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The well-provisioned pantry

January 21, 2009|By CHINA MILLMAN / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Fresh food can be hard to come by in the winter. Not just because most fruits and vegetables don't taste as good and are expensive, but also because weather conditions can make a run to the grocery store unpleasant or downright dangerous. That means you can be stuck with an empty fridge on the exact night you'd most like a comforting meal.

It's possible to see these nights as an opportunity for creative cooking, so rather than ordering a pizza or braving the weather, turn to your pantry. A well-stocked pantry is a beautiful thing. It allows for easy delicious meals concocted almost entirely from goods that last.

I'm hesitant to give out a list of items everyone should have in the pantry because some things seem too basic and others seem too much a matter of personal taste.

I like briny flavors, so capers, anchovies and olives are all in my pantry, and they see frequent use. If you don't like capers, you shouldn't buy them.


Dried beans are much cheaper than canned beans, and the finished product tastes better, but if you use chickpeas frequently as a component of stews or soups, it might not be an effective use of time or an important money-saver to start with dry chickpeas every time.

I purchase by the case cans of those beans I use frequently. For dishes in which beans play a pivotal role, I use dried beans, especially white beans, cranberry beans and flageolet beans. I think that baked beans, made well and with the addition of some bread, is a pretty perfect winter supper, but you may not agree. Every cook has different priorities.

At the same time, I do love when chefs and other food writers include lists of pantry staples. I read them eagerly, hoping to stumble upon some new exciting ingredient. So I'll compromise. The following is a list of categories that may help you in evaluating and building up your pantry (and fridge, freezer and basement) staples, along with examples from my own kitchen.

The most important qualities of a well-stocked pantry are having items you use often in large quantities and having a broad enough variety that they can be pulled together into a meal. Also, so you don't get bored, try to keep around a couple of pantry splurges that will keep you excited about the contents of your cupboard.

Don't, however, buy items in such large quantities that they'll get old before you get through them. Depending upon how well you store it, Jasmine rice may lose its fragrant qualities after a few months. Onions and potatoes will start to sprout.

Many people bristle at throwing out spices every year, and, frankly, it's not the most useful rule of thumb. Instead, buy whole spices if possible and grind them in a coffee grinder (ideally dedicated for that task) or a mortar and pestle. Or, use the sniff test. If it doesn't smell like much, it won't taste like much.


o Extra-virgin olive oil, vegetable oil, bacon drippings, butter.

Splurge: Best-quality extra-virgin olive oil for vinaigrettes, finishing soups, etc.


o Grains such as basmati rice, jasmine rice, brown rice, quinoa and bulgur; pasta in various shapes; starchy vegetables such as butternut squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes.


o Eggs, canned and dried beans, lentils; tuna; bacon (frozen); and pork, lamb and chicken sausages (frozen).

Splurge: Really good salumi; heirloom dried beans, fancy jars of tuna.


o Soy sauce, capers, anchovies, olives, fish sauce.


o Lemons, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, fish sauce.

Splurge: Sherry vinegar.


o Dried fruit, honey, sugar, balsamic vinegar, hoisin sauce, mirin.

Splurge: Real maple syrup.


o Whole dried peppers, chipotle in adobo, sriracha hot sauce, cholula hot sauce.


o Apples, pears, oranges.

Splurge: Pomegranates, blood oranges, Satsuma mandarins.


o Frozen peas, jarred roasted red peppers, dried mushrooms, canned tomatoes.


o Onions (red and yellow), garlic, shallots, carrots, ginger.

Splurge: fennel.


o Cream, hard cheeses.

Splurge: Really good butter.


o Whole black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, paprika, whole coriander, whole cloves, whole fennel seeds, cinnamon, whole nutmeg, five spice, cayenne and turmeric.

Splurge: Saffron, vanilla beans.

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