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Leif Zurmuhlen

You’ll Cook What I Tell You
By Laura Leon

How the pantry challenge can spice up your culinary creativity—and help clear out your cupboards

I admit, it wasn’t my idea. Not exactly. But the opportunity to clean out my pantries, to remove half-used bottles of sauces and marinades from my refrigerator shelves, was just too enticing not to pass up. And so, my unsuspecting husband came home one night to find that not only was he on kitchen duty, but that he had a mystery basket of ingredients with which to work. And so began a family tradition.

This was back in early 1996, when I, home on maternity leave, grew addicted to the TV Food Network and, in particular, to its show Ready, Set, Cook! Some bof you may remember this odd little game show in which two contestants each brought a paper bag containing up to five ingredients, not totaling more than $10, and were paired with famous chefs to concoct something smashing. Each chef had a nifty, state-of-the-art cooking area, plus a stash of standard pantry items (flour, herbs, oils, the like). At the end of the half-hour show, the audience would choose the winner by applause. I can’t tell you how fascinating it was to see chefs try to make sense of a bag that included, say, broccoli, pork tenderloin, potatoes, and . . . chocolate. Or how oddly satisfying it was to scream at the contestant who brought such ho-hum, gee-how’d-she-ever-think-of-that ingredients as spaghetti, jarred tomato sauce, mushrooms and ground beef.

The show’s off the air now, but its spirit lives on, not just in private homes but in national competitions for chefs, sort of like Iron Chef meets your own frugal gourmet. I like to refer to this kind of cooking, where you or a housemate choose four or five ingredients from what’s in your fridge or cupboards, as “the pantry challenge.” Making it into a kind of game, however solitary, helps spur your creative juices even as it forces you to contend with what’s at hand—and let’s face it, our generation has gotten pretty lazy about using leftovers. If you’re like me, you end up with containers of chutney, marinades, salsas, tapenades, et al., that you received in your Christmas stocking or purchased for a particular recipe you since have lost, resulting in a motley crew of long-neglected jars, bottles and cans. You can, and should, either chuck them before they become completely unidentifiable, or do the pantry challenge once or twice a week.

There are rules. One, no matter how angry you are with your spouse, you shouldn’t present him or her with nothing but a basket of, say, marinades, or do all Asian except for that packet of Slim Jims. Remember, the goal is to prepare a delicious meal that you both can enjoy. Two, you should use common sense in presenting ingredients. For instance, if you’re including a marinade but you don’t have any protein source on which to slather it, what’s the point? Three, include at least one bit of dairy, especially if you’re going meatless—perhaps that smallish wedge of Parmesan that’s gone forgotten at the back of your refrigerator. Four, include a starch—arborio or basmati rice, pasta, couscous, lentils, etc., or a mix thereof—which provides an easy plank on which your pantry challengee can build the rest of the meal. Plus, you almost always have some odds and ends of the stuff tucked away, so here’s your chance to get rid of it. Five, include at least one but no more than two of those neglected and half-emptied jars of gourmet foodstuffs you have in your possession. Really, it’ll be their only chance to get eaten. Six, try to let your cook choose his or her own produce, provided you have something in the fridge or garden. Seven, and last, don’t toss in some mysterious item that the cook has absolutely no clue how to cook—do you really want to eat improperly prepared squid, ugli fruit, etc.?

Before long, your pantry challenges may help change the way you think about preparing meals. If nothing else, you’ll never feel quite so confident in saying there’s nothing to eat in the house.

It’s in There
By B.A. Nilsson

A thoughtfully stocked pantry can put an end to those last-minute dashes to the grocery

We’ll buy a leg of lamb for Easter dinner. We’ll craft a dessert from fresh strawberries as the new Florida crops keep heading north. But those are dishes made with a menu in mind. It’s when dinnertime sneaks up on you unannounced that you need to be ready with a staple-stocked pantry.

Along with my own fussy requirements, I consulted the lists in my favorite all-around cookbook, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything (Macmillan), as well as the unobtrusively healthy A New Way to Cook by Sally Schneider (Artisan).

“Flour, cornmeal, and the like,” writes Bittman, and Schneider expands upon that, specifying unbleached all-purpose flour and stone-ground cornmeal for polenta. I would add that it doesn’t hurt to have whole wheat and cake flour as well, and with the last-named on hand, Schneider’s recommendation of a bar of semi-sweet chocolate and some Dutch-process cocoa powder might find their way into a worthy dessert.

Auxiliary to that are baking soda, non-aluminum baking powder, honey (support your local apiarist) and sugar: white, dark brown, confectioner’s and molasses. If you do a lot of baking, or even for pancakes and waffles, put some vanilla beans in an airtight container with a heap of sugar and you won’t need vanilla extract.

Schneider names currants, apricots and cherries as the dried fruit you should stock, although I add good old raisins; pine nuts and walnuts may seem like luxuries until you get used to having them on hand.

