We are both blessed and cursed with a large, dry basement, perfect for storing too much stuff. On her last visit home, I sent my stepdaughter Annie to the basement to get some pasta. When she came upstairs, she said, “Rosie, you have a grocery store down there!”
Ironically, we have a big basement but a small kitchen. We store many of our food pantry items in the basement, as well as cooking and baking equipment we don’t use everyday. I take comfort in having backups of frequently used staples: vinegar, oil, pasta, rice, beans, spices, and other dry goods, all lined up on wire racks.
Along with the everyday items are ingredients for special projects: Asian noodles, nori and rice paper wrappers, Middle Eastern spices, chilies from the Latino market, bottles of sauces, pastes and chutneys.
In addition to the store-bought dry goods are the harvested foods — baskets with garlic we grew, bags of mushrooms we dried after foraging adventures, and homemade relishes and jams. Someday I hope to have the confidence to preserve more food by canning; I’m just not there yet.
For now, my salvation is a standing freezer. It presides over our mini grocery store, imposingly tall, wide, and white. It literally holds everything from soup to nuts. In the belly of the beast are quart containers of broth and leftover soup, and bags of different nuts and seeds. But that’s not all.
We keep a variety of flours in the freezer, and there are always pounds of butter, standing like culinary soldiers in their bright red wrappers. Neatly labeled vacuum sealed bags hold blanched corn kernels, chopped tomatoes, and roasted peppers. Pitted cherries, blueberries, and rhubarb are stacked in separate bags, a rainbow of color in the dead of winter. There is locally caught fish, along with not local shrimp, and a variety of meat.
One year, we purchased part of a pig from a Leelanau farmer, and the freezer held all manner of pork. We made our own sausage and pancetta. We worked our way through pork belly, smoked hocks and ham slices, chops, and roasts. We learned to appreciate all the pig had to offer in a multitude of preparations.
This year we purchased a quarter cow for our freezer. My husband, Eric, met Jason, a local rancher who works a day job in the construction industry. Eric asked if we could visit his ranch, and we went out there this past summer. Jason was enthusiastic about his life and the cattle, telling us how he learned his craft. We placed our order that day.
I know our basement storeroom is a luxury — that we are lucky to have the space. We have built up a pantry that is well-rounded with a good variety of dry goods, harvested fruits and vegetables, and in recent years, local meat and fish. But in the beginning …
The impetus for the pantry was my late husband’s motto to always have a “backup” of anything we used frequently. If we had more of it, all the better. The advent of the big box store was perfect for him: he happily brought home massive quantities of toilet paper and laundry soap, bags of coffee beans and nuts, sizable bottles of olive oil and hefty chunks of Parmesan. Any time we brought up something from the basement pantry, it was noted on “the list” so it could be replaced as soon as possible.
This list also included items that came from our grocery store excursions, and over time, things got out of hand. We’d stock up on sale items, bought oversize bags of pasta and rice, large cans of beans. Any vacation trip to a place the least bit exotic was an opportunity to bring home bags of spices, odd grains, or unusual sweets.
Soon, I found I would go to the basement and feel overwhelmed but uninspired. We could eat for years and years on what was down there, but I was not happy. What we gained in quantity, we lost in diversity. I needed to get out from under the mountain.
I pared down the pantry and started to shop more locally. I began taking advantage of the farmer’s market, picking fruit at friends’ orchards after their own harvests, buying chickens from one farmer and eggs from another, and growing more of our own produce.
I curate the pantry now at least once a year, using up the older items,and throwing away expired labels. My pantry now supports our cooking but not what guides it. While it still resembles a mini grocery store, the quantities are manageable, friendly sizes. The food in the freezer holds stories of ranchers, farmers, and fishing trips. It makes me smile.
I received a cookbook in the mail last month, “Milk Street Cookish, Throw It Together” by Christopher Kimball. It is a very good cookbook, with recipes that rely on having what he calls “a powerhouse supermarket pantry ...” I like that phrase.
A good pantry can offer your cooking more flexibility. It can make life less stressful as well, knowing you can always pull together a meal without having to go to the store first. Keep your pantry stocked with items you’ll use, but experiment with a new item once in a while to expand your cooking repertoire.
