little oil, water, salt and a whisper of garlic. Or add a chopped handful to any salad or almost anything else.) And dried tarragon, rosemary and dill, all of which I use all winter; mix a teaspoon or so of tarragon or rosemary — not more, they’re strong — with olive oil or melted butter and brush on roasted or broiled chicken while it cooks, or add a pinch to vinaigrette. Dill is also good with chicken; on plain broiled fish, with lemon; or in many simple soups.

OUT Canned beans (except in emergencies).

IN Dried beans. More economical, better tasting, space saving and available in far more varieties. Cook a pound once a week and you’ll always have them around (you can freeze small amounts in their cooking liquid, or water, indefinitely). If you’re not sold, try this: soak and cook a pound of white beans. Take some and finish with fresh chopped sage, garlic and good olive oil. Purée another cup or so with a boiled potato and lots of garlic. Mix some with a bit of cooking liquid, and add a can of tomatoes; some chopped celery, carrots and onions; cooked pasta; and cheese and call it pasta fagiole or minestrone. If there are any left, mix them with a can of olive-oil-packed tuna or sardines. And that’s just white beans.

OUT Imitation vanilla.

IN Vanilla beans. They’re expensive, but they keep. (If you look online you can find bargains in bulk, which is why I have 25 in my refrigerator.) If you slice a pod in half and simmer it with some leftover rice and any kind of milk (dairy, coconut, almond...), you’ll never go back to extract.

OUT Grated imitation “Parmesan” (beware the green cylinder, or any other pre-grated cheese for that matter).

IN Real Parmigiano-Reggiano. Wrapped well, it keeps for a year (scrape mold off if necessary). Grated over anything, there is no more magical ingredient. Think about pasta with butter and Parmesan (does your mouth water?). But also think about any egg dish, with Parmesan; anything sautéed with a coating of bread crumbs and Parmesan; or asparagus, broccoli, spinach or any other cooked vegetable, topped with Parmesan (and maybe some bread crumbs) and run under the broiler; how great. Save the rinds to throw in pots of sauce, soup, tomato-y stew or risotto.

OUT Canned peas (and most other canned vegetables, come to think of it).

IN Frozen peas. Especially if you have little kids and make pasta or rice with peas (and Parmesan!); not bad. Or purée with a little lemon juice and salt for a nice spread or dip. In fact, many frozen vegetables are better than you might think.

OUT Tomato paste in a can.

IN Tomato paste in a tube. You rarely need more than two tablespoons so you feel guilty opening a can; this solves that problem. Stir some into vegetables sautéed in olive oil, for example, then add water for fast soup. Or add a bit to almost any vegetable as it cooks in olive oil and garlic — especially cabbage, dark greens, carrots or cauliflower.

OUT Premade pie crusts. O.K., these are a real convenience, but almost all use inferior fats. I’d rather make a “pie” or quiche with no crust than use these.

IN Crumble graham crackers with melted butter and press into a pan. But really — if you put a pinch of salt, a cup of flour, a stick of very cold, cut-up butter in a food processor, then blend with a touch of water until it almost comes together — you have a dough you can refrigerate or freeze and roll out whenever you want, in five minutes.

OUT Cheap balsamic or flavored vinegars.

IN Sherry vinegar. More acidic and more genuine than all but the most expensive balsamic. Try a salad of salted cabbage (shred, then toss with a couple of tablespoons of salt in a colander for an hour or two, then rinse and drain), tossed with plenty of black pepper, a little olive oil and enough sherry vinegar to make the whole thing sharp.

OUT Minute Rice or boil-in-a-bag grains.

IN Genuine grains. Critical; as many different types as you have space for. Short grain rice — for risotto, paella, just good cooked rice — of course. Barley, pearled or not; a super rice alternative, with any kind of gravy, reduction sauce, pan drippings, what have you. Ground corn for polenta, grits, cornbread or thickener (whisk some — not much — into a soup and see what happens). Quinoa — people can’t believe how flavorful this is until they try it. Bulgur, which is ready in maybe 10 minutes (it requires only steeping), and everyone likes. If you’re in doubt about how to cook any of these, combine them with abundant salted water and cook as you would pasta, then drain when tender; you can’t go far wrong.

OUT “Pancake” syrup, which is more akin to Coke than to the real thing.

IN Real maple syrup, an indigenous gift from nature and the north country.


REAL BACON OR PROSCIUTTO Or other traditionally smoked or cured meat of some kind. If you have a quarter pound of prosciutto in the house at all times you can make almost anything — simple cooked grains, beans, vegetables, tomato sauces, soups — taste better. And, tightly wrapped, it’ll keep for weeks in the fridge or months in the freezer.

FISH SAUCE You have soy sauce, presumably; this is different, stronger, cruder (or should I say “less refined”?) in a way — and absolutely delicious. Use sparingly, but use; start by sprinkling a little over plain steamed vegetables, along with a lot of black pepper.

CANNED COCONUT MILK Try this: cook some onions in oil with curry powder; stir in coconut milk; poach chicken, fish, tofu, or even meat in that. Serve over rice.

MISO PASTE Never goes bad, as far as I can tell, and its flavor is incomparable. Whisk into boiling water for real soup in three minutes; thin a bit (with sake if you have it), and smear on meat or fish that’s almost done broiling; add a spoonful to vinaigrette. Etc.

CAPERS, GOOD OLIVES (BUY IN BULK, NOT CANS) AND GOOD ANCHOVIES (IN OLIVE OIL, PLEASE) The combination of the three makes a powerful paste, or pasta sauce, or dip.

WALNUTS And/or other nuts, but walnuts are most basic and useful. Try a purée with garlic, oil and a little water, as a pasta sauce, or just add to salads or cooked grains.

PIGNOLI With raisins, they make any dish Sicilian.

DRIED FRUIT For snacking, in braises (braised pork with prunes is a classic winter dish), or just soaked in water (or booze) or poached for dessert. Don’t forget dried tomatoes, too.

DRIED MUSHROOMS Don’t even bother to reconstitute if you’re cooking with liquid; just toss them in.

FROZEN SHRIMP Incredibly convenient.

WINTER SQUASH AND SWEET POTATOES These store almost as well as potatoes and are more nutritious and equally interesting. A sweet potato roasted until the exterior is nearly blackened and the interior is mush is a wonderful snack. The best winter squashes (delicata, for example) have edible skins and are amazing just chunked and roasted with a little oil (and maybe some ginger or garlic). For butternut- or acorn-type squashes, poke holes through to the center with a skewer in a few places and roast in a 400 degree oven until soft. Let cool, then peel and seed.