"The only real stumbling block is the fear of failure. In cooking, you have got to have a what-the-hell attitude." ~ Julia Child

The pantry clean-out project: What’s in, what’s out

by Julie Tilsner on January 8, 2009

in Chew on This

Gotta hand it to Mark Bittman (and to those who religiously forward me his articles): His recent column about what should and shouldn't be in one's pantry was a godsend for me. And not only because it gave me a solution to my tomato paste quandary. (as the second person to cite tomato paste in a tube, I can only assume the universe is telling me to get off my butt and go find a store that sells it.)

His list of pantry staples in just the kind of service journalism I need to read. It's because I wouldn't otherwise know these things. Because I didn't grow up in a household where fresh cooking was ever considered, much less valued, and I have only slowly come to realize how much better a dish can taste with a little creative embellishment.

Take his example of lemons. Just say no to the ubiquitous yellow plastic lemon in your refrigerator side shelf, he says, and buy fresh lemons, six at a time, and use them over everything. "I never put lemon on something and regret it." (well, I have, but I take his point.) He suggests scrambling up some eggs in a little chicken stock, then finishing up with a lot of lemon, fresh pepper and dill. Yowza. I guarantee you slop the first time I try this…but maybe with a few practice runs I might stumble upon something marvelous.

He gives me good reason to go out and buy another wedge of fresh Parmesan, something I'd had since last year's soup swap and have since run out of…to my regret. I reach into my fridge for the stuff almost daily, and yet I never remember to buy it anew. But "…grated over anything, there is no more magical ingredient." I like the sound of that. And with that one fell swoop, perhaps even I can make something special out of something otherwise mundane. 

These are the kind of magiks my friends who know how to cook employ as a matter of course. For Julia, Audrey, Christina and Kelli, having capers and anchovies and good olives on hand is a big duh. They'd probably never have a can of corn sitting around in the summer, when they could get the fresh stuff. Truly, I must learn from them.

True, some of his suggestions lie too deeply in my fantasy-land. A quarter pound of prosciutto? In my refrigerator? In my wildest dreams (along with a mention on Oprah and a vacation villa in Tangiers). And cooking fresh beans every week? I don't have the time management skills for that rotation. Plus it sounds like a waste of perfectly good dried beans.

The advice to throw spices out after a year gives me pause as well. I love my spices, but I buy them in Little India, where I can get 8-ounces of cumin or coriander for $3 or $4, compared to $5 or more for 3-ounces at the supermarket. I use them a lot, but not so much that my 8-ounces of Garam Masala is going to be used in 12 short months. Thriftiness vs. freshness is a conundrum here. And as we know, my forays into fresh herbs are often wasted. 

Still, I'm not so behind in the pantry game. I cleaned out my own pantry just the other day, and I must say that for someone with no skill in the kitchen, I do keep a pretty-well stocked place. It's not everyone who keeps walnuts (for my yogurt) and miso paste at the ready. I've got dried mushrooms and bonito flakes and real maple syrup. I've got fish sauce, and yes, even a tin of anchovies.

Although those actually went over, in the can, when I last went to whip up a salad nicoise. OK. So there's lots of work to do. Maybe I could start by figuring out how I could get a quarter pound of prosciutto into my freezer.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Kelli Johnson January 10, 2009 at 9:00 am

I am so glad Bittman came through for you on the pantry advice! And I have always thought your pantry was well stocked. As for spices, perhaps a couple of trips to the spice store per year are in order, I would be happy to split an ounce with you (It’s been a long time since I said that, and we were discussing herb if memory serves). Paste in a tube, brilliant. And that parmesan rind goes right in to the minetrone for much added flavor. As for cooking herbs…the only way I can keep them fresh is to keep them in the ground! Oh, I am totally inspired to add bonito flakes to my cupboard!!


cassie January 13, 2009 at 8:42 pm

re: tomato paste … i am too darn cheap to buy it in a tube .. so i made use of this tip instead: freeze it in ice cube trays and store the cubes in a plastic bag … haven’t measured but if i remember correctly, each cube = 1 T….


Linda January 15, 2009 at 7:53 am

You are putting me to shame with all of your postings, resolutions and blog chain mail forwardings.
I will look forward to helping you fulfill resolution #7 when you become the only Californian to willingly come to NH in February!


JulieR January 20, 2009 at 4:00 am

I know he says not to but I use bouillon powder, good quality with no salt or msg. I find that with a bit of garlic and soem fresh parsley, just that alone with water, makes a decent base for soup. Or to cook veggies or rice in. Someitmes, I don’t have the veggies on hand to make a decent stock (or the time)…


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