Pantry Essentials

Have these items on hand in your pantry and a last-minute meal (not the pizza delivery guy) is just a few chops away. I usually make a big soup or salad, or a quick pasta—just pick and choose from canned items like beans and artichokes, or tomatoes and olives.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

So by now we know there are three “fruit” categories of xv olive oil (delicate, medium, robust), but until you’re calling out “grass” in one
and “grapefruit” in another (natch), you want, for starters, to have a reasonably-priced olive oil for everyday cooking and then a more complex (and usually more expensive) olive oil for finishing dishes. Using raw olive oil as a garnish at the end of the meal is not only better for you than cooked olive oil, but it also brings out that pure green flavor that gives
your meal extra depth.

Read more about extra virgin olive oil
Editor’s choice for an everyday extra virgin olive oil
Editor’s choice for a finishing extra virgin olive oil 

Wine and Balsamic Vinegars

White/red wine vinegars: I usually have a variety of vinegars on-hand depending on how I’m feeling that day or what dish it’s accenting. I love a simple rice vinegar for a light, slightly sweet vinaigrette (a tip from my Japanese sister-in-law: mix this in equal parts with soy sauce for the perfect dumpling dipping sauce); champagne vinegar is always a good, fruity choice; or maybe a more acidic red wine vinegar to go along with a hearty meat dish. Remember to avoid the large bottle of clear, white vinegar with the low price tag—chefs use it to clean their sinks!

Balsamic vinegars: Like extra virgin olive oil, it’s best to have two types of balsamic vinegar: an everyday reasonably-priced balsamic vinegar for salads or for recipes that call for it in large amounts; and then a traditional (authentic) balsamic vinegar that can be used as a finishing touch for omelets, meat, or desserts. For the commercial vinegar, remember to avoid anything that looks like it has too many additives. For traditional vinegar, remember the criteria for finding the (rare) real thing.

Read more about vinegar
Editor’s choice for an everyday balsamic vinegar
Editor’s choice for a traditional balsamic vinegar 

Pasta

This is definitely a staple in my household. I tend to buy several packages of FaellaMartelli or Latini and keep them on hand—they’re also a great gift for a foodie friend in a pinch. The bright yellow Martelli packaging is like its own wrapping paper! Remember, when buying pasta: look for “slow drying” and “made with bronze dies” on the label.

Recipes: Essential Pasta Sauces
Recipes: More Pasta

Rice

The types of rice to in stock are largely up to taste and cooking preferences. I always have an Arborio rice in the pantry for making creamy risotto, as well as a brown rice for healthier days, but some people might prefer sticky rice for Asian meals, Basmati for Indian dishes, bomba rice for paella, or wild rice for that rustic flavor.

Recipe: Basic Parmesan Risotto
Recipe: Risotto with Sausage and Scallions

Beans 

I always keep canned beans in the pantry for last-minute meals, especially since raw beans often require hours of soaking. My only stipulation is that the beans don’t contain preservatives, which is an easy find at most natural food stores. I also check the sodium content as it can be high in canned beans (though there have been warnings lately about the alarming levels of BPA (Bisphenol A) in canning material… it might be time to switch back to soaking beans).

Beans are very handy for making a quick soup at the last minute when you realize the only thing in the refrigerator is a wrinkled lemon wedge. Rinse the beans in a colander and then start a soup base with some finely diced celery, carrot, onion and/or garlic, perhaps a bit of tomato (canned in the winter, fresh in the summer!), and any other veggies, or even crumbled sausage or some pancetta—a great way to use up whatever’s hanging out in the refrigerator (hey, maybe there’s still some juice in that wrinkled lemon!).

Of course, you can use hard beans and reconstitute them, but that takes a bit more planning for time. The soaking time also depends on size. Lentils, for example, can just be brought to a boil and reduced to simmer, and they’re ready within the hour. But as a general rule for bigger beans (borlotti/cranberry or cannellini/great northern or black): Soak them overnight in cold water. The next day, rinse the beans off, and simmer until al dente in new water (do not add salt to the water—or acid like lemon, tomato, wine—as this can cause the beans to firm up). Then turn the heat off and let them cool in their water. Be careful not to use really old beans—they take longer to soften the older they get. A great tip is to buy beans from a store that sells them in bulk. You can buy what you need and not end up with leftovers in your pantry.

Recipe: Easy Black Bean Soup
Recipe: Tuna and White Bean Bruschetta

Marinated/Canned Vegetables 

Artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes, pickled zucchini—there are amazing brands out there making canned vegetables delicious these days. Throw a marinated veggie or two in a salad with some feta cheese, or even diced cheddar or mild pecorino. And don’t forget—always have canned whole peeled tomatoes in stock in the winter (fresh in summer, canned in winter).

