Growing up just outside of Chicago in the '60s, going to the grocery store with my mom was an excursion. It was not at all routine, like my trips are today. It seems I go every day or so to pick up "what I need." And that's just to get dinner on the table each night. My mom seemed to do it effortlessly, not a gourmet meal by any stretch of the imagination, but a meal that left us satisfied and my dad appreciative after his long day at work. What happened? Why do I have to make countless trips to the grocery store, always amounting to at least 20 or 30 dollars? Just with the goal of getting tonight's meal on the table.
That takes me to another (and I promise the last) personal story. When my hubby and I first got married 25 years ago, we landed in our first home in downtown Phoenix. It was our first, wonderful, tiny... very tiny, modest, old home - 1400 square feet in a wonderfully old neighborhood that was beyond small, but none-the-less ours. I'll never forget getting invited to a neighbor's house that was much more historic and much, much more grand than ours. We were given the tour and were told that we were about to see the "butler's quarters" from the '20's" in historic Phoenix. First of all, my initial thought was that only someone like Frank Sinatra had a butler! But, who knew!? The largest room in that area was the pantry. A huge space dedicated to keeping the food storage that would ultimately result in a satisfying meal without the "butler" (whoever that was) running to the store to grab an onion.
Move forward 20 or so years and I've decided that stocking a pantry is still relevant. It can make a difference of sitting down to a home-cooked meal or heading out for drive-thru tacos once again. And, trust me; I've served more than my share of drive-thru dinners. So, I decided to see what the experts say about that often-neglected holdover of the bygone era - a home pantry.
Where yesterday's pantry was a storehouse for raw ingredients, flour, sugar, perhaps some cans of that newfangled evaporated milk - today's "pantry" is likelier to be a combo of prepared foods and just enough of the basics to help you along the way. And with budgets being tight, and eating out being expensive, we all need to gather around the family table a little more often. Hmm. Maybe this is one of the positives to come out of a struggling economy.
So, my research turned up a lot of the predictable basic foods to keep ready for everyday meal preparation, and understanding today's "on the go" lifestyles - I updated some and came up with these suggestions.
These items are all categorized into areas of the kitchen or types of food. Add to your pantry slowly, as it can be expensive, but worth it. You'll be driving-thru less and sliding up the kitchen chairs more often. Plus, I think there's something to be gained from acknowledging that dinner is what you make it. I remember when a grilled cheese and tomato soup was dinner. So was that funky 1960s Spam casserole that my mom made with love plus who knows what from the deep recesses of her pantry. We never had the guts to ask for the recipe, nor the desire.
Here's a start. Remember; substitute what you or your family doesn't like with something that they do. These are only starting blocks.
Basic Foods for the Cupboard
Baking Soda Baking Powder Cornstarch Flour Sugar Confectioners Sugar Brown Sugar Corn Syrup Breadcrumbs Biscuit Mix/Pancake Mix Cocoa Powder Baking Chocolate Balsamic Vinegar
Onion Soup Mix Rice Tomato Paste Tomato Sauce Canned Veggies Peanut Butter Jelly Canned Tuna/Chicken Raisins Chocolate Syrup Cereals - Corn Flakes are great for an impromptu crust Beef/Chicken Broth Soups Noodles/Pasta Couscous Onions Choice of Bread Crackers
Basic Foods for the Fridge and Freezer
Milk Eggs Butter Cheese - Grated and Chunk or Slices Frozen OJ Veggies Yogurt/Sour Cream Pre-packaged Salad Frozen/Refrigerator Pie Crust Frozen Pizza Dough Frozen Veggies Wine for Cooking Refrigerated Potatoes Tortillas Barbecue Sauce Salad Dressing - Vinaigrette Salsa - Lots of Salsa Ice Cream Frozen Pound Cake
Spices and Sauces Salt - Regular and Kosher Pepper Vanilla Cinnamon Basil Oregano Chili Powder Dry Mustard Paprika Bay Leaves Variety of Bouillon
Oils and Condiments Cooking Oil Olive Oil Vinegar Mayonnaise Catsup Soy Sauce Tabasco Worcestershire Sauce Spray Oil Honey Mustard Regular and Dijon
Basic Foods for Quick & Easy Meals
So, here's how it works. And I tried it the other night, just as a test. Plus, I added a tech component. I had a steak and onions on hand. I "Googled" these words- steak, onion and recipe and out popped a slew of recipes. I quickly found one that required those items I had, and brown sugar, Balsamic vinegar, olive oil and butter - all basic food items in my pantry. I pulled together the recipe and had dinner on the table with a salad in a half hour. It works gang!
Plus, keep in mind that leftovers are great starters. We often think that leftovers have to be served exactly as they were. But think outside of the box with this. Spaghetti on that pizza dough in your freezer is delicious - a fancy pizza restaurant charges about $15 for the same dish! Chicken tenders on a Caesar salad makes it a meal. And most anything plopped into a cheese filled tortilla becomes a scrumptious quesadilla. That, with a bowl of soup is a quick and easy meal and 30 minutes together at the dinner table - before soccer, dance or band practice. And you'll be sitting face-to-face instead of eating in the car.
If you're like me, you'll want to run to the bookstore for a key cookbook. So my advice is to check out anything by Mark Bittman - especially How to Cook Everything or How to Cook Everything - the basics. He's the master at breaking it all down for cooks at any level.
Stock that pantry with the basics foods. And try cooking with what's on hand. You'll end up with some unique recipe adventures - that, I guarantee will produce quick & easy meals for your family. Maybe even something as weird as my mom's Spam casserole - a dish that back when it was served, probably caused a few groans around the family dinner table, but now, from the perspective of a mom myself, I see as another way my mother kept our family fed, cared for, and ultimately loved.
Live and Learn.
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