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Party in My Pantry: Food Staples We Can’t Do Without

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Every night when I get home from work, my husband and my cat meet me at my front door. You probably think they’re waiting to welcome me warmly after my long day at the office, but you’re wrong. They both have only one thing on their mind, and that’s food. As I walk into the kitchen, I can hear the pitter-pat of two feet and four paws close on my heels, accompanied by my husband’s booming “Babe, I’m starving! And there’s no food in the house!” 


Well, I’m starving, too—I’m the one who just spent an hour on the train. What I don’t agree with is my insatiably hungry spouse’s declaration that our cupboard is as bare as Old Mother Hubbard’s. Didn’t I just go grocery shopping three days ago, or am I making that up? No, I’m not—when I fling open our cabinets in disbelief, they’re packed to the gills with dry and canned goods. It’s just that my husband and I see our kitchen through two very different lenses: When I scan our supplies, I immediately envision at least five meals I could make from whatever ingredients we have on hand. When he does the same, all he thinks is, I have to use a can opener if I want to eat that—that’s way too much work


My partner may desire instant nutritional gratification, but I’ve had to learn to plan our menu far in advance. As charming as it is to fantasize about living like French villagers who shop at local specialty markets daily, buying only enough to make a single meal, neither of us has time to do that, so we have no choice but to buy in bulk. Over the years, I’ve compiled a list of tasty culinary staples with a long shelf life and a wide range of applications. With these items in your kitchen arsenal, you’ll never get stuck gorging yourself on late-night Chinese takeout again. 


Spice It Up
Dried Herbs and Seasonings
A little spice goes a long way toward perking up anything you can shake a saucepan at. The more spices you have at the ready, the greater the variety of cuisines you can explore. Chicken breasts seasoned with curry powder or garam masala, for instance, have a drastically different flavor than the same meat spiked with rosemary does. If you’re just beginning to cultivate a spice collection, don’t get too fancy—just start with the basics: salt, whole black peppercorns, oregano, basil, rosemary, thyme, dill weed, garlic powder, tarragon, sage, chili powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and bay leaves. Always keep an eye on how long these items have been in your spice rack, as dried herbs lose their potency after a year or two. 


Onions and Garlic
Think back on all the recipes you’ve prepared, and you’ll realize how many of them start with some variation on these instructions: “Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil until soft.” These two vegetables are fundamental to virtually every type of cuisine and are both resistant to spoilage. Garlic lasts for two weeks or more when stored in a cool, dry place, and onions can be frozen until you’re ready to use them, so dice a few at once. That way, you’ll have plenty left over for the next time one of your recipes calls for onion—which will probably be tomorrow night. 




Liquid Love
Cooking Oil
As delicious as foods cooked in butter are, your ticker will thank you for coating your sauté pans with heart-healthy alternatives: olive oil (best for cooking dishes from Mediterranean countries, such as Italy, Greece, and Spain, and for use as a salad dressing base), safflower oil (useful for making Mexican and Asian foods), and canola oil (excellent for baking and making homemade mayonnaise). Because you can use all these oils relatively sparingly, it’s worth your while to invest in the best-quality ones you can afford. And once you’ve got the basics, you may be tempted to explore the wild world of more exotic oils, such as the grapeseed, palm, and toasted-sesame varieties. 


Vinegar
Oil and vinegar are like love and marriage: you can’t have one without the other, whether you’re making your own salad dressing or simply dipping crusty Italian bread in a mixture of the two. Start with white, red wine, and balsamic vinegars and build from there. 


Stock
Canned soup is quick and easy, but it pales in comparison with the homemade variety. And to make your own soup (or some sauces), you’ll need a good supply of chicken, beef, and/or vegetable stock. If you’re really ambitious and happen to have a stripped-down chicken or turkey lying around, try your hand at making your own stock; refrigerate what you’ll use within the next day or so, and freeze the rest. But most home cooks will find that the store-bought kind, which comes in convenient thirty-two-ounce containers with a resealable lid, does the trick just as well. 


Great Grains
The backbone of any productive pantry includes dried pasta, rice, and any other grains that strike your fancy. Couscous, quinoa, pilaf … if you can boil it, you can use it in a vast array of dishes. If you’re carb-conscious, go for options like whole-wheat spaghetti and wild or brown rice, rather than their white-flour counterparts, and ensure maximum freshness by storing your selections in airtight containers. 


Yes, I Can
Canned Tomatoes
Whether you like them stewed, diced, or puréed, canned tomatoes keep for years and can serve as a base for all manner of sauces, soups, stews, and casseroles. Even better, the tomatoes used for canning are picked at their peak ripeness, and the canning process locks in their flavor at that level, as well as increasing the tomatoes’ concentration of the antioxidant lycopene. When selecting canned tomatoes, pick the brands with the fewest ingredients: tomatoes, water, and salt. Throw in some sautéed garlic and onion, a splash of red wine, and a few pinches of dried herbs, and you’ve got a quick and easy sauce to serve over pasta. 




Dried and Canned Legumes
From homemade hummus to vegetarian chili, legumes should be a highlight of every adventurous cook’s pantry—not to mention that they’re full of protein. Keep cans of black, kidney, cannellini, and garbanzo beans in your cupboard, and just rinse and strain them when you’re ready to incorporate them into hearty soups, dips, Mexican dishes, and much more. And if your specialty is lentil or split-pea soup, be sure to have bags of those dried legumes on reserve as well. 


Baking Basics
So many people like to indulge in sweet treats after they consume savory fare that no well-stocked kitchen is complete without the building blocks of baking: butter, flour, white and brown sugar, eggs, baking powder, baking soda, eggs, and vanilla extract. Make these ingredients part of your culinary landscape, and you’ll always be able to whip up a cake or cookies from scratch in a pinch. Slice-and-bake dough might be faster, but it’s a one-trick pony. 


Less Is More
Many food lovers dream of leaving their nine-to-five jobs behind to spend all their waking hours planning, shopping for, and cooking elaborate feasts with only the freshest locally sourced ingredients. Then the pressures of having to pay bills every month snap them back to reality. Let’s face it—amid the hustle and bustle of the workaday world, most of us are just trying to fill our bellies with healthful meals that use as few ingredients and as many time-saving shortcuts as possible. The next time you’re planning a big supermarket outing, take time to thoroughly assess your kitchen inventory and add any of the above food staples you’re missing to your list. Then raise your glass of red wine to me later this week when you sit down to a big plate of pasta with homemade marinara and salad dressed with your own vinaigrette, all prepared in less than thirty minutes. Salud!

Updated February 18, 2011

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