Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pantry talk - fancy foods and the pantry lifestyle

When you are doing research on keeping a pantry, so often the reason people build up a pantry is what I've talked about... it helps us save money, it is essential in an emergency of any kind, it provides during a job loss, etc. However, there is another everyday value I've found in keeping a deep pantry and that is the creativity in the kitchen it makes possible.

I don't have a lot of room for a pantry but I've found we make room for what is important. Since a pantry gives me freedom and a feeling of security, I made a corner of the garage my pantry (it also provides storage for other items as well as my laundry room). It has never known the presence of our car. I also use the cabinet I inherited from my mother-in-law (shown in the picture above).

When Stephanie and I were enjoying a meal at the French restaurant, I told her I started a post long ago titled "Fine Dining" but never finished it. (Sometimes I'll get an idea for something to chat about and just draft a title.) It came about as I was remembering dining experiences at very nice restaurants, something I had not done in eons before last week.

That's how I became interested in gourmet cooking lessons as a young wife and mother, wanting to cook "fancy" food at home once in awhile. After taking cooking lessons and perusing magazines like Bon Appetit and Gourmet, I learned most of the "gourmet" foods served in the nice restaurants were either 1) made with the best and freshest ingredients, 2) made special by serving simple foods with the additions of a unique sauce or seasoning, and/or 3) the presentation of the food created... magic.

It all came back to me as we shared bites of entrees and dessert, sharing also ideas of how we could recreate the tastes at home. I've been watching Lydia's Italy since receiving PBS again and I've heard her talk a great deal about adding just a pinch of red pepper flakes to a pasta dish. I didn't think I'd like them but after realizing that was what gave my pasta meal a bit of a "kick", I now know I'll be adding these to my pantry when possible.

That's what a pantry enables me to do... especially when I have a little more grocery budget than I do right now. I not only keep basic foodstuffs in the pantry but the tall yellow cabinet holds a good collection of herbs, spices, condiments, and other items to add flavor to simple foods.

Most are familiar names I've used for years and years but I also like to try new things. For instance, a couple months ago I saw a McCormick's spice advertisement that they had added smoked paprika to the line of seasonings they sold so I purchased it when it became available for a great price at the grocery store. There are lots of recipes using it online.

If you ever watch any of Nigella's cooking shows, you have seen her closet she uses as a pantry. She purchases ingredients for the pantry when she travels and that inspired me to look for small (and relatively inexpensive) items to add to the yellow cabinet once in awhile. Those special oils, vinegars, condiments, jellies, and other items to add a bit of elegance or the unexpected to food.

A great place to look is Target's clearance rack in their grocery section where they often sell such foods at greatly reduced prices. My latest special addition to the pantry was their apple-caramel sauce which can be poured over ice cream but also used as a dip. There were two jars left at about $1.50 each... a very inexpensive addition to use later for ice cream, pound cake, or with apple slices as a dip. Great idea, Nigella (can you tell my travels are only to the grocery store... but the concept is the same).

Isn't it incredible what one can do with flour, sugar, butter, and a couple of eggs? The basics can come together to create all kinds of amazing creations. By adding an additional flavor of extract, or dried fruit, or chocolate chips, or perhaps a cup of pecans... and one can make a creation for friends and family that brings smiles of joy.

Everything can be kept in the pantry and a small corner of the freezer (butter freezes very well and it has come way down in price) for the moments when we want to "whip up" something special to bring a smile to someone having a difficult day, or serve with a cup of tea at the end of a long day, or to take with us to a last minute picnic to see the animals at the zoo... creativity made possible because of our pantry.

Have you ever walked into a bakery known for high quality and beautiful baked goods.... and cost a small fortune? Not only do they use the best ingredients but just like the "fine dining" restaurants, they often add just a little touch of "special" to their products. I've learned to do the same thing, for instance when I make my favorite coffee cake recipe, I add an extract according to what berries I'm using (almond for cherries, lemon for blueberry).

I also make a thick confectioners sugar glaze to drizzle all over the cooled coffee cake. It makes a simple and inexpensive coffee cake look as if it were purchased in the most expensive store in town (and also adds a delicious flavor).

I used Christmas money to purchase meringue powder and a few inexpensive cake decorating supplies. They are in the yellow pantry awaiting the time and energy to create some fancy sugar cookies or cupcakes.

