Monday, June 26, 2006

What's in Your Pantry?

A friend brought this up the other day and I've been thinking about it ever since. Let's say you're just starting out on your own and aren't used to having to cook for yourself every day. You know how to follow a recipe, but you don't have a lot of experience with meal planning. How do you get started? What staples should you have on hand? What should be in your refrigerator? How do you decide what to eat every day?

There are several cookbooks that provide copious lists of what a well-stocked pantry should have. The problem I have with those lists is this: every time I have purchased staples because I know I should have them on hand, I end up throwing them away months, if not years, later. A staple is a staple because you use it often enough to know that you will use what you have bought soon, even if you don't have a specific use for it at the time you're buying it. And these days, I have a completely different range of what I keep on my shelf than I did five years ago. It's a constantly changing dynamic.

I think staples should grow out of your use of them. So if you're just starting out in the kitchen, the amount of staples you have in your pantry will be light. They will accumulate with every new recipe you try, because you will be buying new ingredients and will rarely use up all of what you buy in one dish. If it's a fresh ingredient, obviously you'll want to use the rest of it up pretty quickly so you will either make the same dish again or find a new recipe that calls for it. If it's something that will last for a while, it goes in your pantry where, if you like it and will find more and more uses for it over time, it will become a staple and you will be sure to always have some on hand.

When my friend first put this idea in my head, I thought it might be interesting for me to come up with my own list of core staples that I think everyone should have in their pantries. But the more I tried to come up what should be on it, the more I realized that there is no such thing as a universal list of staples.

The only way to learn how to stock your pantry and plan and prepare meals is to jump in and do it. You'll make mistakes, but at least most of those mistakes will still be edible. I think the best way to learn is to read a selection of general cookbooks (The Joy of Cooking, The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook, The Betty Crocker Cookbook, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook). Almost all cookbooks, but especially these, have all the information you need about cooking equipment, staples, cooking terms and definitions, menu planning, etc. Read a couple and pick and choose from each one the things that most fit with the way you like to do things.

And then start looking at recipes and pick one or two new things to cook every week. If you like it, you can put it into rotation and make it regularly (and often, those ingredients will become staple ingredients for you). The more recipes you try, the more familiar you become with techniques and the more you will be able to cook without recipes for those times when you have to use up fresh ingredients that you purchased for a specific purpose.

I thought it might be an interesting experiment to write out what I bought at the grocery store on Thursday night, and then go through the week posting about what I cooked, what items I already had on hand vs. what I bought, what I had a specific plan for, and what was improvised.

So here's what I bought at the store:

celery cabbage (similar to napa)
flat parsley
canola oil
evaporated milk
fresh dill in pot
frozen orange juice

Tomorrow: Okonomiyaki


Yam said...

Hi Deb! this is a good thing - I have to start stocking my pantry now, I just made my first meal here, inspired by your tofu stir fry I made a very simple variation. The veggies here are gorgeous, it was pretty tasty. ANyway, I'll show you my list as I begin to stock up this week!

dejamo said...

That's cool, Yam. You know, I was thinking mainly of people who were starting out for the first time, but it's the same process when you're starting again in a new place. I remember when I first moved to Chicago I bought some asparagus and then freaked out because I didn't have any pot in which I could cook it!

Definitely keep me posted with this--I was hoping someone would play along!

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