Friday, November 21, 2008

It's 5pm--What's for Dinner?

How to Stock a Healthy Pantry

If you are anything like me, life gets away from you and soon enough, someone's whining loudly: "what's for dinner?" If you can't answer that question easily, maybe it's time to think about what's in those in those cabinets, the freezer, and the fridge. With a little planning, we can have on hand the makings of all sorts of meals: last minute, slow-cooking and in between--all delicious and full of nutrition.

When we are working toward eating a whole foods diet patterned on what our great-grandparents would have recognized as food, the choices are actually simplified. Choose real foods preserved in traditional ways. These will serve as the basis of wonderful home cooked meals. Healthful forms of preservation are canning, drying, freezing, cooling, lacto-fermenting. Traditionally salt, honey/sugar, alcohol, oil, and vinegar have also been used, each with specific applications. Refrigerators and freezers now replace root cellars and burying things in the ground/snow (depending on the desired result), but the intent is the same.

I am not going to go into the mechanics of food preservation, as there are excellent resources for that information (see below). Instead, I will outline a basic array of real foods to have in your pantry that might form the building blocks of most any meal, especially with seasonal fresh foods added into the mix. This is undoubtedly a personal list--everyone should take this with a grain of (sea) salt, and adjust it according to taste and dietary preference.

I was asked to specify brands, because "good quality" can be hard to judge, but I will defer to a couple of good shopping guides: the Weston A. Price Foundation puts one out every year, available for purchase at or as a membership gift when you join (which I encourage--you also get their wonderful quarterly journal, Wise Traditions). The other is available for download at the Institute for Responsible Technology (see sidebar); it shows how to avoid foods made with GMOs. Also, check Truth in Labeling (sidebar) for lists sources of hidden MSG (shocking, really--go read it!) Other than that, look for a reputable company (and this shifts quickly, unfortunately), no or few additives, organic preferably. Everyone has different tolerances, so you have to work with those in your household (we, for example, avoid ALL additives, but this can be very difficult).

Pantry (dry goods)
  • Oils: extra virgin olive, coconut, maybe palm
  • Vinegars: red wine, raw apple cider
  • Sea salt
  • Herbs
  • Spices
  • baking soda
  • condiments such as tamari, hot sauce, chili paste, etc
  • Raw Honey and/or other natural sweetener (I only use honey, but some use maple syrup, Rapadura, agave syrup, molasses, etc)
  • Herb teas
  • Good quality canned tomatoes
  • Good quality tomato paste
  • Dried mushrooms
  • Sun dried tomatoes
  • Sea vegetables (nori, wakame, kelp, etc)
  • Coconut cream/butter, canned coconut milk if with no additives (hard to find, so I use the cream mixed with water)
  • shredded dried coconut (no sugar)
  • Dried fruit (no sugar and no sulfites)
  • Crispy nuts (see Nourishing Traditions)
  • organic cocoa or carob
  • Canned seafood, packed in olive oil or water--avoid cottonseed oil! (tuna, sardines, salmon, clams, oysters, anchovies, etc)
  • Dried legumes
  • Whole grains: brown rice, oats, buckwheat, quinoa, millet, wild rice, amaranth, etc.
  • Some ferments (e.g. I have my preserved lemons in the cabinet and I rarely refrigerate kombucha)
In baskets in kitchen or pantry:
  • Onions, garlic, shallots
  • lemons/limes
  • less perishable fruit in season: banana, citrus, apples,
  • fruit that needs to ripen/soften: pears, stone fruit, melon, avocado, papaya, tomato
  • potatoes (not exposed to light), sweet potatoes
  • winter squash
In the freezer:
  • bone broth in jars--leave space for expansion! (chicken, beef, fish,)
  • chicken, whole and parts (they thaw faster--buy whole and cut yourself to save money)
  • ground meat (beef, pork, turkey)
  • other cuts of meat (roasts, chops, steaks, etc)
  • raw shrimp
  • other seafood: salmon fillet, scallops, etc
  • chicken livers
  • butter, lard, tallow
  • hot peppers (jalapeno, serrano, habanero)
  • peas, other veggies ("emergency veggies"--for when you run out of fresh)
  • flours for baking (I use coconut. Any flour will last longer in the freezer, as anything ground begins to degrade due to oxygen exposure)
  • fruit for smoothies and compotes (peel and cut those over-ripe bananas, and save the bits of cut fruit the kids don't eat--it adds up fast)
  • good coffee for guests and special occasions
  • nitrate-free sausage, hot-dogs, bacon (there are some brands with no sugar and that use well-raised meats)
  • left-over egg whites and yolks (only freeze whites in glass to keep them grease-free so they will whip up)
In the refrigerator:
  • eggs
  • cheeses
  • milk, yoghurt, kefir
  • vegetables: carrots, celery, lettuce and other greens, peppers, and whatever is seasonal
  • fresh ripe fruits in season (berries, etc.)
  • condiments: mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, salsa, miso (buy good quality or make yourself)
  • fermented veggies: sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, beets, etc
  • nut butters
  • certain oils (e.g. sesame, sunflower)
  • pan drippings (usually from roasting chicken, these keep well under their fat layer and are great for making quick sauces)
  • leftovers! (these make some of the best meals . . .)