I hope your pantry makes you smile, and that you always have enough on hand to make a simple meal. Just remember not to let your pantry get out of hand!
By the way, I don’t know who sent me The Milk Street cookbook; there was no card or return address. I would like to thank the sender, if you are reading this, for the book. I am enjoying it very much!
The following is a nearly perfect pantry dinner recipe, if you have eggs, cheese and bacon or pancetta on hand. You could use mushrooms instead for a vegetarian option, and any hard cheese.
2 egg yolks
2/3 C. finely grated parmesan cheese (or a combination of pecorino and parmesan)
Coarse ground black pepper, about 1 t.
3 oz. bacon or pancetta, cut into thick squares
¾ lb. spaghetti (or linguini in a pinch)
Salt to taste
Parsley for garnish
Heat a large pot filled with water and a hefty pinch of salt for the pasta. While it is coming to a boil, whisk eggs and yolks together in a small bowl, add the cheese and black pepper, stir together well. Set aside. Have a large heatproof serving or mixing bowl ready nearby.
In a large skillet, heat a little olive oil and cook the bacon or pancetta until just cooked but not too crispy. Remove from pan and drain on paper towels. Remove most of the fat in the pan, leaving pan on the stove.
Add spaghetti to boiling water and cook until al dente. While the pasta is cooking, put heat the serving bowl with hot water. When the pasta is almost done, turn on the heat under the reserved skillet to low, and add the cooked bacon. When pasta is ready, use tongs to move pasta to the skillet with the bacon (or drain pasta in a colander, but reserve some cooking water first.)
Empty the hot water from the serving bowl and immediately add the spaghetti and bacon, followed by the egg and cheese mixture, using tongs to combine. It may start off wet and set up gradually. If not, add a little of the hot reserved pasta water, stirring to finish cooking the eggs. Everything should be nice and creamy.(I have tried using the skillet instead the serving bowl and found it is too easy to end up with scrambled eggs. But you are welcome to try.)
Serve with more cheese and a sprinkling of parsley. Don’t forget to open a nice bottle of wine!
— Rose Hollander
The Cheese Plate
If guests drop in or you want a snack more than a dinner, setting up an interesting cheese plate is an easy thing to do with a good pantry. This winter, my stepson Ryan and his girlfriend Hallie introduced us to the book “That Cheese Plate Will Change Your Life” by Marissa Mullen. We had so much fun creating plates following her method.
Choose a large plate or board and look into your refrigerator and pantry to see what sound good to you. Some suggestions:
2-3 different cheeses (one soft, one hard, one blue, whatever you have on hand)
Fresh and/or dried fruit (dates, figs, apricots, cherries, apples)
Pickles: any pickled vegetable, pepperoncini, large caper berries, cornichons
Olives or marinated artichokes
Fresh vegetables: carrot or celery sticks, cucumbers or sweet peppers,
Tinned fish, such as anchovies, sardines, or smoked oysters or a smoked fish spread
Roasted or spiced nuts
Crackers, preferably two choices
Jam or quince paste
Salami, prosciutto or other cured or smoked meat
Artfully arrange ingredients on your plate or board and enjoy.
Makes 2 cups
I always keep a jar of these nuts in my cupboard.
½ t. ground cumin
½ t. chili powder
½ t. curry powder
½ t. garlic salt
¼ t. cayenne pepper
¼ t. ground ginger
¼ t. cinnamon
2 T. olive oil
2 C. whole raw nuts: cashews, almonds, pecans, walnuts
Coarse salt to taste
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Have a large baking sheet ready. Mix spices together in a small bowl. Heat oil in a large skillet over low heat and add the spices. Stir well and toast spices about 3 minutes. Turn off heat and add the nuts, tossing them to coat. Place spiced nuts on the baking sheet and roast about 15 minutes, shaking pan halfway through the cooking time. Remove from oven and turn nuts around to mix with spices on the pan bottom. Sprinkle while still warm with some salt (or more garlic salt.) When cool, store in an airtight container.
— Rose Hollander, adapted from “The New Basics Cookbook”