There are always days where the dinner hour creeps up on you and you have nothing in mind to cook. That’s when it’s helpful to have a well-stocked pantry. You should see mine – I’m afraid I inherited this problem from my parents: I have so much food in there that I have to dig for what I’m looking for. But I do try to keep it clean and organized – baking supplies, grains/pasta/rice, nuts, etc. are grouped together and secured in ziplock bags. Here are some staples (above and beyond the basics) that make my food pantry a bit unique. These are things that might help make a last-minute dinner not seem so last-minute.
Dried currants – I keep a box of these to add some zip to a pasta or rice or salad. They are so tiny, I prefer them to the more plump raisins.
Sliced almonds – great to have on hand to toss into salads or with sautéed green beans. Always toast beforehand (in a toaster oven for about 2 minutes, watching closely so they don’t burn) to release the oils, allowing them to become more fragrant and flavorful. Use almonds in Baked Vegetable Fries.
Pine nuts – great to have on hand to toss into salads or pasta or sautéed spinach with red pepper flakes. Always toast beforehand (in a toaster oven for about 2 minutes, watching closely so they don’t burn) to release the oils, allowing them to become more fragrant and flavorful. Use pine nuts in Arugula Salad with Pine Nuts, Wheat Berry Salad with Feta, Pine Nuts & Basil, and Orzo and Spinach Salad.
Kosher salt – this is my main salt that I use daily in my kitchen for cooking and seasoning. How is it different from everyday table salt? Kosher salt contains no additives (table salt does), the crystal size is a bit larger and thus easier to pinch, and it tastes cleaner (table salt can have a metallic taste due to the iodine that is added to it). Good to keep table salt on hand for baking.
Maldon sea salt – I love these delicate flakes for both cooking and seasoning. This is expensive, so I use more sparingly (not everyday).
Couscous – is made from tiny granules of pasta and is so easy to prepare; I’ve recently switched to “whole wheat” which really doesn’t taste that different. I always cook it in chicken stock instead of water for the added flavoring. I try not to buy the boxes of couscous mixes because the seasoning packets contain additives and things that I can’t pronounce (this can’t be good for you!)
Israeli Couscous – also called “Pearl Couscous” has a really fun, chewy texture that pops in your mouth once its cooked. Try Herbed Israeli Couscous.
Quinoa – this whole grain is fairly quick to cook and very healthy, boasting the highest protein content of all of the whole grains. It’s also gluten-free and cholesterol-free. Once cooked, will keep in your fridge for a week. Try Breakfast Quinoa.
Wheat Berries – you want to buy “hard wheat berries”. They have a chewy bite, a nutty flavor, and are loaded with fiber, protein, and nutrients. You can find these at Whole Foods. Try Wheat Berry Salad with Feta, Pine Nuts & Basil.
Farro – a whole grain rich in fiber, protein, minerals and vitamins; helps to regulate blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol. It has a nutty taste and is thought of as a more sophisticated barley. Try Farro Salad with Roasted Squash, Radicchio & Sage.
Barley – a whole (cereal) grain rich in fiber, protein, minerals and vitamins; helps to regulate blood sugar levels and lower cholesterol. Try it in Meat Stuffed Peppers.
Whole Wheat (or Brown Rice) Pasta – this is noticeably chewier than white pasta (and not as good leftover), but I am trying to cook with this when we make pasta. My favorite is the penne shape (the spaghetti just seemed too chewy to me) and we buy Barilla Whole Wheat or any brown rice-based penne-shaped pasta. If you can’t tolerate the taste of whole wheat pasta, Barilla Plus (extra protein) penne is a great alternative. Try it in Pasta with Kale, Kalamata Olives, Dried Cranberries, Toasted Garlic & Feta.
Orecchiette pasta – I always have a box of this on hand since I have a few favorite recipes that use it. This is the pasta that is shaped like small ears (or for a less appetizing descriptor, contact lenses! Or – my boys refer to them as “helmets”!) The shape lends itself to soaking up the sauce and not stealing the show from whatever is accompanying it. It’s so good! And the whole wheat version is not bad. Try Orecchiette with Veal, Capers & White Wine.
Black Sesame Seeds – these are available at Whole Foods and can elevate the look and taste of an Asian dish. Try these in Carrots with Black Sesame & Ginger and Stir-Fried Brown Rice with Seaweed & Black Sesame.