What can you do with all of this? I hope things are jumping out at you, but I will leave you with a quick fall "skillet dinner":

  • Set some stock and sausages (such as bratwurst) to thaw in a bowl of room temperature water--change the water as it gets really cold.
  • Shred some cabbage and chop an onion.
  • Saute the onion in butter, add the cabbage, and when softened, add the stock. Add some pepper. Turn the heat down and add the sausage. If you can only find uncooked sausage in the freezer, brown it in a separate pan while you saute the veggies, then add.
  • Cover and simmer while you make another vegetable or a salad
  • Have someone set the table while you are doing all of this. Don't forget a lacto-fermented vegetable and/or condiment such as mustard! Kombucha or a micro-brew beer is good with this.
  • I know you are asking "how much?" and "how long?" I don't know how many people you are serving, but figure 1-2 sausages per person, and enough cabbage to accompany them--eyeball it, and have the leftovers with your eggs for breakfast. As for how long, well, "until it's done" was the answer I was given as I was learning to cook. It's infuriating to hear at first, but as you become comfortable with recipes without specific directions, you will see the wisdom in it. If the sausages are pre-cooked, they are done when heated through, so judge based on how tender the cabbage is. If they were raw when you started, the whole mess will be done when they are no longer pink inside.

Have fun inventing meals from your larder full of real wealth!


Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. Gives a comprehensive approach to a whole foods pantry.

The Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante. Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning. Traditional methods of preserving.

Hood, Joan. Will It Freeze? Good resource for what will freeze and for how long, and how to stock a freezer efficiently.

Hupping, Carol. Stocking Up III. More modern preservation methods.

Katz, Sandor Ellix. Wild Fermentation. THE fermentation guide.

Reader's Digest. The Cookery Year. Wonderful tour through the foods available seasonally, with many recipes. Very British.

Rombauer, Irma and Marion Rombauer Becker. The Joy of Cooking. A basic, with information about how to set up a kitchen, a pantry, and most any other thing you want to know about food. Get the oldest edition you can find, before the "newfangled" appeared in the book.


Justine said...

From Nan, but got deleted when I edited the post (sorry Nan!)

Hi Justine,
Great post! I never know that I could freeze egg yolks and whites! Thanks for enlightening me on that! I made the flourless chocolate cake from Nourishing Traditions for Liam's birthday dinner. Michael thought it was great after our fondue dinner, because it was light and fluffy like a souffle, but I like your super-heavy flourless cake much more!!!!!!
Sinterklaas arrived in Delft today on a barge and had a procession as he rode his white horse through the streets of Delft's old center! It's a lovely event once you get used to the political incorrectness of his version of elves. They are called "swarte Piets" (black petes) and they are basically clowns, with blackened faces and afro wigs, dressed like pages. We'll post some photos soon on the blog soon!

Talk to you later!


Justine said...

I updated the post with some links and more suggestions at my wonderful instructor's urging--Thanks Heidi!

And yes, you can freeze the yolks and the whites, though the yolks don't last as long. Older books suggest adding a bit of salt or sugar to help preserve, but I have never used them and never had any spoil. Great for meringues, souffles, Hollandaise sauce, ice cream and so on--all the good things in life!

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