Being a chef instructor at The Chopping Block is by far the best job I have ever had. I love food, I adore cooking, and I am passionate about teaching. Given those facts, every time I come to work I am like a kid in a candy store – literally! I love to peruse our shelves for the latest kitchen tools, or pantry items, and being able to cook/teach in a kitchen with every ingredient you could imagine and oodles of pots and pans is sheer bliss. But, the truth is, I hadn’t been enjoying cooking at home in quite some time, and I couldn’t figure out why. Then, I moved.
When I was packing, I was faced with a stark reality – I was a pantry hoarder. I had been keeping pantry items long past their expiration dates, like 3 years long! I had spice mixes I could not pronounce nor had any idea from which cuisine or culture they came. I had the equivalent of 2 tablespoons of red lentils in a jar from 3 dwellings ago, and a box of graham crackers that were so stale, my dog wouldn’t even eat them. Sadly, this list is by no mean exhaustive or complete, but it did provide me with invaluable information. And without getting too analytical, I did come to some interesting insights.
- Meal Planning. As a chef, personal meal planning has never really seemed necessary because I have confidence I can always whip something up. However, that can also lead to storing over 50 different kinds of spices and dried herbs, not to mention obscure dry goods in the pantry “just in case”, but ultimately never get used because like most people, chef or not, I have my go to meals especially when it's last minute. And those leftover ingredients from that one special feast I made two years ago are never going to become my staples. So I am learning to meal plan, and also keep pantry, freezer and fridge inventories.
- Options vs. Overload. Choice is a good thing, but too many options is paralyzing. Yes, pantry items are shelf stable, but when you are moving unopened packages of specialty flours four times? Um, enough said!
- Scarcity vs. abundance. We live in a time when food is readily available 24/7. And while I don’t want to have to run out to the store every time I cook, or waste food, I also don’t need to store the store at my house! Instead, I am learning to keep the ingredients for a few favorite dishes in my pantry at all times, and only buy the specialty items when I actually have a recipe and a plan to cook them.
All of this self-analysis has lead me to create a list of what I call The Essential Pantry. Of course, your list will vary depending on what you like to cook on a regular basis. I just kept track of what my family ate regularly over a few months, and then used those meals to create it.
- Kosher Salt (see my blog post on salt to help you choose)
- Whole Black Peppercorns (I highly recommend investing in a peppermill. Pre-ground pepper has no flavor!)
- Bay Leaves
- Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
- *Bay Leaves
- *Granulated Garlic
- *Granulated Onion
- *Dried Thyme
- *Dried Mixed Herb Blend, e.g. Italian, Herbs de Provence, etc.
- *No room for being an herb snob here –I do prefer fresh, but sometimes that’s just not an option.
- Ground Cinnamon
- Ground Ginger
- Whole Nutmeg (Ground goes rancid very quickly, whole lasts a very long time. Invest in a grater, its totally worth it.)
- Vanilla Extract
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- High Heat Flavorless Oil, such as grapeseed, canola, etc.
- Honey or Maple Syrup or Agave Nectar
- Soy Sauce/Fish Sauce
- 2 types of Vinegar: Red/White/Apple Cider/Rice Wine/Balsamic/Sherry
- Worcestershire Sauce
- Hot Sauce of choice (Sriracha, Cholula, Frank’s)
- Nut butter of choice
- Dijon Mustard
- Evaporated Milk
- Tomato Paste
Staple Dry Goods
- All-Purpose Flour
- Whole Rolled Oats
- White Sugar
- Brown Sugar
- Dried Fruit of choice
- Nut or Seed of choice
- Chocolate Chips
- Baking Powder
- Baking Soda
- 2 shapes of boxed pasta, one long noodle and one shape
- Brown Rice
- Large cans of whole or crushed tomatoes
- Hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano or Romano cheese
- Butter, salted and unsalted
- Lemons and limes
- Pickles (sweet and savory)
Paring down my pantry has not only given me back much need space in the cupboards, it has also reignited my creativity in the kitchen. I now know I have everything I need on hand to make a last minute meal or a sweet treat, but not items I don’t really like or use but had kept out of a sense of guilt or chef peer pressure to “have it all”. I also enjoy reading cookbooks again and trying out new recipes. I have just learned it’s better for me to shop bulk sections at the grocery store, and specialty spice shops for those unique ingredients I will only use occasionally.
I always like to give you a class option at The Chopping Block that will provide you with an experience to compliment this post, and what I realized is in this case, any of our classes would be excellent. Perhaps it is Sauce Boot Camp or New Fall Baking Classics or maybe its one of our 101 series (Seafood or Chicken). What is important is to choose the class or classes that will help you master the few dishes you want to have in your everyday repertoire, which you can then use to build your own essential pantry.