Monday, April 21, 2008

the perfect pantry

Spice table at Saxe-Breteuil market in Paris, 2005

The one thing that distinguishes a frugal gourmet from the rest of the hungry masses is a well-stocked pantry. Having a pantry full of ingredients, rather than snacks, paves the way for culinary innovation under any budget. The perfect pantry is an investment, and may initially cost a bit more than your regular trip to the grocery store. But once your pantry is stocked, your weekly grocery bills will decline, and the majority of your spending will be on fresh, seasonal produce, which is not only fresh and nutritious, but inexpensive.

As Michael Pollan writes in his book, In Defense of Food (Penguin Press, 2007): "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." This dietary trope has become an increasingly popular credo for cooks and eaters who are becoming more conscious of the importance of knowing the origins of their food. According to Pollan, a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, grains and the occasional animal protein, feeds the human body as it was meant to be fed, with food food, not cellophane-wrapped synthetics.

The additional benefit to this earthy way of eating is that it costs comparatively less. Anything that comes in a box can be sold at a higher price point than things that come in crates. Consider this: not only are you paying for the producer's name-brand label on the box, but you're also paying for the cost of packaging materials. So if you're trying to "make ends meat" and your shopping cart is regularly filled with grocery items instead of things from the produce section, try the following experiment. Take note of how much you spend on a regular grocery trip. Sometime in between shopping trips, go shopping for the items to put together The Perfect Pantry. Next shopping trip, only visit the produce, meat, and dairy sections (according to your taste). These items will become the main focus of your dishes, and your perfect pantry will supplement each meal. You'll see that your grocery bill will be significantly lower. Just remember that the items from your pantry trip are an investment, which in the long run cost you nothing. In economic terms, this is your deadweight loss, which ultimately is your culinary gain.

So what to buy for the perfect pantry? I've divided the contents of the pantry into seven groups: Grains, Legumes, Flours, Canned Goods and Butters, Nuts and Dried Fruit, Oils and Vinegars, and importantly, Spices. These will provide the backbone to any dish, allowing you to be creative with your fresh ingredients.

Here is a starter grocery list of my favorite and trusty items that will transform your snack cupboard into a chef's stockroom.


  • Bulgur
  • Couscous
  • Rice
  • Farro
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Pasta (a box or more each of long form pasta, ribbon pasta, and tubular pasta)*
Legumes (canned or dried)
  • Chick peas
  • Cannenelli beans
  • Black / pinto / butter beans
  • Lentils
  • Unbleached white flour
  • Whole wheat flour
  • Whole wheat / unbleached white pastry flour
Canned Goods and Butters
  • San Marzano peeled tomatoes (look at cans to be sure that the variety is San Marzano)
  • Tomato paste
  • Capers
  • A nut butter (peanut, almond, cashew, etc)
  • Tahini (sesame butter)
Nuts and Dried Fruit
  • Raw Walnuts
  • Raw Almonds
  • Pignoli (pine) nuts (can be quite expensive)
  • A variety of seed, like pumpkin
  • Raisins / currants
Oils and Vinegars
  • Olive oil (for cooking)
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Sesame Oil
  • Nut oil (i.e., pumpkin seed oil, walnut oil)
  • Balsamic vinegar
  • White wine / champagne vinegar
  • Rice wine vinegar
  • Peppercorns (use only freshly ground pepper)
  • Salt (kosher salt for cooking, and a sea salt variety in a grinder for flavoring)
  • Cumin
  • Cinnamon
  • Bay Leaves
  • Chili powder
  • Nutmeg
  • Saffron
  • Curry powder and/or Garam Masala
  • Coriander
  • Mustard
  • Tumeric
  • Dried oregano
  • Dried rosemary
  • Dried thyme

*Alternatively, you can make your own delicious, inexpensive, homemade pasta using the flour from your pantry if you have a pasta machine.

** Instead of wasting your money and your potential for flavor on dried herbs, garlic power, onion power, and powdered ginger, buy these ingredients fresh, when available. However, if the availability of fresh herbs is scarce, dried herbs are just fine, such as the ones I've suggested. Try to avoid buying dried leafy herbs, such as basil, cilantro, and parsley, as they dramatically lose their flavor and utility when dried.

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