A Peek In the Pantry


A Peek Inside My PantryNot long ago, a new friend asked me a question that I did not have a ready answer for:

How do you stock a pantry?

The question stumped me because a) I hadn’t (ever?) given the matter much thought–it was just something that we did–and b) it really depends on how you cook.

Still, as the week went on I thought more and more about pantry basics and what tips I could offer her. And if I’m going to answer the question for one person, maybe there are more out there who could benefit from my answers.

Let’s take this group by group, shall we?

Canned Goods

We don’t use a whole lot of canned goods (we prefer frozen veggies to canned, for instance) but there are a few canned items that we keep around for convenience on a regular basis:

  • Beans (kidney, white and black–great for a dip or quick soup or stew when you haven’t had the forethought to soak dried)
  • Artichoke Hearts
  • Coconut Milk
  • Roasted Red Bell Peppers (which we use in place of diced tomatoes or any other tomato products, you might want to keep different types of tomatoes on hand in addition to a jar of pasta sauce if that’s something you’re likely to eat often)
  • Olives
  • Beef and Chicken Stocks
  • Peanut Butter and Jelly (even grown ups get those cravings now and then)
  • Tuna
  • Minced garlic (fresh may be best but we go through so much garlic, it makes more sense to buy it minced in a jar–a big one–than to chop it ourselves practically every night)

Grains, Pasta, etc.

Variety is always good here: grains can easily extend a smaller meal when unexpected guests arrive and are a healthy filler for hungry tummies or when comfort food is desired.

  • At least three shapes of pasta noodles: orzo or couscous, rotini or ziti and spaghetti or fettuccine–each type works with different types of sauces and there are plenty of other options available. Buying what you can find in whole wheat is a healthy alternative to the more processed varieties and something we look for.
  • Rice, both white and brown, along with arborio if you like risotto
  • Barley, quinoa or bulgur wheat (alternatives to rice and great additions to soups)
  • Lentils
  • Dried beans (the same variety as canned or in place of canned)
  • Oatmeal (quick/rolled oats, not instant, for baking OR breakfast; steel cut are also nice if you have the time to prepare them)

Dry Goods

This is a catch-all for whatever doesn’t fit anywhere else, really. Everything from baking supplies to breadcrumbs fall in here.

  • Flour (all-purpose at minimum, whole wheat, rice and gram flours are also nice to have on hand)
  • Sugars (white, brown–light or dark is mostly personal preference, no matter what the recipe says, and powdered will get you through most scenarios)
  • Baking soda
  • Baking powder
  • Salt (iodized is okay for the salt shaker but kosher is better for cooking)
  • Breadcrumbs (buy plain and season them yourself when needed)
  • Cornstarch
  • Cornmeal
  • Sliced bread or large tortillas for sandwiches

Oils, Vinegars, etc.

All fats are not evil, especially when used in moderation. They help keep your food from sticking as well as add and carry flavors. Vinegars and condiments add all sorts of flavor on their own and are worth keeping a decent variety around.

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Peanut or Canola oil (for frying, mostly, if you deep fry at all)
  • Vinegars (regular is good for dying Easter eggs or cleaning; apple cider, rice, white wine and red wine are all wonderful for cooking with)
  • Soy Sauce (or Teriyaki sauce or both)
  • Mustard (we prefer brown or whole grain to yellow)
  • Mayonnaise
  • Ketchup
  • Relishes and chutneys (whatever sounds good, a couple to have on hand to spice up a basic dish)


Having covered most of the basics (at least that I can think of at the moment), there are things we keep on hand because we like them more than being necessities.

  • Raisins and other dried fruit (for topping salads)
  • Sunflower seeds or Pepitas (pumpkin seeds)
  • Croutons
  • Chocolate-filled Oreos (a decided weakness)
  • Doritos (Todd’s snack of choice)
  • Chocolate chips
  • Marshmallows

Beyond the Cabinets

Of course, dry goods, cans and boxes are only part of the picture. A well-stocked kitchen also includes the fridge and wherever you keep your produce.

Fridge Forward

You want to keep some obvious basics around and chilled for any recipe contingency.

  • Butter (unsalted sticks are the most versatile)
  • Milk (fat content or soy-substitutes are up to you)
  • Eggs (large eggs are the most common size called for in recipes)
  • Sour Cream OR Plain Greek-style Yogurt (we like the latter for health reasons and it’s easy to dress up sweet or savory)
  • Cream Cheese

And speaking of cheese, it’s good to have a few types around but which ones and what form to buy? We tend to buy shredded cheddar, mozzarella and grated Parmesan the most often; sliced provolone is Todd’s favorite for sandwiches. Of course, if you own a box grater and a knife you can buy blocks of cheese (which are usually cheaper than the pre-shredded or -sliced) and break them down yourself for greater flexibility.

Fruits and Veggies

Produce is going to depend on seasonality and what you’re cooking. We’re more than happy to buy frozen veggies when fresh isn’t as available, but we love the fresh the best. Fruits we concentrate less on (though Todd has to have his daily banana). Here are some to keep on hand no matter what (fresh or frozen is up to you):

  • Onions (yellow or white, mostly, with the occasional red onion thrown in for variety)
  • Potatoes (mealy and sweet for baking, waxy for boiling and mashing and red for roasting)
  • Bell Peppers, green and red
  • Celery
  • Tomatoes when is season (off-season fresh tomatoes have zero flavor and aren’t worth the money)
  • Lemons and limes
  • Ginger
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Green Beans
  • Green Peas
  • Romaine Hearts
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Apples
  • Bananas
  • Avocado

Some things you’ll only buy every now and then, others (like produce) will need constant replenishment. I didn’t even touch on spices because that’s a post all it’s own and a collection you’ll definitely build over time. And I wouldn’t suggest anyone take this list and buy everything on it in one fell swoop (that would be a serious budget-killer) but to build up to this level over time. If you do, you can make many meatless meals as well as transform any fish, shellfish or meat from boring to extraordinary.

