How to Cook from your Pantry

Before I became a culinary teacher and blogger, I had a real-life job as a line cook. It was an amazing experience that has helped to forge me into this person I am today. One of the more valuable skills I learned was a very practical one as far as being a home cook- I learned how to cook a meal from whatever ingredients we had on hand. Now, this type of cooking wasn’t the type where we made thoughtful food from perfectly sourced ingredients, which I can do. This was what was known as the “family meal” or the staff meal. In the restaurant that I worked, the staff ate whatever was leftover from service and could no longer be served to our paying customers. When I took on the task of being the family meal cook I would forage the walk-in fridge for any unloved food and bring it to the sous-chef for approval. If she deemed it appropriate for the staff to eat, I would quickly piece together the meal. It varied daily- a quart of cooked farro, some wilted salad greens, a pint of farmers cheese that was on the verge of going bad, and if it was a good day, maybe I could scrounge some protein for us to eat. Quail parts? Trimmings from the roast we served for lunch? The meat from the long simmering pot of beef stock? Certainly! Grim as it sounds, my family meals were pretty good and everyone left feeling sated and happy. In the end, the line cooks, pastry chefs, prep cooks, wait staff and dishwashers could eat a satisfying meal. It was one of the few times I felt like a hero in the kitchen and I know it brought me some good work karma.

I think that’s what makes a good cook a great cook- taking unloved food scraps and turning it into delicious food. I feel Anthony Bourdain said it best in his book The Nasty Bits:

“..we transform the raw, the ugly, the tough, and the unlovely into the cooked, the beautiful, the tender, and the tasty. Any cretin can grill a steak after a few tries. It takes a cook to transform a humble pig’s foot into something people clamor for.”

There is real skill in taking what you have and making it delicious. And this is where I believe whatever you cook, the pantry rules. Believe it or not, the home kitchen can become very much like a restaurant kitchen. If you have a well-stocked pantry, refrigerator and freezer, you can cook anything in your kitchen in no time at all. I say this not only as a former line cook, but as a busy mother of an energetic toddler and a hungry husband. Here are a few of my basic Pantry Staples:

Pantry Staples- Grains and Pasta

Oils and Vinegars

ketchups, hot sauce, mustard, pickles and anchovies

Milk, eggs, yogurt and butter

Dry Goods- pure olive oil, extra virgin olive oil, canola oil, apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, short and long dry pasta, beans (dry or canned), rice, grains, canned tuna, salmon, sardines or anchovies, all-purpose flour, baking powder, baking soda, granulated sugar, fruit preserves, peanut butter
Condiments, Herbs and Spices- Salt, pepper, oregano, cumin, thyme, soy sauce, mustard, mayonnaise, pickles, capers
Dairy- Butter, Milk, Eating Cheeses like Cheddar or Jack, Grating Cheeses like Parmagiano-Reggiano or Asiago, Yogurt, Eggs
Produce- Onions, Garlic, Potatoes, Celery, Carrots, Lettuce or Salad Greens,Lemons, Salad Vegetables like Cucumbers, Radishes, Tomatoes, Herbs like parsley and cilantro
Frozen- Peas, Artichokes, Spinach and Peppers, cubes of lemon juice and stock, bread crumbs, ice cream
Extra Flourishes- Semi-sweet chocolate, frozen fruit like blueberries, strawberries, nuts, vanilla extract, cinnamon, coffee, tea

Whenever speaking with my friends and my family, I know that cooking with what you have is a very common problem. In an effort to help you, Dear Readers, I have created a category called “Cooking from the Pantry” where I will share a recipe using very common pantry items in my own larder. Take a peek ever so often for new items.

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