The pantry

My friend Kathleen emailed me a few months ago with a question. She wondered how I could "whip up dinner every night," making a modest meal out of whatever was already in the house. My culinary background helps, but the truth is my day-to-day meals are nothing fancy, just good, simple dishes made from great ingredients. I visit the grocery store or farmers' market a couple of times each week for fresh produce or proteins, but I do have a well-stocked kitchen. The refrigerator always contains eggs, a hunk of parmesan cheese, a couple of lemons; the pantry is never without pasta, rice, a large assortment of dried herbs, and a few vinegars. The assortment varies a bit, but below is a list of basics I think every kitchen should have. It limits multiple trips to the store and allows you to create something tasty with whatever fresh items you bring home.

A few hints: it's wise to buy dried herbs and spices in the smallest containers you can find, unless you have a big cooking or baking day planned. Yes, they are more expensive per ounce, but they age quickly. Old oregano that smells and tastes like dust is no bargain. Check for bulk items at the grocery - you can buy as much or as little as you'd like, the turnover is usually pretty good, and the pricing is better.

The following is a very basic list of pantry staples. Herbs are dried unless otherwise noted.

Salt  - Table salt and kosher salt. I almost exclusively use kosher salt, but table salt is often called for in baking recipes because the smaller grains dissolve more easily. Kosher salt doesn't contain additives - typically iodine - found in table salt.

Whole black peppercorns - grind to order in a pepper mill

Vinegars - My first choice is sherry vinegar; I always have white wine and red wine vinegars as well as a good quality balsamic

Pasta - I keep one long, skinny pasta (spaghetti, fettucini) and one or two shorter types (penne, macaroni)

Rice - long rained white rice is my first option; brown rice allows me to feel virtuous

Mustard - Dijon (regular or grainy) and dried ( I love Coleman's)

Kalamata olives (in a glass jar, not a can; canned olives taste like tin)
Canola oil (or another neutral vegetable oil)

Chile oil
Bay leaves
Cinnamon, sticks and ground
Coriander seeds
Cumin seeds
Fennel seeds
Oregano leaves
Baking powder
Baking soda
Unsweetened cocoa powder
Vanilla extract
All-purpose flour
Unsalted butter
Eggs (large)
White or yellow onions - 2 or 3
Fresh garlic heads - 2 or 3
Red onion -1
Whole peeled tomatoes, canned - 2 or 3 cans
Extra virgin olive oil
Dried red chile peppers - whole
Hot red pepper flakes
Sugar - granulated and light brown
Soy sauce - I prefer Kikkoman
Tabasco sauce
Worcestershire sauce
Fresh lemons - 2 in the fridge at all times
Fresh parsley - I grow my own, so it's available at a moment's notice


  1. I recently purchased Urban Pantry by Amy Pennington and am just sort of enjoying moseying through it, rather than diving straight in and cooking from it, as I usually do. This is just a lovely little book and it resonates with the urban/sustainable/take-me-to-the-country-but-not-too-far-from-Whole Foods cook I seem to have become. Thus far, I've only made the Spicy Kibbe with Herby Yogurt Sauce, and served it with warm naan. It was light, flavorful, different, and made a TON!!! I think a book like this would serve as a good guide for just about anyone weary of waste and interested in good, simple, from-scratch cooking.

  2. BAE - Maybe the universe sent me that 40 percent off bookstore coupon for a reason. Thanks for the heads up! I'll look for it this weekend.

  3. Yay! I love sharing "finds"! We should both pass along to Kathleen!!

  4. You guys are so much more advanced than I am. The other day I had to go to the store for ground ginger. Where did my ground ginger go? What kind of person doesn't have ground ginger in her pantry?

  5. BAE - Definitely.

    knitlikeyoumeanit - I left ground ginger off the list. Ha!