Kitchen Basics: Stocking Your Pantry
Ok. So we have already covered the gear you need to stock your kitchen with, now we move on to what you need to put in your pantry...yes that’s pantry with an “R.” The key to being able to pull together a good meal, and to make cooking a little less of a project, is to have some staples in your fridge and cupboards. Most of the items below won’t go bad and can be used in a variety of dishes. Having these items will enable you to take that left over chicken breast and turn it into chicken piccata with glazed carrots and rice pilaf without much effort, so read on…
SpicesFirst let’s talk spices. What I am going to list are the basics. Of course, you may buy others as you need them for specific recipes. In all cases expect salt, you should buy as small a quantity as you can. Spices lose flavor over time. How long is too long? Well, that’s somewhat debatable and depends on the spice. Over a year old it has probably lost a good amount of flavor. That said, there is nothing wrong with using it. It won’t hurt you, but you may not get the desired effect. If you’re anal like me, you use your Brother P-Touch Labeler to label the bottom of all spices bought and replace when they get sufficiently old. A good source for these is www.penzeys.com. Good prices and a big selection. The spices you need are as follows:
- Black pepper – Buy whole Tellicherry peppercorns, not ground. Buy yourself a pepper-mill. I like this one as you can use it one handed. Fresh pepper is miles ahead of the pre-ground stuff you buy in a shaker.
- Chili Powder – Good for any Mexican flavored dish, adding to beans or of course, making chili. You want to get pure chili powder, which means it will actually say what type of Chili pepper it comes from. Something labeled “Chili Powder” is actually a blend of peppers and cumin, oregano, and other spices. Something labeled “Chipotle Chili Powder” is pure ground Chipotles. I would recommend getting Chipotle powder if you like it hot and smoky, or Ancho chili powder if you like it sweeter and not as hot.
- Cinnamon – Look for Vietnamese Cinnamon, it is the best and sweetest quality. Get it ground (as in powdered) not whole sticks.
- Crushed Red Pepper – this is what you see in the shaker at the pizza place. It’s for making things hot. You can use it in tomato sauces, stir fry, or anything else you want to add a little heat to.
- Cumin – This is the basic flavor of Mexican, Indian and Middle Eastern flavored dishes. Again, ground, not whole seeds.
- Oregano – Not sure this needs much explanation, it’s just dried leaves in a container.
- Rosemary – This I prefer to buy as fresh bunches and put in a plastic bag in the freezer. Rosemary is like small pine needles and give that sort of flavor to your dishes. Good on roasted potatoes, chicken, etc.
- Sage – This I also prefer to buy as fresh leaves, they come in small plastic packs a the grocery store and you store them in the freezer. Think of breakfast sausage, sage is the predominant flavor there.
- Salt – Well, this seems easy, but honestly there are dozens of varieties of salt. The #1 mistake home cooks make is not salting there food enough. Some foods, like pasta and potatoes can take a ton of salt to bring out their flavor. Usually if something taste flat or has no flavor, try adding some salt. So what do you buy? For starters you don’t buy table salt. This is probably what everyone of you grew up with, it is the fine salt that is in nearly every salt shaker in America. Why don’t you buy it? Because it has additives in it, primarily iodine. Iodine deficiency causes developmental problems and certain diseases. However, in a first world country this is no longer an issue. You need very little to stay healthy and seafood, soils we grow vegetables in, breakfast cereals, etc. have enough iodine to keep us that way. What iodine does do is make your salt (and this your food) taste metallic. For everyday cooking you get Kosher salt. “Wait,” you say, “I’m not Jewish and I don’t like Kosher food.” Kosher salt is not actually prepared in accordance with Kosher regulations (I believe technically all salt is Kosher), its term is derived from the fact that it is a coarse salt used for “Koshering” Meats. Diamond Crystal brand is what most restaurants use. You can buy it in big 3lb boxes and put some in a small bowl near your stove. The grains are big enough to pick up with your fingers and season whatever you’re cooking.
- Thyme – Like rosemary, I buy it in fresh bunches and put in the freezer, though if you can only find ground that works too. Thyme is a really good poultry seasoning.
Dry GoodsOk, on to dry goods for your pantry.
- Canned Beans – Depends on what you like, but a few cans of Black, Kidney, or Garbanzo beans are good. These are a lot easier to use on a moment’s notice compared to dry beans that need to be soaked overnight.
