This is the cleanest part of our kitchen, at the moment.
We’ve been cooking, nearly non-stop, for months. Dish after dish, most of them great, some of them needing work — they spilled from our kitchen like the rain-swollen rivers around Seattle this past week. There has not been a day’s rest for the oven or the burners on the stove that needs cleaning. Everything needs cleaning.
After the book is done. Two more weeks, and then we can begin the other projects of our lives. Like scrubbing every inch of the kitchen and stocking our pantry again.
I’m sharing this because I want you to know this before I begin this post: tonight I’m going to write about what works for our lives. We all have such different food needs, different schedules, and mostly (it seems to me) different ideas of what meals and ingredients and budgets for food should be. I don’t want to tell you how to live, how to cook. Our book doesn’t do that either.
But I like to share what works for us.
I write all this cautiously because last week I read this piece by Mark Bittman, on how to stock a pantry sensibly, without spending fistfuls of money, but still make real food. I liked reading the article, even though we already do most of what he suggests. It gave me ideas. It let me see our kitchen new. I didn’t agree with everything he wrote — I like good canned garbanzo beans sometimes; we buy the tomato paste in the can; dried mushrooms seem overpriced to me — but I didn’t expect to agree with everything he wrote. His piece, it seemed to me, was an attempt at a reminder. He wants us to eat better. Here are some suggestions as to how.
Wow. I had no idea that piece would stir up such vituperation. Don’t believe me? Go read the comments. About 1/3 of the readers call Bittman elitist, snobby, a food writer who doesn’t live in the real world, stupid, and a fascist. Who knew?
Reading the nasty comments was strangely comforting for me. I receive hate mail all the time from people who insist I’m an elitist snob for advocating cooking from scratch. I don’t understand it. Why are we snobs if we want to cook the way our grandmothers did?
I don’t want to explore that tonight. That’s a much more entangled discussion than I feel capable of conducting. I’m tired. I’ve been on the computer all day, writing and editing and re-writing.
But I did want to know, from you, what are the essential ingredients in your kitchen? You know, the ones you are always buying? The ones that, if they are in the refrigerator or pantry, you will have a good dinner even if there is no time to go to the store.
Here are ours, in the moment. (Don’t quote me. A week from now this list will be changed.)
onions (and garlic). Humble and lovely, and always necessary. I can only think of a few recipes in our book, or really most cookbooks, that do not start by suggesting that you peel and chop an onion. I’m lumping them together, because they are best friends (to quote Jamie Oliver). One without the other doesn’t make much sense. Add shallots and make it a threesome.
potatoes. Honestly, I can only think of a few days of the years we have been together that we have not eaten potatoes. The Chef doesn’t know how to live without them. Even if the pantry were empty, we could have roasted potatoes.
olive oil. I don’t mean the expensive brands that are good for drizzling on risotto at the end. I mean good old workaday olive oil. We use it for almost everything.
lentils and beans. Look at that photograph again (and if you click on it, you can read the notes posted on it). There are a plethora of beans from Rancho Gordo and lentils. I couldn’t live without them. And yes, we do cook dried beans from scratch most of the time. Really, it just doesn’t take that much time. Most of it happens when we are away from the stove.
good vinegars. It’s not like we own 20 different kinds of vinegars, but I wouldn’t mind. Around here, we always have champagne vinegar, rice wine vinegar, sherry vinegar, and apple cider vinegar. The rest is just fun.
stock. There has been a large stockpot gently simmering (never boiling) on the back of our stove nearly every day of these past few months. But, when we are done with the book, I think we’ll go back to making stock once a week. I used to think that making stock was for chefs and food writers, not for me. I was wrong.
walnuts and sunflower seeds. I love all nuts — peanuts don’t do much for me, and we’re keeping them out of the kitchen until we know Little Bean is not allergic — but these are the two always in the kitchen. Give me a handful of walnuts and I’m fine for a few hours. And if I top anything we eat with sunflower seeds, the Chef loves that dish.
mustard. Good Dijon mustard, in particular, one with a bite and sharp flavors. The Chef stirs it into sauces or dollops it onto the plate before he lays down the roasted lamb. It’s rarely spread on sandwiches around here. There are so many other uses.
good spices. I’m with Bittman. We buy our spices whole, when we can, and grind only what we need. It’s not as expensive as you think to buy new spices. When we went to World Spice at the beginning of this book-creating process, and re-established the pantry, it cost us $22. We still haven’t run out. Around here, we especially like smoked paprika, Pimenton d’Espelette, Saigon cinnamon, Madras curry powder, and wasabi powder.
our gluten-free flour combination. You can see, in the photo above, lots of little jars and tubs with flours flinging themselves against the sides. We keep many around to make sure the recipes we are testing work out. But just off to the side is a giant tub we bought at a restaurant supply store for $7, and it’s filled with a combination of sorghum, potato starch, tapioca flour, and sweet rice flour. When we bake, for ourselves, we just scoop it out by the cup.
By the way, I assumed that salt and pepper were standard. I probably shouldn’t assume. We have at least four different kinds of salts and two peppers in the house at all times.
What nearly made the cut: avocadoes; fresh lemons; rice of all kinds; whatever fruit is in season; popcorn; quinoa and millet; dark chocolate; muscovado sugar; good canned tomatoes; tamari sauce; dried pasta for emergencies (we make our own when we plan); all the other oils (walnut, canola, and grapeseed in particular).
And in the refrigerator (a separate list): bacon; butter; milk; cream; sour cream; greens; cheese (small wedge of good Parmesan and cheddar at all times, plus whatever is in rotation this week); eggs; good yogurt.
What about you? Link to a photograph of your kitchen, if you wish. I know we can all learn from each other. And I’d love to hear.
There will be plenty of time to comment, since I’m leaving the site for a couple of weeks. The book will be sent to the publishers on January 26th, and I’ll be hunched in front of the computer until then. With plenty of time to stop and hug the Chef and Little Bean, of course.