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Not-So-Basic Pantry Staples

Coming home from a trip is when I most appreciate having a well-stocked pantry. Sunday night, after a brutal 4 a.m. (lucky us, we got to “spring forward” twice this year) wake-up call and a long day of security lines and heavy turbulence, it was nice to be able to cook a bowl of pasta with white beans, garlic, and a little lemon. Nothing fancy, but with a shaving of Parmesan on top, tasty and comforting — and a nice change from ceviche.

If you google “pantry staples,” you’ll get over 2 million results, the first several thousand of which are very handy lists of the items the efficient and well-prepared cook should always have on hand. Most of the lists are essentially the same: olive oil, vinegar, rice, pasta, garlic, onions, butter, potatoes, lemons, canned beans, canned tomatoes, tuna, soy, Parmesan, Dijon, etc. Which makes sense, since almost every savory recipe in the world has at least a few of these items on its ingredients list. A well-stocked pantry is obviously super helpful for everyday dinner making, but it’s also a life-saver when you’ve been out of town for a week and need to feed your family.

So, I am all for covering your bases with the pantry staples. I’ll even add a few more — some basic (shallots, bacon, vegetable stock) and a few not-so-basic items that have become staples around here:

Farro: This is an ancient grain, very similar to spelt, that is mostly grown in Italy. I only recently discovered farro and absolutely love it. When cooked, farro is somewhat firm, chewy, and incredibly filling. You can do just about anything with it, too. It’s great as a breakfast cereal and cooks much quicker than steel-cut oats, it makes a great side dish like pilaf, it’s great in soups like barley, and it’s fabulous slow-cooked like risotto. It’s relatively high in protein for a grain, so it’s a great option for vegetarians or meatless Mondays (or Lent). The only reason I even slightly hesitated to put farro on this list is that it’s kinda difficult to find. I ended up getting it at Costco of all places. You can also order it from

Seeds of Change Jalfrezi Simmer Sauce: This stuff is crazy good. It turns cooked chicken or potatoes into a luscious curry, which, served with a steaming pile of brown rice (or farro!) makes a tasty, satisfying, and ridiculously easy meal almost instantly. Maybe it’s kind of cheating, but delicious and easy — and it’s even organic — can never be bad.

Sherry Vinegar: I don’t know about you, but I’m a little sick of how expensive good balsamic vinegar is — and of how crappy inexpensive balsamic is. So, about once a year I invest in a bottle of thick, syrupy aged balsamic, which is mostly just for drizzling over asparagus or strawberries. And for most everything else, I use sherry vinegar (don’t get me wrong, I have a quite extensive vinegar collection including homemade red wine vinegar and some fancy cherry balsamic, but this is a list of staples), which is still slightly sweet but more acidic than balsamic. Its flavor works with everything from mint to lemon to straight extra virgin olive oil, and this versatility makes it a pantry — well, actually a counter-top — staple.

Frozen bread: When bread starts to get stale, put it in the freezer. Right now I have several slices of whole wheat sandwich bread, a half a baguette, and some pieces of ciabatta in my freezer. It makes me happy knowing it’s there because a hunk of frozen bread can be so many things: a filling side dish for picky kids, croutons, bread crumbs, crostini, breakfast. It’s also great for thickening sauces and is the key ingredient to several fantastic soups. You’ll be amazed at how useful — and comforting — a hunk of frozen bread can be. You don’t even need to defrost it before you use it.

White wine: Make it a decent white wine, preferably on the dry side, and you’ve got a pantry staple, key ingredient, and secret weapon all in one. The alcohol cooks off during cooking, so don’t worry about feeding your kids something that will make them drunk. Pour a little chardonnay or pinot grigio in your pasta sauce, add some to your simmering lentils, and of course enjoy a glass while you’re cooking. It really does make everything taste better.

What’s your can’t-live-without-it pantry staple?

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This post has 2 comments

  • kent Watson says:

    Hey Bevin: Wow. I have to try the simmering sauce you recommended. I use one here in Oregon that is similar. Its good but pricey. Can you tell me how you cook Farro? I would like to give it a try. Is it similar to quinoa?

  • Hi Kent:
    Next post will be my favorite (so far) farro recipe! Yeah, I didn’t say the simmer sauce was cheap…

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