Farmers’ Market Follow-Up

Farmers' Market Haul

Farmer's Market Haul

If there’s one thing I retained from 3 years as a Brownie it’s “Be Prepared.” In fact, I might be a smidgen compulsive on the research front, wanting to know as much as possible about a situation before heading into it. So it was that I asked for helpful hints in advance of my first trip to the local farmers’ market this past weekend.

Armed with my new-found knowledge I approached Saturday’s blustery market with my own shopping bag, plenty of 5s and 1s and a fresh dose of optimism. I started with a circuit around the pavilion to get an idea what all was available then went back to where I started and began to buy. Unlike the accidental reconnaissance of last month most tables featured well-identified price lists or tags, sparing me having to ask about more than a couple of prices.

Cash-wise I erred on the side of caution and brought double what I ended up spending (just as well–now I won’t) have to go back to the bank in 2 weeks when it’s my turn to make the menu again. If farmers’ markets gave receipts, here’s what mine would have looked like:

$9 for 4 petite acorn squash (1.50 each) and 2# of red potatoes ($3)
$2.50 for a basket of 6 sweet potatoes
$3 for Vidalia onions ($1 each)
$1.20 for a small rhizome of fresh turmeric
$10 for butter crunch lettuce, Swiss chard and arugula
$1.25 for a small rosemary plant

Since local shops take up most of the slots in the shopping center that hosts the farmers’ market, I also stopped into the seafood shop for some tilapia fillets and shucked oysters and into the patisserie for a round loaf of fresh-baked bread and a couple of pain au chocolats for Todd and I. (Future trips may start in Au Peche Mignon rather than than end there, especially if it stays this chilly–they serve coffee, too!)

Now, what to do with this bounty?

The oysters will be made into oyster stew served with the hearty bread from the bakery for a nice, light but warming supper. The acorn squash are the perfect size to steam, hollow, fill and bake with chicken, zucchini and hominy–a deconstructed take on my favorite Spanish Fork Chicken Stew). An onion tart seems very likely with the vidalias and Swiss chard with a salad of butter crunch and arugula on the side and the tilapia will be simply pan-fried and served with the roasted red potatoes. That just leaves the sweet potatoes to be scalloped alongside some chicken-fried steak.

To be honest, I’ve got no idea (yet) what I’ll do with the turmeric, I was just so stoked to see it in it’s natural state (to hear that it grows so well down here and actually likes partial shade was a bonus–I may try planting a part of mine just to see what happens!) that I had to buy some just to play with. The same stand sold ginger and baby lettuces and was one of the few seen using a scale as opposed to pricing per piece or bunch.

My knitted bag (made before every grocery store and it’s cousin started selling their own reusable shopping bags and based on the Itsybitsy bag at Knitty.com) was soon stretched to it’s limits and I felt positively giddy at buying fresh and local ingredients so near my home for, in many cases, less than I was used to seeing in the store. With that and the purchases from the other locally owned shops, my list for the supermarket is fairly short.

I can hardly wait until spring when the rest of the market is full and the new produce starts appearing!

Farmer’s Market Etiquette


Now that the dust has settled from the holidays, it’s time to get back to routines–both old and a few new.

We moved just before Christmas and, among other things, our new location puts us within 5 minutes of a local Farmer’s Market–possibly the best in town–so one of my new habits, this year, is to start shopping there for produce before heading to the grocery store for the rest.

Starting next weekend.

But as I think about it more, some questions come to mind. Being a researcher by habit and knowing that some of the best sources may be just outside the blog’s door, I thought I’d muse here and get what feedback I could before my first foray.

Bags: Bring your own, sure, but what kind?

I’ve been out to the farmer’s market location later in the day as folks were packing up and I’ve noticed some leaving with plastic bags, but most seem to favor canvas or some other reusable type. What I wonder, though, is if sellers get perturbed (think less of you or even charge more) if you’re reusable shopping bag screams the name of a grocery chain?

Q1: Have you ever been up-sold or treated differently based on the bag you carried?

Cash: How much and what denominations?

Obviously, cash is the norm for a farmer’s market. Thing is, I almost never carry cash (this is yet another reason why I’ve not made any serious in-roads into this sort of shopping), so I’ve got to really plan ahead. In addition to knowing what amount of cash to carry, is having a set of twenties crisp from the ATM going to cause issues for the vendor’s making change? If so, I’ll need to plan a trip to the bank counter to get some smaller bills.

Q2: How much cash (and in what form) do you usually take to the Farmer’s Market for a week’s worth of veggie shopping?

Vendors: Do you shop around or pick a stall and stick to it?

At this farmer’s market (again, I’ve done a little visual reconnaissance on the odd weekend) there seem to be fewer single-produce stalls and more multi-product farms represented. In that case, when a lot of the sellers carry a similar variety, is it best to shop a single seller for the bulk of your buying or spread around your dollars? To that end, will buying a variety of items froma single source help your bottom line?

Q3: What’s your buying strategy, facing a lot of the same just at different tables?

Price: If it’s not listed, is it cool to ask?

Growing up strapped for cash (in a pocket or the bank), we joked a lot that ‘if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.’ While that may not necessarily apply at the farmer’s market (or most of my current shopping), I’m not used to having to ask the price and, yes, might be a little uncomfortable doing so. As what I’ve seen, so far, leans away from sellers putting up signs or tags, what’s the best way to inquire about price–especially if you’re shopping for the best value as well as the best produce?

Q4: How do you compare prices without being a heel?

Farmer’s market veterans, help a newbie out and save me the embarrassment of a blunder this coming weekend!