A little while back, having just moved in with t.l.o.h.l.* darling Miss Molly wrote asking me for a “quick list of your kitchen essentials…what ingredients do you have to have on hand at all times…maybe a blog”. Dearest Motown and t.l.o.h.l. are both excellent cooks and t.l.o.h.l. is possessed of a fabulous apartment in what just might be the last-real-building-in-New-York-full-of-squatters-who-turned-their-squat-into-a-co-op-just-by-staying-there-for-a-few-decades-and-who-haven’t-been-bought-or-driven-out-yet. This apartment also boasts an appropriately authentic tiny kitchen. The fact that Miss Mo considered that I might be a resource in this land of ever-precious-pantry-real-estate is both an honor and a privilege. One that I’m not 100% sure I’m worthy of…Sweetheart and I do cook all the time and, like many people I know, we talk about food and cooking constantly and joyfully. Our favorite thing to do is to talk about what we’re going to eat for lunch while we’re eating breakfast and then talk about what we’re going to make for dinner as we’re eating lunch. We aren’t fancy cooks, we aren’t precious. We’re good at it because we like doing it, the act itself is a pure pleasure, and making good food for yourself and for those you love is the exact definition of sustenance. People have written a lot (and better) than I can or could about this most simple and glorious of human truths. So I’ll just say: Cooking is just the best. Apron on, glass of wine, some sweating onions and I’m happier than pretty much anywhere. I also really love my pantry. And the idea of stores. Ever since the existential dilemma of one’s chosen “Oregon Trail” career path dictating how much you had allotted to spend in the beginning on salt pork and cornmeal and ever since Manzo’s bad sisters ate the whole barrel of store-bought white sugar when their parents are out of town in “Farmer Boy” I’ve been enamored of the larder. The mere existence of the concept of “provisions” dovetails exactly with my desire for comfort, certainty, security, order, and beauty. Does this qualify me to wax poetic about basic kitchen necessities? Perhaps…
*the love of her life
Our old farmhouse has a pantry. A separate room the size of a walk-in closet with its own door and an ancient porcelain door-knob and whitewashed beadboard walls and exposed beams and an old schoolhouse light-fixture and walls full (full!) of glorious, glorious shelves. I didn’t build this pantry, but if I was going to build one, I’d build it just like this. It is the stuff of dreams. When we first moved down to our farmhouse from our Brooklyn apartment (which, by New York standards actually had a MASSIVE kitchen but still, le sigh) I used to go into the pantry and shut the door behind me and simply marvel at the thing. The rows of orderly jars and tiny bottles and places for multiple ice buckets and fermentation crocks and braided-tail hanging garlics and mysterious tonics steeping in a “cool dark place” and whatever else my strange new-witchy-barefoot-country self could imagine. I guess in this sense I am worthy of making a list of my “pantry staples”, in that sometimes I literally go into the pantry and stroke my stores of meals and flours lovingly and am constantly taking stock of the cans, jars, pickles, honeys, vinegars, oils, sauces, and spices to make sure that the world can be our oyster, whenever we decide to make them. My sister-in-law was telling me about this terrifying book she was reading where everyone in the world suddenly goes blind and everyone freaks out and starves because nobody can find any food and the first thing I thought was “I’d probably be ok for a while with the pantry and all”.
So, I’m by no means an expert, but, for Miss Motown and my own personal edification, here’s my pantry get-down. Lots of this stuff is super personal, but why not, here we go!
Ok, for those with space limitations, here are the absolute barest bones of what I think every kitchen must be stocked with at all times for the bare minimum of doable cookery. Oil, Vinegar, Salt, Pepper, Onions, Garlic…Wine.
Olive Oil: I just use Extra Virgin for everything. If someone wants to give me a $30 bottle of hubba-hubba finishing drizzling oil, I’ll definitely take it (seriously), or if you prefer a lower quality oil that smokes at a higher heat, I get that, but I think of Extra Virgin like the Goldilocks of cooking oils. Juuust right. I keep mine in a plain, refillable bottle with a speed pour on it at hand near the stove.
Vinegar: If you only have room for one, I’d pick… Champagne (surprised?). A light enough acid to counter greens (cooked or fresh) without the heaviness of a balsamic or the specificity of cider.
Salt: Cooking and finishing. For cooking I use Diamond’s Kosher Salt (though I try and use salt less and less during the actual cooking and add on the necessary zing at the end with the finishing salt…). Kosher salt is great for cooking, but not all kosher salts are created equal. My chef friend taught me: DO NOT USE MORTON’S. It is often the only “kosher” salt on lots of grocery shelves, but the rabbi has nothing to do with what’s actually in it. Morton’s Kosher Salt ingredients: Salt, Yellow Prussiate of Soda, Anti-Caking Agent. Diamond’s Kosher Salt ingredients: Salt. Nuff said. Finishing salt is a matter of super preference. My favorite is Le Saunier de Camargue Fleur de Sel.