Recipe: Tomato Sauce (Garlic)
Recipe: Farfalle with Artichokes and Mushrooms

Stock/Broth

First of all, the difference between stock and broth is that stock is made by simmering meat with bones and vegetables together, while broth is made from simmering meat (no bones) and vegetables. Okay, there are two ways to approach the stock/broth issue: from scratch or not. I keep store-bought chicken broth on hand (I like the organic and free-range Pacific Natural Foods brand; avoid Swanson, which I find watery) and then make the real thing when you’re feeling adventurous (or it’s raining and there’s nothing good on TV). Once the stock/broth has cooled, you can chill it in the refrigerator for a week or freeze it in ice trays for two to three months. Whatever you do, stay away from those boullion cubes—they’re loaded with MSG and, yikes, what on earth seems natural about those things?

Bread Crumbs

Everybody seems to have an opinion on bread crumbs—to toast or not to toast, fresh bread or stale bread, crust on or crust off, add herbs or add nothing at all. I don’t usually have an excess of bread in the house to turn into bread crumbs (but if you do, just throw bread in the food processor until crumbly; you can also toast with a bit of olive oil on the stove before using), so I usually end up buying one of those plain varieties to stock the pantry (avoid the “seasoned” ones with herbs and unpronounceable additives). My other favorite is Ian’s whole wheat panko bread crumbs (I find it at Whole Foods and natural food stores)—they’re much chunkier and crunchier than regular bread crumbs, the whole wheat gives them a great depth of flavor, and they are, bar none, my go-to topping for creamy mac ‘n’ cheese.

Recipe: Maccheroni & Cheese

Capers

This is purely optional as I’ve noticed capers are a bit of a love/hate food (though this may be because of how they’ve been preserved—see below.) In my family, we lovingly call them “salt balls” (and pass the veal piccata). So what are they, anyway? Capers are cured buds from a wild Mediterranean bush—the best ones arguably come from the Italian island of Pantelleria—and consensus is the smaller, the better. Although sometimes hard to find, capers preserved in salt are much better than capers in vinegar brine. Capers in brine tend to absorb that strong “pickle taste” and end up with a mushy consistency since they’re preserved in liquid (these are, unfortunately, the capers that most people consume). Capers in salt retain much more of their flavor (and integrity) and simply need to be rinsed or briefly soaked in water before using. (A good way to use capers: make a salsa verde and spread it over your next simply-grilled meat or fish.)

Recipe: Veal Piccata with Mushrooms and Capers
Recipe: Fusilli with Eggplant, Tomato, and Basil

Anchovies

Like capers, the anchovy is another oft-maligned ingredient. Most people think of it as that fishy smell coming from the pizza that crazy girl ordered (yes, please). But, like capers, the most widespread version of this ingredient is not usually in the best shape. Eating a high-quality anchovy (or sardine, for that matter, usually on Italian or Spanish tables) is like night and day compared to the ones sold on our supermarket shelves. Like capers yet again, anchovies are best preserved in salt, but are often hard to find (luckily, LTBB found them for you!). A great recipe idea an Italian chef once told me about: put 4 anchovies and one bunch of fresh chives in a food processor and mix briefly until creamy; drizzle it over your favorite fish and prepare to swoon—even anchovy haters will love this, I swear (just don’t tell them what’s in it).

Recipe: Caesar Salad
Recipe: Pasta Puttanesca with Tuna
Recipe: Baked White Sea Bass with Chive Bread Crumbs

Tuna/Other Canned Fish

The star player in a last-minute salad (try it with lettuce, red onion, celery, sweet corn, mozzarella bocconcini, reconstituted sundried tomatoes) or in a pasta puttanesca sauce. Quality counts here—buy it preserved in olive oil, not water, and avoid bluefin tuna as it is extremely endangered.

Recipe: Pasta Puttanesca with Tuna

Pine Nuts/Walnuts/Slivered Almonds

Pine nuts are a staple ingredient in pesto (no more store-bought pesto! If you have a food processor, it is an easy recipe to master and the fresh taste is beyond compare). Nuts are also a great addition to a salad, especially when toasted on the stove top to bring out their flavor (just don’t forget about it and let them burn, like I do half the time). One of my favorite salads is Stilton, apple, and walnut. (You can substitute a firm goat cheese if you just can’t do blue.) Use a crisp white wine vinegar and don’t forget freshly cracked black pepper. Slivered almonds are also a great salad topper, and a key ingredient in Sicily’s pesto alla trapanese.

Recipe: Pesto
Recipe: Stilton, Apple, and Walnut Salad
Recipe: Pesto alla trapanese

Agave Nectar

This is one of my new favorite things, and not only for margaritas! With a honey consistency, agave nectar is a great alternative to sugar and can be found at natural food stores. (My family’s frozen margarita recipe: blender full of ice, fill one-third to one-half with tequila, add half a container of Minute Maid frozen Limeade, drizzle in a bit of agave nectar—hit that power button!)

Salt and Pepper

Choose wisely and grind it fresh as much as possible! Vincenzo Gucciardo‘s sea salt (fine, coarse, fiore di sale/fleur de sel) from the salt flats of Trapani, Sicily, has convinced me that not all sea salts are the same. Its pungent flavor allows you to use much less salt than you would with other salts, too.

SaltWorks talks about how to choose sea salt.

General Baking Items

Flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, yeast, corn starch, real vanilla, assorted spices (cayenne, curry, etc.).

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