WALLA WALLA TABLE - Building a better pantry

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What's for dinner?

It's one of the most common questions asked around my house and I bet around yours too.

The usual response, at my home, is "I dunno, what do we have?"

Well, with a well-stocked pantry or "larder," you'll always know that you have something on hand that you can quickly turn into a meal.

A cook's larder is one of the most important tools he/she uses every day. A well-stocked larder can be the difference between eating well and just eating. Knowing how to use that larder is the difference between a good cook and a great cook.

I hope that if you have never before thought about what is actually IN your pantry, this will get you to do just that.

For most home cooks there is a routine, a set of recipes you use all the time.

In my house growing up, Monday night was meatloaf, Tuesday night was tacos, Wednesday was spaghetti (unless it was the second Wednesday of the month -- then it was "chefs surprise" night, which was usually the night you tried to get invited to a friends for dinner), Thursday was leftovers and Fridays were usually up in the air with games, practices, recitals and such.

Does any of this sound familiar? Well it doesn't have to be so.

A wise man once said "give a man a fish and feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you'll help him feed himself for the rest of his life."

So what are your "go to" recipes? The ones you know well enough that you don't need to think about them? Now write down all of the ingredients you can think of to prepare those dishes. How many of those recipes require the same things?

This is your starting point. Those items that you NEED to get by.

Now think about your other favorites and keep doing this until you are just getting out of your comfort zone. The ten items that you use most, should ALWAYS be in your larder. Take the next top ten items and add those as well. Keep doing this until you are down to no less than four comfortable, familiar recipes that have common ingredients.

Now how many of those items are perishables, meaning they expire within one to two weeks of purchase?

Those items should be relegated to your weekly shopping list, but NOT your larder. We want to stock your larder/pantry with items that are not perishable short term, such as dry goods.

Next, you're ready to consider the perishables that you need. Things like butter, milk, eggs and such should be a priority on your shopping list every week.

How much do you need of each to get by? Are you going to be doing extra cooking or baking in the next two weeks? Celebrating any holidays or hosting dinner parties? All of these should be considered as you restock these items weekly or bi-monthly.

Next, look at your semi-perishables: root vegetables, nuts and other items that you need, but not as frequently.

Make sure those are always on hand and in good condition. Nuts tend to go rancid quickly, especially near heat or light; same with nut oils.

You should keep your onions in a separate place from your potatoes, as potatoes can make onions turn quickly and vice versa. The one day you need an onion is the day that you are out or it has turned on you.

Spices and herbs should also fall in this category. Buy your spices in small batches and use them up within six months of purchase or toss them. This might sound wasteful, but if you buy in appropriate quantities, then you'll use them more effectively and waste less (do you really need five pounds of dried basil?).

Seek out shops that sell spices and herbs in bulk. Bring your own containers and most places will offer a discount.

This is all well and good, making lists and such but who has time, right?

Well if you have time to make a grocery list, or time to figure out how to order your half-caff, nonfat, breve, mochachino thingy, you can do this.

Do it in front of the TV if you have to, just do it. The ten to fifteen minutes you spend doing this will save you many hours of frustration and a few extra dollars from your weekly grocery bill.

The big question you are dying to ask is what's in my pantry? Well here is the list of must haves that are always in my larder. These are the items that I cannot live without, and 90% of the food I cook requires.

I assume yours will be similar with a few tweaks here and there.

My only advice is to minimize the "ready to eat" and "convenience" foods that too many of us have right now. This whole exercise is about learning how to feed yourself with basic ingredients.

Damon's Basic Larder: In order of necessity and usefulness, including must-have perishables:

  • Kosher or sea salt. Indispensible.
  • Whole black pepper with a real grinder (not one of those "the jar is the grinder!" things). (I keep a grinder for each type of pepper: white, green, pink and mixed. Not necessary, but useful.)
  • Olive oil (extra virgin). I keep several on hand for different uses and flavors.
  • Granulated garlic (garlic powder). Indispensible (trust me).
  • Onion: yellow or brown (use in everything).
  • Garlic: real, whole head of garlic.
  • Potatoes, russets (what can't you do with a potato?)
  • Lemons: Great source of acid in your cooking and can brighten flavors without the use of salt.
  • Sugar. Do you even need to ask?
  • Flour, white all purpose, I prefer the unbleached.
  • Vinegar, like olive oil I keep several on hand, red wine, white wine, distilled white, cider, sherry etc.
  • Tomato paste and tomato sauce. Unseasoned, or if you make your own, even better.
  • Canned stock. There, I said it. Don't be afraid: these can be VERY effective when you need them, especially when time is short. Beef and chicken. You can make great vegetable stock easily.
  • Rice: long, short and medium (Arborio).
  • Cinnamon: ground and whole. Can be a game-changer.
  • Nutmeg: whole (and get a nutmeg grater). Again, can be the game-changer.
  • Ground cumin. Surprisingly, I use this a lot and you would too if you knew what to do with it (we'll get to that later).
  • Herbs de provence. I use this combination in more things than I can count.
  • Bacon or pancetta (usually bacon). Everything tastes better with bacon, and great bacon is better tasting and better for you. Bacon fat is underappreciated.
  • Butter. Unsalted, sweet cream butter. Do not buy margarine.
  • Carrots and celery, for soups, stews, sauces, stocks and snacks too.
  • Worchestershire sauce. Incredibly useful, buy the good stuff.
  • Dried pasta. Find a good brand and keep a few on hand.
  • Bread crumbs. Extremely useful in the most unassuming places. I make my own but there are good sources around town that have them (try places that bake bread).
  • Hot sauce. I keep several on hand for a dash of spice in all kinds of things.
  • Dijon mustard (Grey Poupon is ok but there are better). Great mustard is a condiment you should always have on hand. It helps to bind your vinaigrettes together too.
  • Mayonnaise. Good store bought or make your own.
  • Anchovies. Whole anchovies packed in olive oil. Anchovy paste is my second choice.
  • Soy sauce. Again I keep several on hand, low sodium, special light and tamari too.

