Thursday, September 17, 2009

Pantry Talk - organics and gourmet foods (part two)

Inherited Victorian china
Thrifted napkin and napkin ring
Garage sale silver plated flatware

End of season clearance tablecloth

Click picture to enlarge!

I know I've already written about some of this... one could find the post somewhere in the Pantry Talks of the past three years. However, I don't know that I could handle going through three years of anyone's posts! :)

Today I want to chat about how our pantry truly can be the start of "gourmet" cooking and fine dining... add in a few great cookbooks and a collection of inherited or thrifted china (and candles... must have candles)... and viola', a meal as good as anything in the expensive restaurants.

I wrote earlier in the season about my quest for the small gourmet additions to add to the pantry. All are either very reasonably priced or on sale (or clearance) and added only once in awhile or when seasonally available. For instance, very good quality baking supplies often go on sale during the Holidays.

I learned to love fine dining back in my former life (basically the 1980s) when two of us were working and we had but one little girl who could enjoy having the silverware in the correct positions and drinking a Shirley Temple from a crystal goblet. Most often she would bring her current reading along with us when she tired of adult conversation.

The decision to "come home" (thus, cutting our income by a great deal) and later the birth of a very hyper little boy limited our fine dining experiences to birthdays and anniversaries. In the past decade, they have become even rarer, which is why I SO enjoyed the gift of dinner at the French Bistro when Stephanie visited this past spring (a gift from my son-in-law as well since his hard work paid for it). :)

That dinner reminded me of what I love about fine dining. That meal was perfectly cooked with the best simple ingredients in such a way one enjoyed every bite. There was no rushing through food that is so good and well prepared. The atmosphere was very bistro... less elegant and more classic... but very special.

That's why there is a gourmet section of my pantry, even though my grocery budget is ridiculously slim. They are the items which can add that "extra" to fresh veggies in summer and root vegetable in the cooler months... to create magic. Some are everyday items used in special ways, others are special items used in everyday foods. :)

My pantry is not as "deep" as it used to be but I always have a few boxes of organic chicken broth on the shelf (although they are gone now that my husband was on a liquid diet for a few days), one extra Grey Poupon harvest stone ground mustard, one bottle very good quality extra virgin olive oil (right now it is a small bottle of Lucini), a jar of capers, a few cans of organic pizza/pasta sauce (I add a can of Red Gold Italian tomatoes for use with pasta), a jar of chopped garlic for those times I don't have fresh and need garlic... just to name a few that comes to my mind right now.

Interesting spices give a lot of opportunity to add something different to all dishes. My mother never used some of those I enjoy now... coriander, cardamon, and smoked paprika just to name a few.

I keep real butter in the freezer. Although I use whatever good chocolate chips I can find on sale for most baking (Hershey's or Nestle's), when on sale I'll buy a few packages of Ghiradelli or Guittard to keep on hand when the chocolate chips are the star of the show (for instance, some fudge recipes and ganache). Of course, always real vanilla and other extracts. I like to keep a bottle of Key West lime juice on hand for key lime pie... it also works great wherever lemon juice is called for in a recipe.

It is so easy to have special items for baking to give cookies and cakes that pastry chef look. I purchased meringue powder earlier in the year but I haven't had a chance to use it for cookie icing, yet. I have all kinds of special colored sugars, sprinkles, cupcake liners, etc... all very inexpensive. Now that dried cranberries and cherries are more reasonably priced, I keep them on hand for baking and salads... as well as currents.

In the refrigerator, I keep lots of cream cheese as it lasts a long time and goes on sale once in awhile. It is there for baking and as a basis for dips of all kinds. In the freezer I try to always have bacon and those tiny peas (recommended by Nigella, whose pantry I LOVE to see on her show).

Then there are all the unique crackers and cookies. Regular cheddar or colby cheese become "uptown" when served with a special cracker or bread. Being a cookie connoisseur, I am not fond of most store bought cookies but Pepperidge Farm cookies are wonderful, as are some of the brands imported from England. One or two packages kept hidden from anyone with a carb attack is a frugal luxury to have on hand.

I hope to can a few jams and jellies as well as apple pie filling soon (some recipes on my recipe blog). All would make simple foods special. I always try to keep one container of vanilla ice cream in the deep freeze for a la' mode... anything.

I have collected lots of interesting baking pans on thrift store and garage sale excursions. For instance, a simple pound cake baked in a mini Bundt pan (or a big one) looks amazing.

When Stephanie was growing up, we often had candles lit on the table at dinnertime. I think we stopped that practice when Christopher was old enough to blow them out. However, pretty plates and candlelight makes even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (cut out with heart shaped cookie cutters) look beautiful.

