I've been thinking a lot about my pantry. While living in an apartment recently with virtually no pantry space, I know I had to shop more frequently and we definitely ate carry out food several times a week. It's challenging to come up with a meal at 6 pm when all you have on the shelf is a box of pasta, a box of crackers and a few tea bags. On the other hand, when the pantry gets so full that the hardware holding the pull out drawers seems to be buckling, I have to quite forcefully remind myself while standing in the store that I absolutely do not need another can of borlotti beans or another color of quinoa. Every once in a while, maybe twice a year, I try to do a massive clean up of the pantry and freezer, just to see what got pushed to the back as a result of my overzealous grocery shopping.
In putting this list together, I realize that the process of cooking at home for most meals is one that requires not just planning, but space. This list of items that I like to have available at all times for meal preparation is large and I'm not even including the obvious staples like bread, milk, juice, etc. I cook for a family of four composed of myself and my husband, and my teenaged son and daughter. This list is primarily items useful for dinner prep. If you're a baker, you know what you need way better than I do. You can also see that I do my shopping all over the place. Don't feel like you have to do so. You can find everything in one store to save time. Just check the labels for sodium and fat content and read the ingredients!!
dried pasta - several shapes, some whole grain and some semolina. I like De Cecco and Barilla brands as well as Trader Joe's organic for white pastas, and I like the Barilla Multigrain and Whole Foods brand whole grain. Rustichella D'abruzzo is great too, but pretty pricey.
canned tomatoes - whole, diced and crushed. Trader Joe's now has "no salt added" diced tomatoes and I recently found a great brand of whole tomatoes at my local organic market (Mom!). Bella Terra by Racconto has a great 28 oz. can of Italian tomatoes with only 35 milligrams of sodium per serving.
tomato paste - cans or refrigerator tube which is more economical if you only need a tablespoon at a time.
Jarred tomato sauce - as I'm only using this for really short turnaround dinners, I like to buy the good stuff - few high quality ingredients and not too too much sodium. I particularly like Rao's and Paesana brands. World Market also has a really good tomato sauce with artichokes.
sun dried tomatoes in olive oil
whole wheat couscous
rice - Uncle Ben's brown rice and brown basmati as well as regular basmati rice. I also keep boxes of Trader Joe's frozen quick cook brown rice in the freezer - the individual bags cook up in like 2 minutes.
barley - great for adding in to soups in winter
oils - canola and olive. I keep two kinds of olive oil - one for everyday cooking and for use cooking with heat (I like Zoe and the Costco 1.5 liter bottle of Filippo Berio organic, cold pressed oil). For a summer tomato salad or for drizzling and finishing dishes, I use an oil from San Luis Obispo, California called Robbins Family Farm Ascolano, that I found at the Kensington farm market. There is a stand there and at the new Bethesda farm market where you can sample several oils to see what is to your taste. Many stores also allow you to taste before buying. Look for cold pressed as it retains more of the healthy antioxidants and vitamins. If you're getting fancy with salad dressings, maybe also some walnut oil (keep it in the fridge and check it if it's been sitting around as it goes bad quickly).
Olive oil or vegetable cooking spray
Vinegar - I like Unio Moscatel vinegar for an all purpose "red" wine vinegar but most brands are just fine. I also keep sherry vinegar and rice vinegar for more specialized recipes. Balsamic is tricky as the good stuff is outrageously expensive and not found in most grocery stores. Look for one that has actually been aged.
sweeteners - brown sugar, white sugar (I am now using pure cane sugar), agave nectar, honey, pure maple syrup
flour - I do so little baking that when I do it is generally to try something healthier. I mostly use white whole wheat flour for that. It can be used one for one in baking and is not as refined as regular flour. I also keep some white flour for that rare cake and for occasional breading of chicken or fish.
bread crumbs - I like to keep a canister of this because who really wants to make their own all the time? Whole Foods has a great whole wheat version that is very low in sodium.
spices - I have tons, but at a minimum, kosher salt, black pepper, chili powder, ground cumin, ground coriander, some kind of hot pepper ( I really like Aleppo now - thanks Glenn!), curry powder, cinnamon and paprika.
dried porcini mushrooms - reconstitute quickly in hot water and great for soups and sauces
dried cranberries - great in oatmeal, salads,
mustard - dijon and wholegrain
low sodium stock - I like the shelf stable boxes which you can reseal and refrigerate for later use. I keep chicken and vegetable and in the winter I keep beef as well.
oatmeal - quick cooking and old fashioned
canned beans - black, cannelini, garbanzo, pinto, kidney. Look for low sodium and/or rinse them well before using.
vermouth - a great substitute for white wine in a recipe. Lasts a long time and the flavor is milder than some wines - no oak to fight with your recipe.
bottled salad dressing - look for one with few ingredients and lower sodium. I've been buying Lucini brand lately. Really tasty!
low sodium soy sauce - Trader Joe's is terrific - it's even made in Japan. Look for ones that have few ingredients, the primary one being soy.
If you do much Asian cooking, add in fish sauce (nam pla), peanut oil, hoisin sauce, sesame oil, sriracha and or chili garlic sauce.
I always have:
tomatoes - in season
The first few are the base of almost every dish in French, Italian and Spanish cooking.
I almost always have:
Fage fat free Greek yogurt
parsley (you can freeze this too)
baby spinach (I throw it into most soups in the winter)
cheese - Parmigianno Reggiano, goat and sometimes mild feta
bananas -not local, not seasonal, but we love them all year round and they're great in healthier baked goods, especially when they are starting to get brown.
chop meat - if you eat meat, keep some frozen. Unlike more tender cuts of meat, it will not matter much in your final dish. If you have this, you can always make a last minute chili, meat sauce or meatballs. I like chicken, turkey, lamb and/or grass fed beef for this. Trader Joe's also has frozen turkey and beef meatballs that are pretty good in a pinch.
Frozen shrimp - most of what you get in the grocery store has been frozen anyway... Look for U.S. and/or wild
nuts - Walnuts, almonds, pine nuts. I keep all but small portions in the freezer because I've read they keep longer. Who knows?
frozen vegetables - chopped spinach, corn, edemame, peas
frozen fruit - for smoothies
I'm sure I've left out some of your favorites. Please write and let me know! Also, I'd love to hear your comments about any of the above.