With a well-stocked pantry, you'll not only be prepared to cook a wide range of dishes, you'll save time and money in the long run, because by getting accustomed to your personal set of supplies, you'll develop your own style, and you will not have to go out to the store and buy every single ingredient in a dish when it's time for dinner.
In the Kitchn Cure, I'm starting to try to impart some techniques for cooking more by instinct than by recipe. This is a great time of year to try this style of free-hand cooking because the availability of inspiring ingredients, produce in particular, starts to be more bountiful. And, ironically, the best place to start is not at the farmers' market, but at the grocery store. Sure, those fiddlehead ferns you see at your friendly farmer's stand are sure pretty, but what are you going to do with them?
You need to stock your pantry.
Here, in roughly descending order of importance, is a list of pantry staples that having on hand at all times will make it easier to cook regularly and by instinct rather than depending solely on recipes. Of course, depending on the cuisines that influence your cooking, this list could change dramatically. And depending on how much space you have, you may be limited. Take it with a grain of salt, and leave suggestions for pantry basics I've left out that you feel are essential for the way you like to cook.
- Good Sea Salt. Maldon Sea Salt is a nice flakey salt that many chefs prefer for finishing. It costs about $7 for a box that will last you a long time. This stuff is different and it will make a noticeable difference if you salt your food with it. Trust me. For salting while you cook, a $2 box of coarse kosher will work.
- Black Peppercorns and a Good Peppermill. You can buy peppercorns in a container that also grinds them, but usually this is a big waste of plastic since you cannot refill the container. There are a range of peppermills to choose from: we've written about the beautiful (and pricey) Perfex mill. This is also a good item to scavenge for on eBay.
- Good Quality Olive Oil. We've covered this topic a lot on the site (see Emma's piece on How Much To Pay For Olive Oil) My rule of thumb is to get the best you can afford, and don't buy more than you can use in a few months because it will go rancid.
- Chicken (or Vegetable) Stock. Have a few cartons of stock around for risottos, simmering vegetables, and just giving extra flavor to your stove-top and oven-prepared dishes. Shelf-stable, packaged stock (or broth) comes in 32oz (4 cup) cartons, and handy 8oz (1 cup) containers. Imagine and Pacific are two brands that offer organic free range broth in both sizes. It's also quite easy to make your own chicken stock.
- Dried Pasta. Perhaps the most obvious pantry staple. If you have several shapes, you'll be halfway to dinner. I keep one long, like spaghetti and several shaped pastas, like penne and orecchiette.
- Cooking Wine. There is a lot of chatter out there about how to select wines for cooking, but if you're just starting out, don't fuss too much about it. Just start experimenting. I tend to use wines for cooking that I would drink. Try Sauvignon Blanc and Chiati. Madeira and Marsala are other reds that go nicely with foods, especially desserts like simmered fruits.
- Vinegar of Several Varieties. Don't get lost here. Start with balsamic, then try white wine vinegar. If you cook with Asian-influenced flavors, a bottle of rice wine vinegar will help.
- Canned Whole Plum Tomatoes. If you have room, keep several large cans on hand. Many meals for me start by dumping one into a pot and then adding whatever else I have around. Stews, braises, pasta sauces, bruschetta purees. It's pretty much endless.
- Rice. With brown rice and a package of Arborio rice (risotto) in my kitchen, I always feel like I can pull something together. Those are my preferences - one for health reasons, the other for taste and texture. There are many varieties of rice: choose at least two.
- Dried Mushrooms. Dried porcini mushrooms pack the most punch, but buy what you can afford. FungusAmongUs.com offers a pound of bulk organic dried porcini for $25, which may sound expensive, but that is a lot of dried mushrooms, and they keep well in a sealed container (I use a canning jar.) Trader Joe's shoppers can buy an inexpensive bag of dried wild mushrooms ($1.99 for an ounce, enough to get you through a couple of meals so buy a few packets), a mix of porcini, shiitake, cremini, and oyster mushrooms.
- Capers. Either packed in brine, or salt, capers are an essential ingredient in many Mediterranean dishes from Pasta Puttanesca to salad Niçoise. They instantly add a tang and pungency to chicken, fish and pasta. Try pairing them with lemony flavors.
- Anchovies. Cured fillets, packed either in olive oil or salt (which have a longer shelf life), add depth to salad dressings, pasta sauces. Just one or two mashed up fillets can be that "magic ingredient" you're looking for when something just isn't tasty enough.
- Dried Red Pepper Flakes. When you want a little spice in any dish, a pinch of red pepper flakes added during the cooking process will go a long way.
- Dijon Mustard. Slater it on roasts, add to salad dressings, plop a dollop of it on your cheeseboard.
- High Smoking Point Oil. If you plan to fry anything, don't waste your olive oil. A bottle of canola or grapeseed oil is good to have around.
- Nut Oil. A small bottle of walnut or hazelnut oil will go a long way as a base for salad dressings, or a quick finishing drizzle on finished pasta dishes, meats, or cooked vegetables.
- Nuts. If you keep one kind of nut around, the pine nut gets my vote. Then sliced almonds. They turn in a few months' time, so really use them if you have them, or keep unused nuts in the freezer. Toasted in the oven or in a skillet, they're great in salads, in rice dishes and smashed up as crusts for meat and fish.
- Lentils. A quick legume that makes a nice warm side-dish, or a fresh, cool salad. The tiny green French variety is my favorite. Yellow lentils are common in Indian cooking.
- Couscous. Cooks quickly and is delicious warm or cool. Takes to cooked vegetables, or finely chopped fresh vegetables.
- Dried Herbs and Spices. This is really a matter of personal choice. I only use a handful of dried herbs and spices, like fennel and fennel pollen, cayenne pepper, ginger powder, coriander and cumin. Nutmeg is useful in both sweet and savory cooking, but we'll list it officially in the sweet list.
- Soy Sauce. It adds lots of flavor to stir-fried vegetables and meats, but don't over-do it, it's packed with sodium.
With even just a few of these items in your arsenal, you will be ready to create magic the next time you come home with a bundle of fresh produce and maybe even some fish or meat. Next up... a list for bakers.