Pantry Essentials

08Jan09

Look, I know I’m not the only one rushing to agree or disagree (or both) with Mark Bittman’s recent NYT Article, but here are my thoughts about what- over and above the obvious standards- is useful to have around:

Stock:  Bittman suggests not bothering at all with canned/boxed stock.  I’m not buying it.  Yes, I can now state that homemade stock is better than store bought with real firsthand experience.  And by reducing it and freezing it into cubes, it’ll last a while and is fairly compact.  Bittman suggests boiling a carrot, a celery stalk, and half an onion in water for a half hour, with some chicken bits if you have them.  Why don’t you start with a half decent stock and then add to it, like suggested in LRK’s How To Eat Supper?  And while we’re at it, cans are out, as are the little lumps.  You can either get a small tupperware of jelly-consistancy concentrate or boxes–  either work better AND more easily.

Spray-Oil: Finally broke down and bought a $7 pastry brush, almost like this one.  This can do egg washes, normal oil, olive oil, melted butter, butter mixed with flour, and anything else.  It can get bowls, muffin tins, bundt pans, and whatever else, but not get my hand and the toaster oven as well.  And because it’s silicone with the other bit in the middle, it holds liquid well, but also goes into the dishwasher, and doesn’t loose bristles.  Otherwise, fingers often work too.

Lemon Juice: Here’s my major disagreement with Bittman, rather than a minor addition or clarification:  I’m a very strong proponent of having a small squeezey thing of lemon juice and lime juice.  Lemons and limes are expensive.  They’re cheaper at ethnic markets.  But if you’re going to go to a normal grocery store, you might as well just buy them at Whole Foods, because there’s just not that much price difference.  I do buy lemons and limes, especially when I get to one of the cheap places, but they get lost in the fridge, and moldy on the counter.  (Everything gets moldy here.  Everything lives in the fridge. So things get lost in there.)  And so, although we do try to use fresh citrus when possible, we’re often out.  And adding acid really does transform a meal.  So we keep squeezy jars.  Suck on that lemon, Bittman.

Spices: The only spice my mother goes through quickly is basil.  Most other things in the spice area have been there forever, and some may have been there since before me.  I mention this not to embarrass my mother, but to merely point out one example, because if you use spices and haven’t moved in the last year, you have something in there that’s past its prime.  Bittman’s suggestion of throw everything out and start over again every year is a little overreaching for most.  But going through and smelling everything every 6 months isn’t totally out of line.  If the spice container is more than 10 years old, the most valuable thing about it is the container, sure.  But a whole nutmeg will last longer than ground nutmeg, and some spices can easily be pushed past one year, even if you have to add a little bit more.  But ideally we shouldn’t be buying large containers of everything anyway.  We should only be buying what we can use in 6 month or a year at a time.  And often that’s not a large jar.  Best bet?  Find a hippie co-op near you that has spices in bulk.  Find something new? Get a couple tablespoons.  Everything else?  Get a couple months supply, whatever that is for you.  That way your spices don’t go bad, and you can actually afford to replace your spices often enough.

Bacon/prosciutto:  Definitely keep a little of one of these in stock.  Get a package of bacon, and then separate a few slices, and then wrap and freeze.  Then, when you’re making something that needs just a little oomph, a slice or two of bacon will make a huge difference.  You can add a number of other Italian bacon-like meats- I love pancetta.

Fish Sauce: Go to the closest asian market.  I have the stuff with the crabs on it, but aparently the stuff with the baby on it is also good?  If you like Thai or Vietnamese, you definitely like this stuff.  If you like Chinese, you almost definitely like this stuff (The more often used Oyster Sauce is less pungent, however).  Just….  don’t smell it before you use it the first time, okay?  It’s strong stuff, so don’t add much.  Add a spash just about anywhere you might add soy sauce- marinades, over veggies, pasta, rice, salad dressing…..  It adds incredible depth when mixed with things.  If you really can’t stomach the idea of Fish Sauce, try starting by adding Worcestershire sauce to things.  It isn’t as pure, so it’s somewhat hard to work with, but it’s in the same family.

More thoughts on bread (with which I have had success!) later.  After I go make some more.  The only problem with making homemade bread is that you start eating more bread!  Or, at least, we do.

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3 Responses to “Pantry Essentials”

  1. 1 Mom

    Guilty. I am embarrassed to admit it and to make matters worse I toke some of my mothers and that was in l979. I guess you could do a whole new post on people like me .

  2. 2 Jess

    Food getting lost in the fridge and moldy on the counter is the (sad, sad) story of my life.

  3. 3 bf

    keep herbs and spices in the dark ), away from heat , and in air tight containers.

    herbs and spices older than 1 year are no longer wonderful ingredients – they’re colored dust. colored dust is a pretty useless thing…


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