Pepper: Get a grinder.
Onions + Garlic, always on hand, always. Any recipe that doesn’t start with these old pals in a pan sweating it out together in a little hot oil is immediately suspect (not to say that those recipes can’t be great, but it’s cause for pause). When Mama would start to make dinner when I was little I remember coming downstairs following the smell and say “WHAT are you making!?” and she’d say “It’s just the onions and garlic”.
Wine: for yourself, always, for the dish, sometimes.
THAT’S IT FOR THE ABSOLUTE BAREST NECESSITIES EVER.
Now. You know that can’t be it. That’s all well and fine if you’re living off the grid or with a single hot plate or in The Scamp. But, like everything worth a damn, the good kitchen contains multitudes. I contain multitudes. Here’s a second pass at things you should really consider having on your shelves. Quick, dirty, off the cuff, true for me, maybe not for you:
Coconut Oil: Perfect for cooking down Indian/Sub-Continent/Asian/Jamaican/Caribbean-flavor-profile hard greens and the best possible thing for popping popcorn at home.
Vegetable Oil: For frying. Latkes especially, or Okonomyaki and the like. Perfect for any kind of “cakes”. Except crabcakes, which get fried in butter.
Butter: Unsalted. As the chef friend says, why let the butter company pick the quality of salt you’re going to eat (see: Morton’s)
Cooking Spray: For greasing the grill or for easily greasing/flouring baking sheets/cake tins.
Balsamic Vinegar, Apple Cider Vinegar, Red Wine Vinegar, White Wine Vinegar, plain White Vinegar, Champagne Vinegar, Rice Wine Vinegar, Ponzu, Lemons, Limes.
Baking: White flour, rye flour, stone ground corn meal, masa harina, white sugar, brown sugar, confectioner’s sugar, baking powder, baking soda, cornstarch, cocoa powder.
Pantry: White rice, wild rice, arborio rice, basmati rice. Rolled oats, quick oats, Irish oats, granola. Pecans, walnuts, almonds, cashews, sesame seeds, popcorn, peanuts, pine nuts. Raisins, craisins, crystallized ginger, figs, dates. Dried red chinese chiles, dried adobo peppers, dried mushrooms. Red lentils, green lentils, french lentils. I have never had luck with dried beans.
Coffee, sweet moses, coffee.
A note on jars. Putting all of your stuff in jars isn’t some hipster affectation (though it does end up looking mighty swell). All it takes is one round of those terrible little pantry moths all up in your crumply bag of flour (and then, subsequently, in everything else) to make decanting all of your ingredients into jars make, like, the most sense. Also, then you can see everything you have at a glance. To maintain this system, a wide-mouthed canning funnel is an absolute necessity (Mama gave me mine a decade ago and I just gave my dear friend with a new pantry of her own to stock one for Christmas). It’s one of those things that once you have one you don’t know how you lived without it. For dry goods that all kind of look alike (confectioner’s sugar or rice flour? masa harina or cornmeal? rye flour or buckwheat?), once I put the contents of whatever packaging into the jar, I trace the jar top over the label, cut it out, and put the label between the lid and the ring.
Whole seeds/spices: cumin, fennel, cardamom, caraway, nutmeg, cloves, saffron, bay leaves, peppercorns.
Ground spices: cinnamon, coriander, turmeric, curry, ginger, oregano, crushed red pepper, cayenne pepper, chili powder, garlic powder, celery salt, and (the absolutely weirdly necessary/perfect) Rendezvous-branded seasoning from the rib joint in Memphis.
Fancy extras: aleppo pepper, smoked paprika, sichuan peppercorns, pink peppercorns, garam masala, ras al hanout, herbes de provence, Spike…any spice blends anyone awesome gives you.
Man, oh, man. This could go on forever! I HAVEN’T EVEN STARTED ON CANS. Or weird Asian sauces. Or mustard. Or mayonnaise! Or pickles. Molly, is this adequate? A moment of calm quiet after Christmas and before New Years and I’ve fallen down the presumptive rabbit hole of virtually counting all of my jars… what a pleasure. But the truth is, I’ve got to go start making dinner this very minute. What on earth should we have?
ps. Diced tomatoes and bullion cubes in the pantry (or homemade broth in the freezer), eggs, carrots, and celery in the fridge + all this other jazz and you can pretty much literally make anything, ever. Maintaining a pantry like this makes trips to the grocery literally just be cruising the produce + protein sections and picking what’s fresh and/or cheap.
pps. secret best ingredient of all time: Chiles in Adobo Sauce. Found in a can with the Goya stuff/international aisle in every supermarket. Chop them in a soup. Add them to onions and garlic at the beginning of a braise. Beef up some beans. Take some of the sauce and mix it with mayonnaise for the best, spicy, smoky, easiest “secret sauce” ever. And the La Morena brand has a badass, vaguely suspicious, sassy (naked?) woman on it who is kind of like my personal kitchen spirit animal.
ppps. ok gotta stop.