Other dry-storage staples include beans (garbanzos, peas, lentils), rice (basmati, arborio), pasta (spaghetti, linguine, angel hair, fettuccine), onions, garlic, potatoes and tea. I keep both canned and dried beans; the latter needs several more hours of preparation than I’m often prepared to give. Bittman adds nonfat dried milk, which I don’t stock but, persuaded by his encouragement, I’m adding to the list.

Canned plum tomatoes I buy by the case. You don’t have to chop them into a sauce: Squeeze each tomato through the sieve of your fingers, taking care to squirt the pot, not the kitchen, with its juice. Make sure you also have a few cans of tomato paste. And a bottle of ketchup.

You know those spice racks with the cute little bottles, all the same size and shape, which sit or hang or rotate together? Compare the color of the paprika therein with fresh paprika. Enough said.

Dried herbs and spices should be replaced every six months or so, which means you should try to buy what you’re going to use in that time. Most people would benefit from using more spice in their cooking, so experiment. The chef who first taught me to cook insisted I focus on a particular herb or spice and get to know it alone, in combination with foodstuffs and in combination with other spices. My clove week was an unusually aromatic time in that kitchen.

Here’s Schneider’s alphabetical list of essentials spices: allspice, cayenne powder, chili powder, Chinese five-spice powder, cinnamon (sticks and ground), cloves, coriander seeds, cumin (seeds and ground), curry powder, fennel seeds, ginger, mustard, nutmeg, paprika, peppercorns (black, white, Szechuan), red pepper flakes, saffron.

You can make your own curry powder if you add a few spices to that list. Bittman gives the following recipe: In a hot skillet, toast pieces of nutmeg, black peppercorns, cloves, cardamom seeds, a cinnamon stick, fennel seeds, fenugreek seeds, cumin seeds and coriander seeds, then grind them and add ground ginger and turmeric. Way better than store-bought.

Essential dried herbs include bay leaves, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme, to which I add basil and marjoram. Although I detest garlic salt, there is some good granulated garlic to be found, an essential for a dry rub for smoking meat.

Other flavor-altering necessities are Worcestershire sauce and low-sodium soy sauce; because I like to make stir-fried dishes, I also keep black bean sauce, oyster sauce, chili-garlic sauce, fresh ginger and Dijon mustard. Actually, I use the mustard everywhere.

Salt, writes Schneider, “is essential to good cooking, for it brings out the flavor in foods.” For general-purpose use, kosher salt is best. Table salt has too much processing and ends up saltier than kosher salt, so if that’s what you have, use less of it; sea salt is the purest; use it for special occasions, and then only sparingly.

By now we’ve all switched to olive oil because of its monounsaturated fat makeup. “The less processed and adulterated the oil,” writes Schneider, “the more healthful and better tasting it will be.” And, she demands, “always buy oils that are cold-pressed.”

There’s some controversy over the use of extra-virgin olive oil as a cooking medium. It “doesn’t tolerate high heat,” says Schneider, “so use pure olive oil for pan-frying and searing.” My own experience with the cheaper brands of extra-virgin is that it works just fine on the stove, but you’ll want to shell out a few extra bucks for a great-tasting olive oil to use in salad dressings and the like.

If you don’t want that olive flavor—in pancakes, for example—use canola oil. Nut oils (which need to be refrigerated) are good flavoring agents, while roasted sesame oil is a must for flavoring Asian recipes. A can of vegetable shortening allows immediate access to cookie baking, which can be a necessity at 3 AM on a sleepless night.

Try using vinegar in place of salt. You should have a few different types of vinegar in the kitchen. Schneider: “Well-made vinegars, naturally fermented from good wines or fruit juices, do not have the characteristic harsh bite of most common commercial vinegars. The less processed they are, the better they tend to be.” She recommends balsamic, Champagne, aged sherry, cider, rice wine and red wine. If you’re using the type of balsamic vinegar sold in supermarkets (the $5 variety), it may have “rough and unbalanced flavors. Stir in a little brown sugar to mellow and concentrate the flavor.”

The other important flavoring liquids are wine and spirits. I worked in a restaurant in which the chef decanted all leftover wine into two color-appropriate bottles, and this he used instead of any fat when he made stovetop meals for himself. If you don’t have access to such a supply, you’ll want inexpensive (but drinkable) red and white wine on hand and a bottle of sherry for stir-fried dishes. Doesn’t hurt to have a bottle of brandy as well, which is great for finishing sauces.

Finally, stock. Have canned low-sodium chicken broth on the shelf for emergencies, but homemade stock is best. Buy whole chickens, take off the breasts and legs, throw the rest (with the skins, vegetable peelings, celery and carrots, peppercorns, some seasonings) into a pot of water and simmer for a couple of hours. Refrigerate some of it for immediate use; the rest you can keep in the freezer, alongside that other essential, coffee beans.

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