Turkish Seasoning (from Penzeys Spices) – this is a wonderful spice mix that we use all the time. Can be used on lamb, beef and chicken; the mix contains salt, garlic, cumin, black pepper, oregano, paprika, sumac, cayenne pepper, and cilantro. It’s worth a trip into Penzeys (or to their website)! Try Turkish Chicken.
White Balsamic Vinegar – I have heard that the best white balsamic vinegar is the Trader Joe’s brand, so I’ve looked no further. I go through a ton of this. It’s the basis for my basic, everyday salad vinaigrette and yummy in the Orzo and Spinach Salad.
Toasted Sesame Oil – whenever I use this in a marinade or dressing, I can recognize this favorite ingredient. It has such a wonderful flavor! Try it in Carrot-Ginger Dressing, Carrots with Black Sesame & Ginger, Stir-Fried Brown Rice with Seaweed & Black Sesame, Lemony Chicken Stir-Fry, and Japanese Style Sesame Dressing.
Rice Vinegar – I use this a lot in marinades and Asian dressings. Try it in Carrot-Ginger Dressing.
Tamari – this is different from Soy Sauce in that it is made with little or no wheat and has a higher concentration of soybeans. The flavor is richer and less salty than soy sauce. I prefer to use this instead of soy sauce for marinades, dipping sauces and stir fries. Try it in Black Cod with Miso, A Really Good Tri-Tip Marinade, and Stir-Fried Brown Rice with Seaweed & Black Sesame.
Whole Wheat Pita Bread – on nights when I don’t have a starch prepared for dinner, we do like to warm up a fresh baguette (but you need to buy this the day of) or have toasted pita bread. I simply cut it open and slice into quarters and toast in the toaster oven with a dab of butter. You can also top with shredded parmesan cheese.
Unsweetened Cocoa Powder – spend the money to get a good brand like Ghirardelli or Scharffen Berger and it will make a big difference in your dessert.
Hearts of Palm – I try not to buy a lot of canned foods (BPA exposure), but I have exceptions. I like to always have hearts of palm around to make a dinner salad a little more special.
Fish Sauce – one sniff of this and your stomach will turn, but (trust me!) a small amount of this added to an Asian dish really does make a difference. It keeps forever in your fridge after opening. Try it in A Really Good Tri-Tip Marinade.
Veri Veri Teriyaki marinade – this is my “go to” marinade when I don’t have time to pull one together. It tastes great and there are no preservatives and the ingredients are real (nothing you don’t recognize!) I marinade chicken drumsticks in this for a few hours or all day and grill at 400 degrees for about 20-30 minutes or until thermometer reads 185 degrees inside the meat. I bet it would be great on grilled shrimp too.
And for your fridge…
Fresh ginger – I buy this fairly regularly for marinades and Asian dressings. Simply peel with a potato peeler or knife and mince. Try it in Carrot-Ginger Dressing and Carrots with Black Sesame & Ginger.
White miso paste – I buy a tub of this at Whole Foods (in their refrigerator section near the hummus) and go through a lot of it. I read somewhere that it keeps for 3 weeks after opening, but I will admit to keeping it much longer than that! Try it in Carrot-Ginger Dressing and Black Cod with Miso.
Crumbled goat cheese – this is a wonderful addition to a salad (less salty than feta). Try it in Goat Cheese, Artichoke & Smoked Ham Strata.
Parmesan cheese – I keep a good quality hunk of Parmesan cheese in a ziplock bag in my cheese drawer (this keeps for a long time). It’s nice to freshly grate over pasta. I also have a container of shredded parmesan for recipes that call for larger amounts of Parmesan cheese. Try it in Goat Cheese, Artichoke & Smoked Ham Strata, Parmesan-Roasted Cauliflower, Roasted Asparagus, Spaghetti and Meatballs, and Orecchiette with Veal, Capers & White Wine.
Almond milk – I buy unsweetened almond milk (in addition to regular cow’s milk), which is fun to use in smoothies or in oatmeal. It has a slightly nutty taste and is very good for you (twice the calcium and half the calories of cow’s milk). Try the Banana Milkshake and Crazy Good Spinach Smoothie.