How to Breathe Fresh Air Into Yours
If we cringe at the word “pantry,” it could be a reaction to the staleness that seems to go hand in hand with both the pantry and its contents. “Pantry staples” sounds a bit dull to begin with. To make matters worse, our well-intentioned pantry purchases often get buried and forgotten until well past their already lengthy shelf lives.
This series of articles is all about re-discovering the pantry as a hip, happening and helpful sort of thing. This is undoubtedly what you’ll discover when you first create a pantry. I feel pretty certain of that.
But with enough time, any new thing becomes stale, and a newly created pantry is no exception. Over time, stocking the pantry becomes routine: We figure out what staples we use frequently, we buy extras and have them in place, and we save a lot of time making meals.
All of this is good, of course. Until we start getting antsy and boredom starts nipping at our heels, because the meals we make with our pantry staples are the same ones we made last week, and the week before that, and the week before that. . .
That’s when it’s time to breathe some fresh air into your pantry. Sure, you don’t want to fill your shelves with stuff that never gets used. On the other hand, it’s good to stretch a little, buy something new and different and use that new found treasure as a springboard to refresh your mealtime repertoire.
You could say that pantry stocking is a two way street: Generally, we motor along with our well-known and frequently used pantry staples, but occasionally we should hop the median and drive the opposite direction, letting some wild pantry purchase lead our meal making decisions.
It’s not so hard to find something wild to get your creative cooking juices flowing. An earlier article in this series called this “treasure hunting:”
On your next shopping trip, gift yourself five extra minutes for some “treasure hunting.” Pick one section of an aisle, temporarily suspend the to-do list tapping its toes on your brain, and take time to actually look around at the various products, especially the quirky ones on the bottom and top shelves (that’s where they put the newer, less familiar—and often more interesting—products.)
Here are some other places to look and suggestions for treasures you might like to try:
Magazine Articles and Mediterranean Treats As mentioned in yesterday’s article, O Magazine recently reported that top chef Tony Manturano went on a shopping spree to Europe and refreshed his pantry with seven intriguing finds: capers in salt, chickpeas, harissa, Mediterranean olives, passato di pomodoro, piquillo peppers and tuna in olive oil. Magazine articles like this are a good way to locate fun ingredients that will shake up your pantry, especially since this article included a tempting introduction to each of the seven possibilities.
Friends and Tamarind If a friend serves up a new flavor for you, be sure to ask about it. Ask nicely and she might even give you a small, try-before-you-buy tester, as my friend Claudia did when I asked about the tamarind she used in a dish.
Recipes and Thai Pantry Staples While it’s common to pass on recipes that feature ingredients you’ve never heard of, don’t discount all of them. Every now and then, give one a try even if it does require a new ingredient or two. A recipe for Thai peanut sauce is how I got introduced to the unique flavor or Thai chilies and fish sauce.
Truffles, Gourmet Olive Oil and Store Demonstrations Here’s a suggestion that shouldn’t be too tough: Whenever you come across a demo table at the grocery store, sample the wares. Health food stores in particular are good about offering some unique ingredients. This is how I discovered truffle oil and truffle salt, as well as Lucero’s divine olive oil from California.
Marjoram, Turmeric and the Bulk Herbs and Spice Aisle Herbs and spices offer an easy route for experimentation. They take little in the way of a monetary investment if you buy just a small amount from the bulk section. What’s more, they can be tested in very small portion of a dish, to make sure you like the flavor before risking the entire dish. Over the past year, I have been experimenting extensively with marjoram. It has become one of my favorite herbs. Now I am beginning to use Turmeric not only for its interesting taste but also its healing capabilities.
Once you’ve procured a new pantry treasure, make sure it gets put to use:
- First, find a recipe that utilizes your new pantry treasure–just do an Internet search if a recipe didn’t come packaged with the inspiration for the ingredient;
- Second, plan a time to make whatever recipe you find; and
- Third, keep your pantry organized so you can find ingredients when you need them.
Ignore these rules and you’re practically assured of pantry overload. It’s a problem I hear about frequently: “I’ve got all this stuff in my cupboards and it never gets used #%$%&^*!!”
One final caveat: Passé is OK. Food can be such a trendy thing. I once read an article declaring that sun-dried tomatoes and truffles had officially passed their prime and would reflect embarrassingly on any cook who used them. I almost dumped my tomatoes and truffles before my good sense came to the rescue. Trends and fads be darned; if you like a pantry staple, use it
And now, it’s time to go fix my latest pantry fav: Dried beans. I have always stocked canned beans which are perfectly acceptable. But they are a far cry from the soft, buttery taste of dried beans simmered in a slow cooker. And there are so many uses for a freshly cooked batch. The topic of another day. . .
Ready to begin experimenting with a pantry. Build one if you’re pantry-less, or if you’ve got a pantry, find out how to make the most of it. Check out my book, Take Control of Your Kitchen, which explains what to buy and how to store and organize it for easy access, or email to set up some individual kitchen coaching where we focus on setting up a helpful and healthful pantry. If you missed any of the previous articles in this series, here they are: