Advice from a magical kitchen to yours.
Every week, the Kitchen Witch answers your culinary questions with an eye towards seasonal, sustainable cooking. Ask your question by email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ECkitchenwitch.
Dear Kitchen Witch,
What do you recommend for stocking a pantry so that Kitchen Witchery is easier? I’d love to be a roll-with-what’s-on-hand cook, but I feel like that would work better with a solid lineup of staples and condiments and I’m not sure what to stock up on so I can pull together flavorful meals quickly.
—The Cupboard is Bare
Dear Mother Hubbard,
Canned beans. With canned beans on your shelves, you always have dinner. You have soup. You have chili. You can bump up a salad into a meal. That’s it, that’s the whole answer, thank you for coming to my TED talk.
Just kidding! While canned beans of various types are a great start, I definitely do not want you to end up eating unseasoned beans out of the can with a spoon, which is the logical endpoint of following that advice to the letter. My real answer is that the best advice will vary for everyone, depending on how and what they (or, in this case, you) like to cook and eat. There are a great number of guides out there, but they can be pretty aspirational (and read like an entire grocery store), especially if you’re starting more or less from scratch. There’s absolutely no need to go out and drop a grand at the supermarket just to get your pantry in working order.
On that note, knowing what you like and will use regularly is a really important first step here. I don’t really believe in one-size-fits-all advice on this subject. For instance, I have a couple of quirks in what I like to cook with and what I have available to me and my pantry is never without preserved Meyer lemons. I make a big batch every year, I use them to brighten up dishes all year round with their hit of salt and acidity, and I would never dream of telling you that you absolutely have to have them. Maybe your must-have that you like to throw in everything to give it a lift is capers or chopped pancetta or mustard seeds. I don’t know your life!
Before you start stocking, I’d get to cleaning out your fridge and cupboards. Make some room on your shelves, tidy things up, and—importantly—take note of what you haven’t used up. That will tell you a lot about what isn’t in heavy rotation in your kitchen. Is there a spice that appears to only have 1/8 of a teaspoon missing from the jar or a kind of beans you bought in a previous pantry-stocking attempt that are still sitting there gathering dust? Cross those off your mental list for next time. (Obviously, you can write to me for advice on what to do with all the random stuff you run across and don’t want to throw out.)
Now you have some nice space on your shelves and I trust you have things grouped at least loosely by category. First up is to think about what kind of items you will use more often than not in every dinner you cook. For me, that’s obvious contenders like onions, garlic, olive oil, chicken broth (sometimes I have homemade frozen, sometimes it’s in a tetrapack), Diamond Crystal kosher salt (don’t, uh, stay home without it), canned diced tomatoes—including the Ro-tel kind with green chiles, I’m not too proud to say—and other staples. Think about what kind of idiom you want to cook in most often and get staple spices, carbs, frozen meats and/or vegetables, and fats in that vein. If you pick a style that’s your main mode of cooking, and have the basics on hand for that, you can build complex and coherent flavor profiles much more easily—and with less hesitation—than if your pantry is all over the map. So, if your go-to quick meal tends to be a stir-fry, say, make sure you have basics like soy sauce, ginger, rice wine, a neutral oil for cooking over high heat, toasted sesame oil, rice, and so forth. If you’re more likely to throw together a pasta dish when time is short, you’ll want (obviously) pasta, olive oil, tomatoes, maybe some anchovies and/or olives, a chunk of good parmesan, and so on. You can also, of course, build a pantry that works for specific dietary needs or for clean eating.
I hope, dear Mother Hubbard, you’ll forgive me for not giving you a long list of exactly what to buy. There are a million and one such guides out there on these here internets, but to me, the key to making actual kitchen witchery happen (as opposed to just filling the stomachs of those around you in a utilitarian way or fulfilling that checklist) is to have a few vibrant-tasting favorites that you can use to elevate what you’re cooking: Aleppo pepper, say, or coriander seeds, canned green chiles or pickled limes—whatever happens to float your boat, and in so doing give your food a twist you like. That, rather than dogmatically following An Authoritative List, is how you develop a cooking style that’s recognizable, tasty, and flexible in a pinch.
That said, if you have access to a Trader Joe’s, I am a known evangelist for their frozen artichoke hearts, which are the bomb and don’t have that sad watery citric-acid thing that canned artichoke hearts have. I would happily eat a dinner of just those, roasted, but they round out a dish of braised chicken or the like and turn it into a complete meal in a way that is very satisfying if you happen not to have any fresh vegetables in your crisper drawer. They are also very good roasted and tossed with my forever faves, canned white beans and some chopped preserved lemon, over pasta or not.
See? I told you. The whole darned answer is just canned beans.