January 2012 Issue

Pantry Essentials — Nine Indispensable Items for a Well-Stocked Pantry
By Bryan Roof, RD, LDN
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 14 No. 1 P. 64

Working from 9 to 5, coming home, and preparing dinner isn’t easy for anyone—at least not without some advance preparation. Still, you can count on forgetting an item or two at the grocery store, entertaining the last-minute guest, or just falling prey to the whims of day-to-day demands.

My wife prefers to dedicate a chunk of precious weekend time to deciding on menu items for each day of the week. She hands me a grocery list, and I go to the store, ignoring most of her requests. This puzzles—or rather irritates—her to no end. I prefer to shop the day of for everything I need because I can’t understand how you could possibly know what you’ll want to eat on Wednesday when it’s only Sunday. For this reason, I stock my pantry accordingly.

Here’s a list of essential pantry items I believe everyone should have on hand. It’s a great list to use yourself and share with clients.

1. Sea salt: I’ve recently moved away from kosher as my everyday salt in favor of sea salt. Sea salt is harvested from the top of stationary seawater beds and then dried in the sun, a process that retains its trace minerals. Kosher and table salts are harvested from evaporated salt beds (no water) and then heat-treated and often bleached to ensure the grains remain separate and consistently white. This process kills off any trace minerals remaining in the salt.

Don’t get hung up on adding salt to your food to taste. It’s far worse to eat processed foods with hidden sodium than adding it yourself to whole foods in the kitchen in moderation. Salt is a necessary ingredient in cooking that brings out flavors. If you think your food is missing something, try adding a little salt.

2. Extra-virgin olive oil: Chefs and home cooks fall into two camps: butter and olive oil. I lean aggressively toward the olive oil camp and with all its heart-healthy benefits, why not? I’ll go as far as using it straight up as a sauce for chicken or fish. I spent time in the butter camp, and it was nice, but olive oil, in my opinion, offers more all-around flexibility.

3. Red pepper flakes: I’ve long held to the belief that the more assertively seasoned the food, the smaller the portions will be. Put another way, if people can actually taste their food, they’ll be satisfied eating less of it. The heat of red pepper flakes is a great way to get the point across. Some might be surprised to learn that the jar of red chile flakes next to the Parmesan at your local pizzeria is only one of many types of chile flakes available. Other varieties, such as Aleppo and Urfa, offer a fruity roundness that draws subtly away from the spiciness of the pepper and gives a definite complexity to foods. Buy small quantities of all your dried spices and replace them every few months. Freshness makes a noticeable difference so buy from a reputable supplier.

4. Vinegar: Acid enhances the flavors of food. In sauces, braises, and dips, it brings out the individual taste of each component. Garlic tastes more pungent, the herbs a little fresher, and the spice a little more pronounced. If I could have only one vinegar in my pantry, it would be sherry vinegar. Its inherent fruitiness comes across as balanced and not overly sharp like some varieties.

5. Garlic: Yes, garlic should be stored in the pantry, preferably in a cool, dark place with some air circulation. Garlic is another ingredient with highly touted health benefits, but in the kitchen its value is much more immediate. Anyone who’s ever touched a bowl of pasta can appreciate the sharpness that fresh garlic imparts on this bland backdrop. Whether added raw to sauces and marinades or toasted in olive oil until golden brown for a quick pasta sauce or roasted in the oven until candy-sweet, garlic is an undeniable presence on the dinner table—and a memorable one at that.

6. Sugar: While excessive consumption of sugar may be counterproductive for weight loss, it’s widely documented by scientists that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Or did I hear that in one of my kids’ movies? Regardless, sugar, like vinegar, brings balance to dishes. In vinaigrettes, for example, it can balance the acidity of the vinegar. As an ingredient in a spice rub, it can promote attractive browning and caramelization. I learned this balance of sweet and sour early in my career from my first chef. Although I didn’t fully see the light back then, this combination of flavors is what people like to eat, whether they know it or not. I prefer brown sugar, light or dark, for its subtle molasses undertone that gives a little something extra to dishes.

7. Mustard: While mayonnaise truly may be my favorite condiment, mustard comes in a close second. I stock stone-ground Dijon mustard because I like its coarse texture and flavor, but there are countless varieties and brands on the market from which to choose. One of the most unique ways I incorporate mustard into my cooking is by using it to apply a crust to fish. I’ll paint the flesh of the fish with a thick coat of mustard and then dip it in breadcrumbs or finely crushed nuts. The mustard helps the crust adhere and seasons the fish.

8. Canned beans: I can’t count how many times I’ve whipped something together using canned beans or chickpeas (technically not beans, but stay with me). Canned beans are an easy protein source without the otherwise hour-long cooking commitment. For a quick bean salad, I dice whatever fresh veggies I have and toss them with the beans and a hefty shot of vinegar and virgin olive oil to trump their inherent mildness and accentuate their creaminess. The sky’s the limit here. As long as you season assertively, you’ll come off like a genius.

9. Roasted red peppers: Like canned beans, jarred roasted red peppers are one of those time-saving ingredients that offer flavor and convenience all in one. If I had the time, I’d always prefer to roast my peppers from scratch, but I don’t, so I stock a few jars in my pantry. Quality is important here, and I prefer the Spanish varieties. If they’re sold whole, not chopped, they can be stuffed with cheese, chickpeas, or any variety of items and served as an appetizer or light entrée.

While my pantry staples won’t necessarily comprise a meal all on their own, they can help turn the ho-hum into something a little more memorable.

— Bryan Roof, RD, LDN, is a chef, dietitian, and food writer living in Boston.