After a killer day at work, we all just want to chill out and relax. One of the best ways to slow things down and regroup is to eat a satisfying meal. As a former New Yorker, my first instinct is to call for take-out. But, shocking as this may seem, there are times, when take-out just doesn't do it. Chalk it up to rotisserie chicken overload or a new battle of the bulge, but when you just can't face another styrofoam container of warm goo… there's hope.
In the time it takes to phone your order, receive delivery, and tip the delivery guy, you can easily whip-up a home cooked meal (where food pedigree and preparation method are known) for about 1/3 of the cost of take out.
Here's the secret: A well stocked pantry.
With a nice grouping of pantry staples, you'll have the things on hand that will allow
you to make a nice meal whenever the mood strikes.
Let's start by dividing up the pantry into three key sections
Basic Dry Foods Basic Frozen Foods Seasonings
Within these broad categories, the specific items that could be stocked are pretty limitless. For our exercise, I am going to assume that you enjoy American/Mediterranean cuisine and that you have some basic cooking knowledge.
One confession: throughout most of my twenties, my pantry consisted of soup,
salad dressing, Grey Poupon, Triscuits, cottage cheese and a well chilled bottle of champagne for emergencies. So, I recognize, that some readers may find this column a tad too domestic. But believe me, when it is raining, you're starving and it's two days before payday - you will thank your lucky stars you stocked up!
Basic Dry Foods
Unless you have a strong preference for a brand, I would recommend that you buy organic store branded versions of these items. Whole Foods typically has good quality and reasonable prices for its 360 brand.
I would have two types on hand: a spaghetti/angel hair and a
"shape" pasta like farfelli or rotelli. The spaghetti is classic
and a "shape" pasta like rotelli is great to use in salads or with thicker sauces.
Fresh are always best, but canned beans can be just as good and a lot quicker. Remember to rinse them well before use.
Black Beans: Great for quick southwestern dishes or nachos
White Beans: Personal choice here: flava or canellis
Pinto Beans: A must have for chiles.
This is a great item to have on hand. It cooks in 5 minutes and can be seasoned in an infinite number of ways. It is great hot or cold and holds bright flavors well. Bought in bulk it is very reasonable. Or get a few boxes of the national brands on sale.
This is the food that so many people think is difficult to cook and it's not. Just follow the directions on the bag and you will be fine. This is a great starch for those who are allergic to gluten and there are so many varieties available that you are sure to find one you like.
Every kitchen should have one type of rice on hand, here are the two basics.
White Rice: Try the long grain, it cooks well and makes a nice presentation
Brown Rice: Higher in nutrition than white and harder in texture.
There are so many soups on the market its hard not to find one you will like.
Along with your favorites, it is really nice to have a cream of chicken and
cream of mushroom on hand. The mushroom makes a great sauce for left over meat
and the chicken can be used as a base for a simple curry.
I always keep a few cartons of organic chicken stock on hand. It is great for making sauces or quick soups. Hint: If you eat a lot of chicken, remember to save the bones and make stock. It is super easy to make and economical.
Tomato Sauce and Paste
Tomato sauce is a wonderful seasoning for pasta, but works equally well with squash and bean dishes. I usually buy an inexpensive organic brand and season it with my herb blends, some garlic, onion and mushrooms. If that isn't your thing, there are a number of great, ready-to-heat sauces available.
Most of us only need two oils on hand: a good cooking oil and maybe a seasoning cooking oil that you like. Remember, fresh oils, like a good olive oil tend to go rancid after about 6-8 months, so try to buy an amount that you can realistically use in that time frame.
Grape Seed Oil: Neutral flavor, good for general purpose cooking
Peanut Oil: High temperature frying
Olive Oil: Salad dressing, finishing oil, marinades and low temperature sautés.
Sesame Oil: Asian accented dishes
I would buy one to keep in my fridge fresh and if I baked, one for the pantry
If you bake, great items to have on hand. If you don't bake, don't bother.
General Purpose Flour
Buy a small bag. It comes in handy when you want to make gravies or white sauces.
If you are disinclined towards wheat, try rice flour.
This item is a long time favorite of "Semi home-made" Sandra Lee. You can do a lot with it (it contains flour, baking soda and baking powder pre-mixed) from simple buns to a kind of pizza dough. Purists may cringe, but it is very easy to use.
Again this is a personal choice. I prefer the flavor of non-bleached or cane sugar.
Turbinado (or Sugar in the Raw) is a good choice here.
Salt has become a complex category unto its own. It is one that deserves its own column
or two. As a pantry basic, I recommend kosher salt (it exhibits a nice combination of salt flavor and texture) for everyday cooking and seasoning. In contrast, Sea Salts and flavored salts are often used to best advantage as finishing flavor. Look around, they are quite common now and sometimes you can find them on sale.
A very simple thing, like using fresh pepper, will make a big difference in your cooking. Buy a small peppermill and fill it with a good black peppercorn, like Tellicherry.
Your taste buds will love you for it.
A couple of cans of black olives are a great item to have on hand. They can be used as a garnish. They are wonderful combined with onion on a boboli or tossed into a salad with feta cheese.
If you cook, this is a wonderful thing to have on hand. They keep well and they can be used a lot of different ways, for example, dried mushrooms, (think Porcinis) can be grated into a stew, or soup or sauce for a nice sophisticated touch.
Tins of fish
Tuna is the natural choice. But for some, salmon, anchovy, lump fish crab or sardines are just as important.
Containers of your favorite indulgence
For some, Nutella is the thing. For others it's macadamia nuts. Whatever it is for you, have some on hand for that rainy day.
By the way, I would argue that chocolate morsels should be a standard pantry item.
With 6-8 ounces of dark chocolate morsels and milk you can make a microwave chocolate sauce or you can combine with Bisquick to make cookies. Want a mocha coffee? Add a few morsels to the cup. You can even jazz up left over chili by garnishing with a few pieces of chocolate. All in all, a fun and versatile staple to have around the house!
If you just get two of everything on this list you will be ready for whatever comes your way and you'll never have to settle for an expensive soggy take-out again.
See you next time when we tackle Frozen Basics and Seasonings.
About the Seasoner
Kathy FitzHenry is the founder of Juliet Mae Fine Spices, an artisan maker of fine spice blends and seasonings located in San Francisco. Known for her array of sophisticated, handmade products, Kathy has just begun to sell her blends nationally under the name The Occasional Gourmet. You can find her blends at select specialty stores and at all the Northern California Whole Foods Stores. For more information, please contact Kathy at 415-474-1633 or go to www.theoccasionalgourmet.com. © 2007 Juliet Mae Fine Spices San Francisco