The Happy Pantry – How a good stock of staples will make your life easier.

Like my Mommy before me, I like having a fully stocked larder. I don’t have many prepared foods on hand. I won’t keep a frozen Asian dinner in the freezer, but I will keep most everything on hand to make my own sesame noodles. Most weeks, I can make anything on my menu plan by just picking up a fresh ingredient or two because I keep a pretty well stocked pantry. What do I keep in that pantry?

 Canned tomatoes in all forms play an important part in my pantry. Up until maybe 10 years ago, the only tomato product I had in my pantry was tomato sauce. Now canned tomatoes are a main staple. I use them for dozens of dishes and sauces. I find these three varieties to be the most useful:

Fire roasted dice tomatoes, Italian diced and Mexican. The fire roasted tomatoes have a nice depth that plays well in chili, Indian dishes and other savory dishes. The Italian seasoned tomatoes are great for pastsa sauces, lasagna, soups and anything where a hint of basil is appreciated. The Mexican tomatoes have jalepenos included and are great for Indian & Mexican food or anything you want to make spicy.

I am also crazy about tomato paste in a tube. You can easily use just a tablespoon or so at a time and reseal! Just a little tomato paste can make a big difference in a sauce or a stew. I also like anchovy paste in a tube. You can use just a bit for its wonderful salty (and decidedly non-fishy) flavor boost.

There’s still room for tomato sauce in the cupboard and Ro-Tel’s tomatoes with green chilies. They’re a classic, just a little bit of spice.

I also keep salsa around. Not just for dipping with chips, but it’s an important ingredient in my chili and my Mexican rice. Any time I want a shortcut to adding tomatoes, chilies and onions, there it is. I also keep liquid smoke around. It’s nothing artificial, just water that’s been passed through the smoke from a smoker. Used sparingly, it can give a great flavor to many dishes. I’ve used it to turn regular oil into smoked oil, regular shredded cheese into smoky cheese & to fake a pretty decent BBQ when the weather is not right to go low and slow on the grill.

Broth: I live and die by it. I always keep Swanson chicken and Kitchen Basics veal stock on hand. The veal stock has replaced beef broth in my pantry. It’s no more expensive and absolutely delicious. I also keep seafood stock on hand as well. Not expensive and you’re always halfway to a seafood soup, if seafood is something you enjoy. I’ve lately taken to replacing the water in taco meat and chili with the veal stock for a cooking liquid. It’s absolutely delicious.
Vinegars, I absolutely love them. I keep cider, basic white, white wine, balsamic, red wine and rice vinegar on hand. I’m not suggesting going out to buy six bottles of vinegar. Start with a good basic like white vinegar (which is amazing for cleaning as well) and cider vinegar. Then add a bottle every couple of weeks. I’m fond of balsamic, though it is probably one of the most abused flavors in restaurants. It’s tasty, but it doesn’t go with everything. The rice vinegar is espcially nice to have to get into cooking Asian flavors.

Speaking of Asian cooking. These three things will get you closer to being able to season almost anything: Soy sauce, mirin (sweetened sake) and fish sauce. Don’t get freaked out by the name. It gives an earthy saltiness to dishes.

Speaking of sauces, these two classic British flavors will do you a world of service. Worstershire is crazy versatile and dry mustard gives color, flavor and a different kind of heat to dishes.

Did I mention that I love mustard? Basic yellow, Dijon and stone ground will give you a good foundation to cook most anything. I also have honey mustard, hot mustard, brown mustard, cranberry mustard, bleu cheese mustard… I have too much mustard. I accept that. I mean, if I want honey mustard, I could just add this to regular mustard.

Keep some in stock. It works in so many dishes.

I also like to keep hot sauce in the house. I stick with the basics Tabasco, Franks Red Hot and Sirachia. My only deviation is the chipotle tabasco, I do like the smoke flavor. Frank’s Red Hot is a milder hot sauce and the original hot sauce used in Buffalo wings. All a true Buffalo sauce contains is Frank’s and butter. Sirachia is the classic asian zinger. Very hot for my taste. I add a couple of drops to Tabasco to my mac and cheese. Just a drop helps bring out the flavors.

These kitchen workhorses will get you halfway to some delicious sauces. Note that it’s straight mayo and not Miracle Whip. That’s fine for sandwiches, but too sweet for anything that calls for mayo. Hint: Mayo, garlic, a dash or two of Worstershire sauce and a drop or two of lemon make an almost instant and delicious Casesar salad dressing containing all the ingredients that go in a classic Caesar dressing. 

Booze for cooking. I like to keep a red, a white, Marsala and vermouth in the house. Use an actual bottle of wine, not cooking wine. It’s often salted and you can pick up a decent bottle of wine for cooking for five bucks.

My beautiful friend olive oil. I use it most for cooking, unless I need flavorless oil and then I go for canola. For frying, I love peanut oil. Sesame oil is great if you are into Asian cooking. Store it in the fridge though, it goes rancid fast.

I like to keep cans of these basic beans on hand: cannellini, kidney, garbonzo and black. I also have recently started using lentils quite a bit. Obviously, you’ll stock your shelves with whatever kind of beans you like.

One thing I absolutely love to keep in stock is onion jam. I don’t spread it on toast, but it’s a great quick subsitute when something needs carmelized onion flavor. You can put a tablespoon in a sauce or on a burger. I like the roasted garlic kind because it saves you two steps.

My friend Cocoa. This is pricey Dutch Droste straight from the Netherlands. Hershey’s works great, too. This is shortcut to a great chocoalte cake or a fantastic sauce. Try a tablespoon in chili.

I keep all purpose flour, white sugar and brown sugar in large glass canisters. It’s easier to get a cup in there to measure, you can see how much you have and I always like to keep an eye on flour to make sure it hasn’t taken a turn for the buggy.

And don’t forget the basics. I keep Kosher salt in a large container so I can dip in there an get it. And I keep a grinder of sea salt for the table. Of course all salt is sea salt. Some of it just came from seas that dried up eons ago and now they dig it out of the ground.  I keep peppercorns on hand.

I bought an extra coffe grinder reduced to five dollars and I use it to grind pepper freshly. It makes an amazing difference in the flavor.

I used a paint marker to write SPICE GRINDER on the side, so I don’t accidentally grind my coffee beans in my pepper grinder.

I have not even broached the subject of my spice collection. That’s an entirely different post. One where you can laugh at me because I alphabetize.  Happy cooking!

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