We all know that having a few staple items on hand at all times can be a complete meal-saver, but how often do you come home from work with no idea what to make and end up either ordering takeout or grabbing some cereal and milk and calling it good? Keeping your pantry well-stocked, beyond what many home cooks currently do, is one of the most important steps in succeeding at weeknight cooking. Harried evenings fraught with homework help, extracurricular activities, and meeting project deadlines from home can and should involve enjoying a meal that tastes like you’ve spent some time on it. Just because you are a day or two overdue for a trip to the grocery store doesn’t mean that you can’t eat well. Yes, basic cooking knowledge plays into this, but getting there starts with the right pantry. This can look wildly different from one person to the next, depending on cuisine preferences, but the point is to build a pantry that suits your tastes, needs, and cooking style. To do this, you can take one of two approaches.
If you are motivated to have an immediately stocked pantry and have the financial wherewithal to do so, you can make a long list and spend an afternoon at four or five different grocers and markets; however, most people can’t realistically afford to do that. Pantry items can be expensive up front (though long term, they can greatly reduce your overall grocery bill). A more feasible option for people wanting to avoid complete sticker shock is to purchase two or three of these staples a week- sherry vinegar and walnut oil this week, anchovies and a few extra boxes of pasta the next- and within a few months, you’ll have a decent pantry built up.
To aid your pantry building, scout out the stores in your area to see if you have the option to purchase spices, grains, flours, sugars and other sweeteners, vinegars, pasta, beans, and dried fruit in bulk (my local Virginia Beach area followers: you can do this at Whole Foods). It’s almost always cheaper, and if you purchase items that have a high turnover rate, you generally get a fresher product than you would buying the same product prepackaged. I also strongly recommend purchasing spices whole and grinding them at home. It may sound like overkill, but whole spices last longer (2 years on average vs. 3-6 months for the pre-ground stuff before the flavor starts to suffer), taste better (seriously, your cooking will improve IMMENSELY if you make this one change), and it really only takes a few second to grind them in an inexpensive coffee or spice grinder. Also, don’t be afraid to step out of your usual grocery store and into your local Latin, African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Indian, and European markets. You can generally shop much more inexpensively there than you can at your local American chain grocers.
Taking stock of my kitchen right now, I have 7 pasta varieties (Italian, Vietnamese, and Chinese noodles represented there), farro, quinoa, polenta, four different types of dried beans, red lentils, yellow split peas, red rice, brown rice, glutinous rice, 8 different varieties of flour, 5 types of sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, more spices than I care to count, four types of dried chiles, various chile pastes and hot sauces, coconut milk, three kinds of oil, at least 9 different vinegars, fish sauce, a couple cans of San Marzano tomatoes, and a few other things that I can’t see without climbing onto the counters, something which I am not inclined to do at the moment.
Your freezer can serve as an important extension of your pantry. My deep freeze usually has several jars and containers of chicken and beef stocks, and my freezer door almost always contains a frozen root or two of ginger and a large bag of parmesan rinds (those are for enriching soups and broths, if you are curious). Various greens that I have stocked up on throughout the year are within easy reach and make a tasty meal with a poached egg and buttered toast. And speaking of eggs, you can make a meal out of pretty much anything with a poached or over-easy egg on top of it, so keep a good supply of eggs in the fridge. Beyond all of this, I keep longer-lasting perishables on hand for when the fresh leafy greens are getting low, like ginger, garlic, potatoes, olives, onions, shallots, carrots, eggs, and butter. At any given time, a few of these ingredients may be missing while others not listed will be present, but in general, I can create at least a few dozen different dishes without even having to think about it. Pasta puttanesca, savory crepes, various coconut curries, frittatas, risotto, eggs in purgatory, polenta crowned with caramelized onions and a wisp of chevre- these are just a smattering of what is available to me on any given evening, regardless of what my original dinner plans were. There is something freeing in this, and knowing that you don’t have to stress over mealtime makes cooking all the more enjoyable.
Do you keep staple items on hand? If so, what are they? What are your favorite meals that you build around these ingredients?