The very idea of a pantry always gives me pause. In a world where so many people will go to bed hungry tonight, I am blessed to live in a part of the world and in the financial situation to be able to talk about what food to have on hand at all times. It's humbling, truly.
That said, my young Texas friend asks, "What are some of your really easy “go to” meals that you can throw together pretty quickly if you have unexpected guests?" We can expand on that and ask, what if I need to make a quick dessert to bring to a pot luck, or what if I'm just hungry and need to make something that didn't come in a bag with puzzles on it and ketchup packets inside? Seriously, though, if I want to have on hand what I need to whip up a quick and tasty meal for friends or family, there are basic staples to have on hand, plus "fancy" ingredients that can bring something special to the table, without additional effort.
I think I will break this up into three sections: a baker's pantry, a cook's pantry and every pantry. Last one first:
- Salt. Even on a low salt diet, some things require salt.
- Oils. You need olive oil, you need some kind of neutral-flavored oil like canola and I suggest you add some good oils like coconut oil, avocado oil and peanut oil to have on hand. A word about olive oil: if you're going to be using it to make hearty sauces, buy hearty olive oil. Let the flavor shine through. If it is going to be the star of your vinaigrette, choose the best quality extra virgin, freshest-flavor olive oil you can find.
- Pan spray. Store brands work fine.
- Corn starch
- Flour. Unbleached all-purpose for .... wait for it.... all purposes. Thickening, dredging, basic baking, food fights. All purposes. If you're never going to bake, check out Wondra flour in a shaker can just for thickening.
- Quick-cooking oats. Useful in baking, yes, but also amps up the nutrition in meatloaf, meatballs and that sort of thing. Can also add a good crunch to a breading for oven baked chicken.
- Cornmeal. Plain cornmeal for corn bread or to sprinkle on the pan for a loaf of bread. Also for frying okra or adding crunch to other breadings. Get masa if you plan to make tortillas.
- Vinegar. I keep a selection of several: plain white vinegar, cider vinegar, balsamic, seasoned rice vinegar, red wine vinegar and malt vinegar. Each has it's unique flavor that can bring your dish up a whole level of complex.
A Cook's Pantry:
- Rice: I would suggest a flavorful, stand-alone rice like jasmine or basmati, plus risotto for savory dishes.
- Beans: One of the few places where I will suggest canned food. Canned beans are super handy, and not ruined by being canned. I keep black beans (for soups), garbanzo beans (which I roast for a healthy, happy snack) and pintos for refrying. I also have several jars of 7-bean soup mix that I canned myself, but that's another story. You might want to add cannelini beans for adding to salads, or kidney beans to add to your minestrone. Once you get some recipes under your belt, you will know better what you want to stock.
- Grains. Quinoa if you eat it. Couscous. Wheat berries are nice in a salad, after cooking and can also make a good snack if you cook them until tender and then fry them.
- Bread crumbs. I usually keep seasoned bread crumbs on hand, but you can buy plain ones and season as you like. Panko is nice, too.
- You need some prepared stock. Cool on you if you are homey enough to have made and canned your own stock, but most of us don't. Keep on hand, at the very least, vegetable stock. I like the Kitchen Basics brand, which is readily available in my area. If you aren't a vegan, I encourage you to add chicken stock and beef stock. I think two cartons of each is probably a minimum.
- I am a big fan of a product called "Better Than Bouillon" by Superior Touch. It comes in more flavors than Grandpa's got liver spots and is super handy. I make sure to keep vegetable, chicken, beef and mushroom flavors on hand. I want to try the lobster flavor, for sure! There is also ham base and some others. This product did well in testing at America's Test Kitchen. It's great if you run out of stock, yes. But a little bit added to your sauce, soup, stew or whatever really does add flavor depth. Try it. :-)
- Tomatoes. Jarred are best if you can find them and are willing to pay a premium price. Canned works, too though. I keep several varieties of tomatoes on hand: petite diced tomatoes, tomato paste, sun-dried tomatoes (julienned) in olive oil, crushed tomatoes and tomato pesto. I use the diced tomatoes in rice dishes, sauces, a quick salsa, lots of things. Tomato paste has a million uses, too. Add some to your meatloaf mixture. Spread tomato paste over a soup bone before you roast it and amaze yourself at the flavorful wow factor of your beef stock. Crushed tomatoes for pasta sauce or enchilada sauce.
