Thursday, March 11, 2010

These are a few of my favorite things...the ingredient edition.

Pantry staples can make or break a quick dinner. I firmly believe in having a well stocked pantry so that in the likely event I am a couple of days behind in my grocery shopping or one of the kids games runs late, I know that I can throw together a quick and reasonably healthy dinner in the time it takes someone else to order take out. For the record, there is no possibility of ordering in where I live. It's a twenty five minute drive to the nearest supermarket and unlike the contestants on Top Chef, I have little desire to throw together a meal from my local quick stop convenience store.

For me, having these pantry staples on hand is reassuring. It feels like security to me. And having a well stocked pantry is a way to avoid over processed junk food. These are my favorite pantry staples...what are yours?

Eggs. Is there any more versatile ingredient than the humble egg? At their most basic we like them over easy on buttered wheat toast. Scrambled with cheese or herbs. Frittatas with leftover vegetables. Whipped for fluffy pancakes. And when I can convince or persuade her my daughter makes fabulous Mexican omelets stuffed with black beans and cheese, topped with salsa and plain greek yogurt (way healthier than sour cream.) And I've never met a dish I didn't like just that much more with a softly fried egg on top. Leftover spaghetti mixed with a little marinara and topped with a fried egg? Heaven.

Without olive oil there would be no Aglio e Olio and that would be a travesty. There is no greater comfort food for me that a steaming plate of pasta slicked with garlicky olive oil and red pepper flakes with a fluffy mound of grated Parmesan on top. And all sauteed or roasted vegetables begin with a coating of olive oil. I couldn't cook
without it.

I couldn't mention Aglio e Olio without talking about pasta. Since we don't eat meat every day, we eat a lot of pasta. I try to only eat whole grain pasta. There are few dishes that can't be made with whole grain pasta. Aglio e Olio is not at all harmed by the use of whole grain versus a more traditional semolina pasta. The only dish I can think of where I would hesitate to use whole grain pasta is probably lemon cream pasta which has such a light flavor I think it would be overwhelmed by the whole wheat. For everything else there is wheat pasta.

And speaking of lemon cream pasta...lemons. I always have lemons in the house. I make lemonade for the kids once or twice a week and homemade iced tea needs a squirt of lemon for acidity. Kale and spinach love being drizzled with lemon after cooking. And a secret...lemons make your skin glow. Sometimes after I squeeze the juice out of a lemon half I rub the lemon all over my face and let it sit for a few minutes. Rinse it off and voila!- rosy, freshly exfoliated skin.

Onions and garlic. How anyone can cook without them is beyond me. Mujadarra would not be mujadarra without onions. Slowly caramelized onions are absolutely delicious in quesadillas. Or scrambled eggs. The French call the trinity of onions, carrots and celery Mirepoix. I forget how to cook when there are no onions in the house. Luckily, it's a rare occasion that there are no onions in the house.

Aborio rice. I mainly use it to make my mushroom risotto which my family loves. Since I always have mushrooms in the crisper drawer, we never more than thirty minutes away from mushroom risotto. Unless we run out of white wine and are not lucky enough to have a bottle of champagne on hand...Aborio rice also makes the creamiest rice pudding.

My life changed when I learned to jam. Those jars of sweetly tart fruit pull me through the winter with the promise of what's to come and the memory of summers past. We can hardly bring ourselves to use maple syrup anymore, so delicious is a thick smear of jam atop a light as air ricotta pancake. And the ubiquitous peanut butter sandwich would be forlorn without it.

It seems silly to call vanilla a pantry staple. Except it's not. I bake a lot and the best thing I ever did was order whole, plump Madagascar vanilla beans online to make my own vanilla extract. Now when a recipe calls for a whole vanilla bean I can pull one out of my extract. And the beans can be dried and added to sugar to make vanilla sugar. You can top off your extract with more vodka and keep it going for years. I haven't topped mine off yet as I made a lot. The batch I'm using now was started over a year ago and it smells incredible. Better even that the expensive (ridiculously so) vanilla sold in gourmet markets. I have experiments planned for bourbon and scotch vanilla.

If we are talking about things that are convenient to have on hand, we must mention frozen veggies. They are essential to a well stocked pantry. I also like to freeze bacon and sausages. They defrost in no time and I usually cook the sausages frozen and they turn our fine. Bacon is great to have in the freezer in case a recipe calls for a bit of it. You can even substitute it for pancetta, in a pinch. I also keep frozen purees on hand. Here I have pumpkin and sweet potato. They might become pies or muffins, perhaps even a pumpkin risotto. And cookie dough. Most cookie doughs freeze well and I love having extra on hand for those times when you absolutely have to have something sweet.

Not photographed but essential in my house are also flour tortillas, canned refried beans (we found a brand without lard and with just 4 very recognizable ingredients), sundried tomatoes in oil, canned beans (black, cannellini, and kidney) and Annie's macaroni and cheese.

What pantry items are must haves in your house?


  1. I love this entry! I actually wrote one similar to it back in Novemeber. for me i like to have oatmeal on hand, the old fashioned kind of course, because its such a healthy and filling way to start the day. natural peanut butter is essential in our house, and our favorite snack food by far are triscuts (particularly the fancy flavored kind). yes they are probably higher in sodium than they should be, but I can't help but feel as though they are better for me that most snack foods!

  2. Girl, I love this list! I have so many of the same staples too.

    Onions (I’m a total onion whore)
    King Arthur Flour
    Pasta (I’m not a fan of whole wheat, though)
    Rice (jasmine & short grain)
    Olive oil (for some reason I like regular VS. Extra Virgin. It’s cheaper that way, so I’m not really complaining.)
    Concentrated lemon/lime juice

    I'm going to have to read my refried beans label. Now I'm curious. I get the fat-free kind at Aldi. You know how pets go crazy when you open up a can of food? I feel the same way about refried beans in a can - so smooth and creamy.

  3. I love a well-stocked pantry. One thing that matters to me (besides good tuna, crushed tomatoes and black bean paste) is vinegar. Balsamic, white, red wine, apple cider, white balsamic, rice vinegar. Good for adding snap to whatever vegetables are left in the back of the fridge or livening up simple pasta dishes.
    Thanks for your list!

  4. @Blair oatmeal, peanut butter and triscuits- check, check and check. We always have those one hand, especially peanut butter. We go through one large jar a week!

    @Albany Jane I believe ours are Full Circle Organic, I usually find them at PC. Pinto beans, water, sea salt, org onion powder, org chili pepper, org spice, org garlic powder. Can't beat that.

    @Caroline How could I forget crushed tomatoes- so handy! Now what's black bean paste? I'm going to have to look that one up.

  5. Also called black bean sauce. It's an Asian condiment that's salty, slightly sweet and made from fermented beans. Another good reason to hit up the Asian grocery!

  6. Great post. I slack in the organization/preparedness department. I have 3 market stores all within a 5 minute drive so that kind of enables my disorganization.

    I'm trying to do better with eating locally and seasonally though, so this year I am definitely planning to get into making some jams/sauces and lots of canning in the late summer.