One of the secrets you will eventually uncover about the kitchen is that behind any good home cook is a pantry. Large or small, chaotic or organized, minimal or well-stocked, the pantry is the key to getting home cooked meals on the table on a regular basis. I have always loved pouring over the pantry section of the cook books I read, though some have left me wanting. It can be really expensive to furnish a well-stocked pantry, and so many of the attempts I’ve made have resulted in wasted food and spoiled money. A pantry is not a one size fits all solution–it’s a resource meant to be personalized for each family. Once I had the realization that my pantry needed to work for me and not the other way around I became much more efficient and much less wasteful.
I’m going to talk about pantries over the next few weeks, and I wanted to share some of my favorite and often-relied upon pantry staples. I’m also going to share why I use them so often so you can see why they have earned their spot in my pantry. I like to divide my stores into a few groups: I have a cupboard pantry, a freezer pantry, and a fruit and vegetable pantry. I might even include a spice section as well.
1. Dried Shiitake Mushrooms – The workhorse of my kitchen. I use them in soups, rice dishes, risotto, and as snacks. You can add it to convenience foods like ramen and it makes all the difference. They keep practically forever and improve just about everything. I cook with them all the time and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface with what they can do.
2. Soy Sauce – I’ve hear soy sauce referred to as “the French chef’s secret” because a few drops will add a powerful umami flavor and are a secret ingredient and a recent update to classic sauces. In addition to being indispensable on white rice and in Asian dishes, it serves as a marinade, a condiment, and an ingredient in its own right. Is your soup a little bland? Add some soy sauce. Reduce it as in teriyaki or use it to make my favorite sweet and sour sauce for a mushroom snack. Use it in inventive ways whenever you need a sharp, salty, umami kick.
3. Bouillon Cubes – Sometimes I don’t bother with bouillon cubes and I’ll use a canned stock but for very liquid soups bouillon can be tastier than canned stock and works in a pinch if you don’t have homemade stock ready. You can cook rice in it, make a quick but soul-replenishing soup, use it in sauces or a braise, or poach vegetables in it. My favorite kinds are chicken and mushroom, but try out a few brands and flavors to see what you prefer.
4. Olives – Olives come in dozens of varieties and provide both protein and essential oils. They are rich in healthy fat and calories making them a perfect snack or a sometimes-finicky toddler or a health food resistant husband. They come in flavors from mild to piquant, satisfying a large array of pallets. Like other items on this list they are both an ingredient and a food in their own right. Owning a jar of olives puts you one step closer to putting together a fantastic cheese or antipasto plate at the last minute.
5. Peanut Oil – Everyone knows the merits of olive oil and it certainly has a permanent place in my kitchen. But peanut oil ties for usefulness. Peanut oil is mild in flavor and can be used as a neutral oil when paired with strong flavors. It has a very high smoking point and can be used to cook food at very high heat. It makes the most delicious popcorn and can perk up a jar of drying natural peanut butter in seconds. It’s healthier than plain vegetable oil and makes lovely salad dressings.
6. Jarred Pasta Sauce – a good jarred pasta sauce will take you far in life. It can be used for saucing a pizza, as a dip or sauce for steamed veggies, diluted with stock it makes a quick tomato soup, and it makes the perfect bed for serving baked or broiled meatballs. Oh yeah, you can eat it over pasta, too.
7. Marsala Wine – There is nothing fancy about Marsala wine. It’s not expensive and the kind I buy comes with a screw-top lid so it’s easy to use after opening. Marsala is my go-to wine for stews, reducing into sauces, or risotto. I love the flavor of Marsala and use it frequently.
8. Red Wine Vinegar – my favorite vinegars are rice, balsamic and red wine, but I’m choosing to focus on red wine for this list because it’s the vinegar I have to replace most frequently. We use it in sauces and marinades, for seasonings and especially, homemade salad dressing. It’s Anthony’s favorite for salads and this contributes in no small part to our having to replace it often.
9. Fruit Preserves – We always have to keep preserves of some kind on hand (peach is my favorite) not the least because preserves are practically a desert in my daughter’s eyes. Preserves are a sweet that works in savory dishes like this chicken. It’s essential for PB&J (or in this case, BP&P -peanut butter and preserves) sandwiches, which Isobel requests a few times a week. And you are never far away from a successful cheese plate when you have jars of these stashed away.
10. Peanut Butter – Peanut butter is another favorite childhood staple and as I mentioned there are few sandwhiches my daughter loves more than PB&J. She also likes to eat it dolloped on coins of bananas or as a dip for apple slices or pretzel sticks. It’s delicious in a noodle salad or in a dessert and it packs a meatless protein punch, something we could all use more of.
What are your pantry essentials? Chime in in the comments if you’d like to share.