Time Savers: The Well Stocked Pantry

You will note that I said the “Well Stocked” and not the “Well Organized” pantry.  That would be for obvious reasons.

Having a well stocked pantry is an investment that takes some time to build but is well worth the effort and expense.  One of the biggest time savers that I have can be found right in my kitchen…and perhaps sprawling in the basement and maybe also a secret closet, but that’s not the point.  When you have the right combination of shelf-stable goods on hand, your dinner and entertaining options go through the roof.

I have had impromptu parties where, after a week without grocery shopping, my first instinct was panic. However, after the hysteria about my appallingly filthy bathroom faded, I got into business mode.  I had to get food into 8 drunken mates before my bathroom was in even worse shape than before. After the sluggish mental wheels finally started to spin, in 15 minutes I had a batch of olive and white bean dip with crackers, cheese and pickle plate, chips (nobody said gourmet), and pasta was boiling away while a simple herbed tomato and chickpea sauce simmered on another element.  That, my friends, is the glory of a well stocked pantry.

When I have a busy week, I tend to rely heavily on my pantry to bring dinner to the table with the help of whatever fresh produce hasn’t started to rot in my fridge.  The pantry itself is a rather organic being, swelling and waning with the tides, sometimes fatted and sometimes lean, but always a peace of mind.  Although my personal pantry is generally quite diverse, for the way that I cook and for easy meals that most people are familiar with in North America, these are my rules for the barest of bare minimums….plus the niceties which I still consider to be basic but could live without in a pinch.

Dry goods are the staple items with a generous shelf life, including dried grains, legumes and canned goods.  I like to think of these as the base ingredients which usually provide the body of a last minute pantry dinner, and which are absolutely indispensable when time is of the essence and you realize that the surprise visit of a few friends earlier in the day is rapidly approaching, “FEED US DINNER, GODDAMMIT” status.  This is the greatest part of our pantry staples collection, so it seems like the right place to begin.

Dry Goods

MUST HAVE

  • 2 types of rice *
  • all purpose flour
  • pasta: one long and skinny, one short and ridged (such as spaghetti and rotini)
  • cous cous **
  • crackers
  • baking powder
  • nuts

NICE TO HAVE

  • quinoa
  • barley
  • spelt or kamut
  • bulghur
  • rice noodles
  • additional varieties of rice
  • whole wheat flour
  • cornstarch
  • cocoa powder
  • baking soda
  • fine ground cornmeal
  • specialty rices
  • dried lentils
  • dried beans

* At a bare minimum, I like to have long grain white rice and brown rice. However, given the opportunity, I prefer to also have on hand arborio (or short grain), basmati, jasmine, and glutinous rices. I always have orzo on hand, and although I should keep orzo in the pasta category, because of the shape I tend to lump it in with my rices.

** Sure, you may not think of cous cous as a pantry staple. However, have you ever fed 12 people in 15 minutes? No? Because I have, thanks to couscous and canned chickpeas, among other things.  How can you deny a starch that fluffs up in less time than it takes to boil your pasta water?

(This is about half of it. At least most of the containers are labeled? No, doesn’t count for much. I get it.)

Cans and Jars

MUST HAVE

  • diced tomatoes
  • crushed tomatoes or passata *
  • tomato paste
  • olives
  • pickles (your favorite)
  • canned white beans
  • canned chickpeas
  • canned tuna fish
  • tetrapack stock **

NICE TO HAVE

  • whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
  • capers
  • canned mixed beans
  • canned kidney beans
  • marinated artichoke hearts
  • roasted red peppers, preferably piquillo
  • MORE olives!
  • salsa
  • sweet gherkins
  • preserved lemons
  • homemade pickles ***

* Passata is either tomato puree or strained and pulped tomatoes, which has a thinner texture than crushed tomatoes or (preservative laden) tomato sauce.

** Chicken and beef stock are perfect to have on hand. If you’re of a vegetarian ilk, a golden and a brown vegetable stock (the brown or orange stock usually just has tomatoes added) are a good equivalent.

*** It may take a couple hours one Sunday afternoon in the fall, but in the depths of February despair when you garnish a Spicy Bloody Caesar with your personally canned pickled green beans, you WILL feel like a star.

(That would be the shelving in our basement. Shameful, true, but I believe in showing you honesty if nothing else)

Condiments & Miscellaneous

MUST HAVE

  • ketchup (let’s not kid ourselves)
  • Dijon mustard
  • 3 types of vinegar: one sweet, one savory and one dark and strong
  • soy sauce
  • jam
  • peanut butter
  • potato or tortilla chips

NICE TO HAVE

  • mirin
  • “fancy” vinegars (tarragon, white balsamic, fig balsamic, raspberry white wine, etc)
  • tahini
  • oyster sauce
  • marmalade
  • Nutella
  • dried mushrooms
  • sundried tomatoes

(The oils and vinegars are together, taking up the better part of one cupboard. In this area, I really do focus on the “nice to haves”.)

Fruits and Vegetables

MUST HAVE

  • onions
  • garlic
  • carrots
  • potatoes
  • celery
  • apples
  • oranges
  • fresh lemon (or squeezy lemon juice)
  • fresh lime (or squeezy lime juice)

NICE TO HAVE

  • sweet potatoes
  • ginger
  • cabbage

(No, you will NOT see a picture of my vegetable crisper, complete with dried up parsley crusted to the side of one drawer and a rotten eggplant in the other.  I have some pride, you know.)