- Rice – Again, you can get one or two different kinds, I like basmati rice for its perfumy flavor that goes well with spicier foods and also buy good old Uncle Ben’s plain rice for using with other types of foods.
- Pasta/Noodles – Sky’s the limit here. Any shapes, styles, etc. that you like. Try to have a few long straight pastas on hand, like fettuccine or spaghetti and also some shaped pastas. Two of my favorite shapes are fusilli and orrechiette. Some egg noodles are good too. My favorite brands of pasta are DeCecco and Barilla.
- Flour – Nothing fancy, just general all-purpose flour. If you can find King Arthur Brand, it is head and shoulders above the rest. Buy yourself a re-sealable plastic container to store flour in, it’s easier and less messy.
- Sugar – Regular granulated sugar, any brand will do. Like flour, get a container to store it in.
- Brown Sugar – Buy dark brown instead of light brown. You can also make your own brown sugar by using 1 C granulated sugar and 1T molasses.
- Canned tomatoes – To make tomato sauce or to use in other tomato based dishes you want whole peeled tomatoes in a big 28-ounce can. You can also buy Pomi. It is a brand of pureed tomatoes in a box that almost every household in Italy uses. You can make pasta dishes in a flash by starting with this. More on this in a future article on making your own tomato sauce.
- Stock – Either Vegetable or Chicken. This is great for making quick sauces, soup, chili and basically adding moisture to many dishes while adding flavor at the same time. If it comes in a box that’s better as you can store what you don’t use in the refrigerator. I like Swansons or College Inn brands the best.
Oil, Vinegar, CondimentsI’m sure most Dudes already have ketchup and BBQ sauce in the house, and maybe nothing else. For cooking you will also need the following
- Olive Oil – Buy Extra Virgin and only Extra Virgin. It is the only true olive oil. All others are second and third pressings using heat and other methods to extract the most oil out of the olive and subsequently less flavor. It is really only an invention of the industrial age.
- Vegetable or Canola Oil – either of these are a good neutral flavored oil that is not a strong distinct flavor like Olive Oil. You don’t want to use olive oil to cook fish in typically, or to add to a cake mix.
- Vinegar – Combined with the oil, you can now make your own salad dressings in about 2 minutes. It’s good to have a variety of vinegars on hand. Balsamic, cider, white wine, red wine, rice wine, etc. Choose 2 or three and keep them on hand, they never go bad.
- Soy Sauce – Good for stir fry, to add to rice, and to marinate fish or meats in.
- White Wine – Buy an inexpensive bottle of dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc. It will keep for quite a long time once opened in the refrigerator. While I wouldn’t recommend it for drinking after that time, it is fine for cooking. Whatever you do, never buy “cooking wine” from the supermarket. You will be paying almost the same amount and getting something that is not even close to real wine and loaded with sodium.
- Mustard – A good Dijon, or whole grain mustard is good for marinades, coating fish, stirring into sauces, and salad dressings. Like vinegar, it doesn’t go bad and you can buy different kinds to get creative.
Fridge and FreezerSo besides that week old slice of pizza and a few beers, what should you have in your fridge at ALL times? While freshness is always important, I understand it’s not always practical. The items below will keep in the fridge for quite a long time and still be very suitable for cooking.
- Carrots – If available, buy the ones with the big green leaves attached, they are the same as the ones without the leaves attached, but fresher. The supermarket simply cuts off the green tops when they go brown and puts the carrots back on the shelf. Cut the green tops off yourself when you get home and store carrots in a Ziploc bag. They will last a very long time like this.
- Onions – Buy a few yellow, sweet, or red onions. In the fridge they also keep a really long time. Once you cut some of an onion, wrap the rest in Saran wrap and put back in the fridge.
- Garlic and Shallots – Keep 3 or 4 heads of each in a Ziploc bag (not the same one as you have the carrots in unless you want your carrots to smell and taste like garlic) at all times.
- Butter – Sticks of butter will last indefinitely in the fridge. Always buy unsalted or sweet butter, never salted.
- Eggs – Eggs will last in the fridge way past the sell-by date on the carton. Eggs are hermetically sealed by nature. Nothing is going to go inside. While freshness counts, eggs do not really go bad. Always buy large and only large eggs. If you do any baking, large are the only ones ever specified. Adapting for other sizes will be a pain.
- Frozen peas and corn – Buy a bag of each (if you like them of course) and keep in the freezer.