It is true that creating a pantry means we must make the time to make a list of basic items we want to keep on hand, budget part of our grocery money to purchase for the pantry, look through our recipes and menus to know what food items are most important to keep on hand, and perhaps find a place for shelves so we can have a pantry... but it provides great rewards in the long run.

Yes, I do believe as deep a pantry as possible (food and nonfood items) to provide "insurance" against job losses, national emergencies, and no telling what our future holds... but most of all I love it when I have a full pantry so I know I can provide good meals for my family as well as being able to bake when inspired (having been a pastry chef wannabe).

Oh... what are french lentils? Well, my preference for them came as a result of learning all I could (starting over thirty years ago) about really good food and why chefs have a preference for some types of food over others. I noticed all their recipes called for these lentils instead of the brown type found in American grocery stores at the time.

French (or green) lentils not only have a good flavor but they hold their texture far better than the brown lentils (being less likely to get mushy). I like brown lentils just fine for soup but when I make lentil salads, I understood why I would find them being used in those recipes.

I know this is a rather long post but I'm passionate about the subject... can you tell? :)


Cheryl (Copper's Wife) said...

Such excellent advice today and in recent days. Those little extras in the pantry can really be used to make our otherwise budget friendly meals special, blessing our family.

Today our pantry is enabling my daughter to bake and decorate two cakes to donate to a family charity carnival event, blessing others.

scrappy quilter said...

Wonderful post once again. So much great info. Thanks for sharing your wonderful ideas with all of us.

Anonymous said...

You are so right that it is the added this or that that makes the ordinary into the extroidinary. You have inspired me over and over. Our lunch today will have that added touch..thanks! I see the oils and such for sale but never know how to use them. Maybe it is time I research a bit so when that bargain comes up I am ready. :) Thankyou too for giving us the information on the French lentils. Am I to understand that when I see the green lentils they are the French ones you are speaking of? All green ones are the French ones? I have seen green ones in bags in some of the stores here. We are again in a out of work season and so again our pantry is doing its duty. This is one thing to not have to worry about and we can come together as a family and celebrate the family at the dinner table. We can even invite friends or give a meal to them. Giving thanks to Him for the abundance around us. Jody

Anonymous said...

On another note of extras..if you have room to grow something in a pot or in a garden to eat make it count extra. If your neighbor always has extra apples on their trees why plant an apple tree of your own. Try Asian pears or something else you love and can grow. Likewise what does your family love to eat but it is a luxury? Sugarsnap peas? Blueberries or other berries? Can you afford the green peppers but not the red, orange or yellow,ivory or even purple or black ones? How about those beautiful heirloom tomatoes? You can grow them! If you have room for only one pepper put in a yellow one..peas...go for the sugar snap or yard long beans instead? Cabbage? try Chinese cabbage instead. You get the idea. These little surprises also highten the fun of your meals and make great gifts too! With the few cents you may have at times the thrift stores provide little punches for our homes. Brenda you have talked about this beautifully. Even if we had the money we couldn't even find some of the beauties that come to us at the thrift stores. One of a kind things that suit us and our homes. Brenda you have got me again thinking outside the box. I have always used my gardening to include those touches of extras but today I am going through my recipe box and rethinking them and making notes on them for extra punch I can add to them next time I cook them! I and my family thanks you... :) Jody

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed today's' post. I totally agree that those little extra touches really do make our meals more interesting.
Like you, I'm on a very tight budget. I thought I'd share a source for quality spices and condiments at a reasonable price. I go to Marshall's and TJ Maxx. The spices in the small tin canisters are really potent and last a good while. I also find the cost of a few seed packs for herbs to be very cost effective. I am currently growing flat leaf parsley, cilantro, rosemary,lemon thyme and basil.I spent .40 on seeds,( dollar tree) $2 for the bag of potting soil and used some pots I had on hand. I have more than I can use and am currently sharing the crop. Plus it makes the deck look pretty and the plants small awesome.
Thanks again for the great information as well as the inspiration.

Anonymous said...

Can you post a recipe for your confectioner's `drizzle' (don't remember what you called it) that you pour over coffee cake? We eat almost exclusively local, and I am always on the lookout for recipes we can use.