Fats and Oils

MUST HAVE

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • butter
  • shortening

NICE TO HAVE

  • best quality extra virgin olive oil for drizzling
  • unsalted butter
  • nonstick cooking spray
  • vegetable oil

Sugar and Spice

MUST HAVE

  • white granulated sugar
  • brown sugar
  • honey
  • kosher salt
  • black pepper (preferably fresh ground from a mill)
  • bay leaves
  • dried thyme
  • dried oregano
  • dried dill
  • dried rosemary
  • red chili flakes
  • cinnamon
  • cumin
  • curry powder
  • chili powder

NICE TO HAVE

  • icing sugar
  • molasses
  • cayenne powder
  • nutmeg
  • allspice
  • smoked paprika
  • coriander seeds
  • ground ginger
  • fennel seeds
  • dried chilis
  • homemade spice rubs

Fridge & Freezer Staples

MUST HAVE

  • milk
  • eggs
  • cheese (if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, that will come as no surprise)
  • breadcrumbs*
  • frozen chopped spinach
  • frozen appetizers **
  • frozen corn

NICE TO HAVE

  • yogurt
  • sour cream
  • cream cheese
  • frozen fava beans or edamame
  • frozen mixed vegetables
  • homemade stock
  • frozen roasted garlic
  • cured sausage or sliced meat
  • frozen puff pastry
  • frozen phyllo

* Fresh breadcrumbs keep best in the freezer without going stale.

** When I make puffed pastry or phyllo wrapped appetizers, dumplings or even meatballs, I generally do a double batch and pack half flat in a single layer in the freezer.  When company comes over all I need to do is preheat the oven and hot appetizers are 20 minutes or less away!

When it comes to a well stocked pantry, these are the items that I rely on and experience has taught me that I have difficulty living without them for very long (camping? Not so much).  However, when it comes to your tastes and preferences, you could use this as a guideline and add or subtract as you see fit. This is particularly so in the spices, because I have a spice rack that would make an Emir weep, but just because this is what I most frequently use to season or flavor my food, that doesn’t mean the same goes for everyone.

Do you feel that your well stocked pantry is what keeps you sane at dinner time?  If so, I’d love to hear what is similar or different to ours!  We love hearing about what goes on in your kitchen, and if you can give me a reason to enjoy another evening of grocery shopping it’s all the better!

  • erica

    I think I need to show you a picture of my spice drawer.

  • Lita

    I have to tell you: few things make me as happy as having my pantry well stocked and well ordered! Plus I love lists and peeks into other people’s lives–this is great for my pantry voyeurism! I found some really good tomato paste that comes in a tube–do you know of it (I can’t remember the brand right now)? It’s great for recipes that don’t need a whole can as it goes into the fridge to keep once you open it…

  • http://muskegharpy.blogspot.com/ Jacquie

    Since I live in a remote area, I am a bit of a food horder. Whenever I go down south I buy at least 1 new oil, 1 new vinegar, and about 3 pounds (literally) of spices. One of my favorite things to do is to go to Asian markets, Carnercerias, and uppity food shops and lovingly touch everything. I pack light to make room for every little food thing I want to bring back.

    My pantry looks like yours save the 4 types of seaweed and bonito I have decided I need for Dashi. Oh, and a huge bottle of cheap white wine for sauces. My freezer always has berries, salmon, venison, and tortillas. My husband woldn’t be able to feed himself without tortillas, cheese, and pinto beans. Lately, I’ve been putting up demi-glace (It is awesome and easy and you should totally do it). It has unfortunately become a staple in my week night cooking.

    Do you keep your preserved lemons in the fridge or on the shelf?

  • Andrea

    Having a well stocked pantry for me always makes for new and interesting dishes because I can easily throw a few things together and usually get something different if I have enough variety. Oatmeal is an essential for me, I’m surprised it’s not on your list! Maybe I bake too much 🙂

  • Tina Espana

    thanks, interesting article. my pantry looks bare!

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    Erica – at least you keep them in a drawer. In addition to my sprawling spice racks on the counter, I have a big box in an overheard cupboard that comes raining down on me every time I open that door.

    Lita – thank you for your comment!! I love the tomato paste in a tube (so convenient!) and the anchovy paste and lemongrass puree also have a happy home in my fridge!

    Jacquie – I’m just a fan of cheap white wine..period. Also? You know that I get insanely jealous when you talk about the salmon and venison in your freezer. Why taunt me so? Serious envy issues going on over here. I have a friend who does the same thing. Every time she comes down from Sudbury (northern Ontario) for a visit we go to the Asian and ethnic grocery stores so she can stock up. For the preserved lemons, I keep them in the pantry. With the amount of salt that I use they keep for a couple of months easily. In the fridge they would probably last for years, but our fridge space is always at a premium! Mind you, I’m also the kind of person who leaves ketchup in the pantry, so bear that in mind.

    Andrea – I agree with you. I always have oatmeal and I don’t know why I don’t think of it as a staple because it really is. I don’t use oatmeal nearly as much as I should, so perhaps that’s why, but great call out/suggestion!!

  • http://www.eatingclubvancouver.com TS of eatingclub vancouver

    Oooh, I like snooping around in other people’s pantries and fridges… Thanks for the peek! =)

  • erica

    Well, I’ll be honest, the only reason I have a spice drawer is because I don’t have enough counter space for that many spice racks. We’ve only got two drawers in this kitchen (stupid apartment) and the “smaller” one is dedicated to spices. Oh, and there’s a shopping bag on the very top shelf of the pantry filled with “refill” bags of our most used spices. And yet… I’m still running out of stuff. Must make a trip to Penzey’s soon.

  • Niki

    Man, this reminds me I need to hit up Penzey’s for restocking. I’ve been keeping the pantry stuff down lately to really use up the stuff we have since I got bad in rotating items. I will say Nutella’s making a comeback again into our house. We used to have chocolate bread (Nutella and fresh baguettes) living in Germany. Since I’ve been baking bread lately, chocolate bread has become a staple for us again.