- Capers. Yes, you actually do want these in your fridge. Once you become familiar with them, they'll turn up in lots of things.
- Instant mashed potato flakes. Not for actually making "mashed potatoes", but for adding an especially delicious layer of flavor to breading, great for adding body to things without necessarily thickening them.
- A good variety of spices and seasonings. My constantly used: lemon pepper, smoked salt, basil, thyme, oregano, bay leaves, marjoram, dill weed and cumin all make regular appearances. Keep chili powder, cayenne, paprika, smoked paprika in the fridge (always refrigerate red spices to preserve their flavor). Salt and pepper for sure. Turmeric, ground mustard, sage, poultry seasoning, Montreal steak seasoning... my spice cabinet is very full and gets constant use. I never developed a taste for tarragon or cilantro, and I can't afford real saffron.
- Nuts and seeds. Keep them in the fridge or freezer to preserve flavor if needed. Sunflower, sesame, poppy and flax seeds are all good. Have pecans, almonds (slivered and sliced, probably) and hazelnuts, too, on hand. I'll share a recipe for asparagus with hazelnut dressing later on and you'll be in love with me.
- A good variety of condiments. My fridge contains Worcestershire, liquid smoke, lemon juice, oyster sauce, chili garlic sauce, ketchup, mustards (some of which I made myself), soy sauce, plum sauce, mayonnaise...small containers until you know what you really use a lot of.
- Wine. Please, please, please! Cook with wine! Use whatever kind of wine you like to drink, and maybe drink some while you're cooking, but do add wine. It will bring a brightness to your risotto and a richness to your marinara that you really need to add to your life.
A Baker's Pantry
- Flours for the kind of baking you do. Cake flour, bread flour, whole wheat flour, sprouted wheat flour are all possibilities. Definites are unbleached all purpose flour and self-rising flour. Self-rising flour is so incredibly handy that you are really going to wonder why you haven't used it before, if you haven't. Use it for the flour measure in almost any leavened baked good and you don't have to bother with baking powder, baking soda and salt. Super handy.
- You may want to consider adding non-wheat flours such as almond flour, coconut flour, etc. to your pantry. Tapioca flour, too, if you want to make fruit pies or crumbles.
- Baker's pan spray: the kind that contains both the flour and the grease, such as Baker's Joy. Store brands are dandy, too.
- Sugar if you plan to make sweets: white, confectioner's, brown sugar, molasses. Honey. Brown rice syrup. Maple syrup. All worthy of consideration.
- Leavening. What are you going to make? Cakes, cookies and quick breads all need baking powder and/or baking soda unless you're using self-rising flour. (check your recipe, you might not be able to substitute). Yeast if you plan to make bread, some kinds of donuts, sweet rolls, etc.
- If you're going to be a dessert/sweets baker, you'll also want to keep baking chocolate (unsweetened and semi sweet), baking chips such as chocolate, butterscotch, brickle or peanut butter chips, cocoa, graham crackers (or crumbs).
- Evaporated milk and maybe sweetened condensed milk, too. You can also buy shelf-stable milk in some places and that is great to have on hand if you don't drink enough milk to always have some.
- If you need to be able to whip up a quick, easy dessert, straight from your pantry, keep some canned peaches or apricots on hand for a superfast cobbler.
- Baker's spices: cinnamon, orange peel, allspice, cloves, ground ginger, vanilla, almond extract and so on. Some of these, obviously, are not only for baking.
- I'm sorry to tell you this. If you're going to make a lot of desserts, you need fat. Shortening or lard. Yes, you do. Don't tell the health nut on the elliptical next to you, though.
OK, I know it looks like a lot. Most of those items actually take up very little space, though. You can gradually stock a pantry over time and you'll be ready for any kitchen emergency.