Our culinary expert Sam, a student at the CIA, has put together his list of pantry essentials. The full list will cost about $100 at any large supermarket (we priced it at Fresh Direct in NYC) but if you are living solo or have minimal space, you could get started with $50 or even less. If you are living in a roommate situation, it would be smart to invest in the pantry basics together.
PANTRY ESSENTIALS by Sam
Having a kitchen that is outfitted with all your new equipment isn’t worth anything if there is no food to cook. Shopping every day is not an option for most people so stocking your pantry with a varied base of non-perishable products is important. It will allow you to cook satisfying meals without planning a trip to the market (or the pizza place) every time you’re hungry.
Canned Food: Food keeps almost indefinitely in a sealed can. Having a variety of canned foods on hand can help you quickly prepare dishes that would otherwise be quite time consuming. If you like beans, I recommend buying cans of at least three different varieties to keep in your pantry, i.e black beans, kidney beans, and cannellini (white) beans. You can use them in soups, chili, stir frys, pastas, paired with rice, or cooked/mashed into a puree. I also like to buy canned chickpeas which can be used to make hummus, falafel, or just rinsed, salted, and used as a garnish on a simple salad.
To make delicious soups, rice dishes, and sauces, stock or broth is almost always better than water (I say almost because I would sometime prefer to use water than some of those super artificial, salty canned broths). If you are buying canned (or boxed) stock, buy one that has real vegetables and meats in the ingredients list, i.e chicken bones, onions, carrots, celery, leeks, etc. Buy small containers or beef, chicken, and vegetable stock. Some stock is sold in a six-pack of 8 fl.oz boxes. If you open an entire quart of chicken stock and use a cup of it, freeze the rest to use later.
Even in our classes at the Culinary Institute of America we use canned tomatoes. Canned tomatoes can be used to create outstanding dishes. I recommend buying cans of whole, peeled tomatoes in tomato puree, or canned, diced tomatoes. They can be cooked with vegetables until the tomatoes break down to make a pasta sauce, or cooked with bacon and chicken stock, pureed, and strain to make a delicious cream of tomato soup (strain out the solids and save the liquid, puree the solids well and adjust the thickness with some of the reserved liquid. Add hot cream). If you have fresh tomatoes but there aren’t enough, go ahead and combine them with canned tomatoes to “stretch” them.
If you don’t have the time to make your own, pasta sauce and canned soups are always great to have on hand. If you like coconut milk, buy a can and see how delicious simmered rice is with coconut milk, sauteed onions, ginger, garlic, and cilantro (blend the coconut milk, sauteed vegetables, and raw cilantro in a blender, bring to a simmer, season with salt and pepper and add the rice. Garnish with sliced scallions).
Spices: Every kitchen should have a basic spice rack, shelf, drawer, etc. You can start with the obvious: Salt, it makes the world go round. Almost as important as salt is your black pepper. Buy a pepper mill and whole peppercorns and crack them yourself. They will stay fresher, you’ll thank me. In addition to salt and pepper I recommend, as a start, buying garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, curry powder, cayenne pepper, paprika, crushed red chili flakes, dried oregano, dried rosemary, dried thyme, dried parsley, dried bay leaves, ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg, ground allspice, and whole cloves. Note: fresh herbs have infinitely more flavor than their dried counterparts, so if you really want to wow someone (or yourself) with a dish that has truly developed flavors, I would fork over the cash for a bundle of fresh thyme or a sprig of fragrant rosemary. (If you want build you spice shelf slowly, start with salt, pepper and 2-3 other spices you like and add more over time.)
Baking: If you like to bake, or just like the idea of baking, you need to have a few staples on hand. All-purpose flour is a middle of the road flour, not too high in gluten to be delicate but has enough gluten and protein to make pasta dough in a pinch. Sugar: Just a bag of plain old sugar can get you by in most cases, from your morning coffee to chocolate chip cookies. Brown sugar can be useful as well. Baking powder and baking soda are essential ingredients in many baking recipes. Packets of instant yeast are cheap, keep well, and allow you to make your own pizza dough in minutes (flour, warm water, yeast, salt, and oil). Buy some vanilla extract and you will find a use for it.