Second tier: Items that I usually have and that I frequently use. No particular order.

  • Honey. Try to find a good local when possible.
  • Eggs. Find the best eggs possible, preferably farm fresh.
  • Tomatoes. I hate buying them out of season, but if you let them sit on the counter for a few days they can develop some flavor.
  • Vanilla, in liquid form. But keep a few beans on hand too.
  • Mushrooms. I prefer the cremini variety (Italian brown) as they have better flavor.
  • Popcorn. Again, find a great brand, NOT Orville or Jiffy. This is a great snack for you and for kids, without adding a lot of extra fat or salt. It can be added to many dishe for some added texture.
  • Toasted sesame oil. Can liven up all kinds of soups, sauces and is great to add to your vinaigrettes.
  • Dried beans or canned beans (if you must). I always have some cannellini beans on hand.
  • Chickpeas: dried or canned.
  • Dried lentils or other legumes.
  • Polenta. Not the instant stuff. Takes less time than you think to make and can be used in many ways.
  • Parm regg cheese. If you have no other cheese in your house, have this and buy the best you can find.
  • Tortillas, corn and flour. If you have a tortilla you are halfway to a meal.
  • Cloves: whole and ground. See cinnamon above.
  • Dried ground chile. Again I keep several. Some of my favorites are ancho, pasilla and cayenne.
  • Paprika. Ok this is a dried ground chile but it differs for me in that it is smoked, not by you, for you. I prefer Spanish.
  • Alcohol. I always have a bit of wine to cook with, for the food, not me. I also keep some inexpensive port and sherry to cook with too. This may not work for some people for various reasons.

So, there you have it. These are the items that it's good to have at all times in order to get by.

Now, do you need to rush out and buy these with reckless abandon? If you have gotten this far without a few of them, I would think a few more days is not going to hurt anyone. What I would advise you to do is put these items that you "need" but do not have at the top of your shopping list. I would also suggest that you find the best possible varieties of these that you can. There are many small shops around the area that stock many of these items and would be happy to talk with you about them. Cheers.

Shopping local

Where to go:

Cugini's for Italian-themed items for your pantry.

Klickers for local produce in season. Call ahead for winter hours.

Andy's Market for bulk foods and spices and meat alternatives.

Daily Market Cooperative for natural and bulk foods, located downtown.

Olive Marketplace and Caf?© for fresh seafood and some grocery items too.

Salumiere Cesario, for many hard-to-find gourmet food items and is a great source for those items that are otherwise difficult to find including cheese, cured meats, and bulk olive oil.

Basic vegetable stock

  • 2 yellow onions, rough chop
  • 4 to 5 carrots (large), rough chop
  • 1 head of celery, inside stalks, the pale yellow ones removed (save these), rough chop
  • 5 cloves of garlic, gently mashed with the flat of your knife
  • 6 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs of thyme, fresh
  • 1 TBSP of good tomato paste, non seasoned
  • Mushroom stems, if you have them
  • Soy sauce, superior light
  • Italian parsley, washed thoroughly
  • Salt
  • Pepper, fresh ground
  • Olive oil, extra virgin only please

In your largest stock pot over high heat add 2 to 3 TBSP of olive oil, then immediately add onion. You should hear a loud sizzle. Once onions begin to turn translucent, add carrots. The carrots should begin to soften within 3 to 5 min. Add celery. Stir. The idea here is to caramelize your vegetable really well, but not burn or sweat them.

If the pot gets too crowded too quickly, the vegetables will sweat and never develop the richness you need.

Once root vegetables begin to brown, reduce your heat to medium. Stir again. Add garlic, bay leaves, thyme, parsley and mushroom stems. Stir again. Once those items begin to soften, the garlic should become slightly translucent, add tomato paste and stir well. When tomato paste loses its bright red colour and begins to darken, add 2 TBSP of soy sauce. Stir again.

At this point you have a choice. You can add wine, if you like. If you do, try something white, dry, non-oaked or even a good dry rose works well. No reds.

If you do not use wine, then add the juice of ¬? lemon (fresh) to the pot to boost the acidity of your stock.

Deglaze your pan with the wine or water (a full cup), until all of the browned bits on the bottom of the pot are gone. You do this by scraping the bottom right after you add the liquid with a sturdy wooden spoon.

Reduce this until ¬? of liquid is evaporated. Add enough water to bring the level of the pot to within 1 to 2 inches of the rim.

Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to med.-low and simmer for 1 to 2 hrs., covered.

Strain through a fine-mesh strainer; conical works best (known as a "chinoise" or China cap). You can discard the solid matter to a compost pile or the garbage. Return liquid to the stove and simmer for another hour or two.

Then taste. Does it need to reduce more? Is the flavor concentrated enough for you? If not, keep simmering until it is. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Cool and store in quart-sized containers in your freezer until you need it. To use, either place in fridge a day ahead or run the container under hot water until the frozen stock slides out into a pot. Cover and set over high heat until melted, usually about 10 to 20 min. Cheers.

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