A selection of pretty napkins and serving pieces can be found at thrift stores and Goodwill. I have a large selection of buttery soft linen napkins, all purchased while thrifting. I find the most gorgeous paper napkins deep discounted at Tuesday Morning and if anyone thinks they are too good for pretty paper napkins... they wouldn't be coming to my home, anyway.

Of course, all kinds of beautiful tea time items are available by thrifting. Perhaps because I am looking for them... I find them all the time. The most I've ever paid for a thrifted teapot was $7.00 at an antique mall for one I saw in a magazine six or seven year ago... I think it was Country Living. Most were much cheaper. I've also been given a lot of tea time gifts over the years.

Thankfully, tea has become so popular that one can find good tea for thrifty prices. I love Candy Cane Lane (which is a decaf green) and plan to stock up come the Holidays. This time of year I like to serve the original Good Earth Sweet & Spicy blend which is a cinnamon tea (they also have an herbal blend with the same cinnamony goodness). I find it easy to keep a few brands on hand that people would like, including Bigelow's Earl Grey Green and Green Tea with Lemon. It is available on Amazon if you can't find it at your grocery store.

The Folgers coffee I like is the new Folgers Brazilian coffee which is part of their Coffeehouse Series. I didn't like their "Gourmet" brands at all. The 8:00 coffee is pretty good and I actually liked the Dunkin' Donut coffee even though I saw bad reviews online. I like the Trader Joe's coffee but the nearest is in the "big city"... and I hate driving in it. I know Laine (of Laine's Letters) once wrote that she mixed expensive coffee with the cheap stuff for a good taste.

I believe allowing good cookbooks in the budget is money saving in the long run as they give spark to creativity. Great cooking is often just simple food assembled in various recipes and the cookbooks we love give us the permission to try something new... knowing it has worked for another before us. I have paid full price for a few favorites over the years but I find they become available used on Amazon for great prices after only two or three years. My local library book sales often have a large collection.

This is already a very long post but I think you can tell I am passionate about beautiful and "fine dining" done on a budget and ready to make with items in the pantry... and I didn't even get to keeping a pretty tablecloth in a picnic basket for that beautiful outside meal (which doesn't happen in our home now that there are no young children around) of cheese, fruit, and really good bread. :)


Anonymous said...

I found that I can get spices cheaper if I buy them by the ounce {or spoonful} bulk at Henry's Farmers Market or at Winco. Also I find an even bigger array of them at the health food stores. When I needed a spice for a relish I only needed a small amount of it. It wasen't one I would ordinarily use a bottle of. Buying it this way I got just the amount I needed with no leftover waste. When I did the math the cost of the bottle at a supper market was Way higher per ounce than these bulk spices. So either way I am saving. I have not heard of smoked paprike Brenda. Maybe some time you could talk of spices and ideas for changing our veggies with them. I could sure use some new interesting ways to do them. I keep a used cardboard according file for favorite recipes. I keep a pocket for veggies and one for baking etc. Also keep one seperate for those fruits and veggies that come only seasonably and I usually cannot find my recipes for them at that time! This way all the recipes for say zucchini or lemons are together to leaf through. I like to see if we can make some of the speciality dishes from resturants at home. We don't eat out much but we have friends who do and try to remake them and they share some of the recipes etc. Like you, we try to redo the table etc and make meals special. Actually I think thrifting gives you a chance to have many one of a kind things. When you shop at the mall you see a lot of the same things. Thrifting you see things you may never see again let alone could ever afford unless they were at the thrift stores! :) I couldn't imagine how dull life would be if we HAD to shop only at the malls!! :) Oh Brenda how you come up with more angles on the pantry is beyond me but you do and they are always inspiring!! Thank you so much again!! Jody

Jonell said...

Lovely table..never have heard the word "thrifted" luv it! Would it be possible to show a close up of your pretty silver? It looks familiar to me and can't identify it.

cottagesweet said...

Well, I must say, this was an interesting post and I enjoyed it. I didn't know real butter (which is what I use) could be frozen. Thanks for the tip.

diana said...

I ran out of my Candy Cane Lane tea about a month ago and regular peppermint is not quite the same. I also like the Nutcracker Sweet and the Gingerbread holiday teas. Last fall, Bigelow put out a pumpkin spice tea and spiced apple cider tea . I'm on my last pack of apple cider tea , and I've been to 3 grocery stores looking for these special Autumn teas. Kicked myself for not stocking up better. thanks for your inspiration as always..

scrappy quilter said...

Brenda I chuckled at the beginning of your post because when I found your blog, I went right back to the very beginning and read every post. It took me weeks to do, however I loved doing it.

This is another great post. Lots of great stuff here has always.

The Pleasures of Homemaking said...

Hi Brenda, lovely post! I think setting a lovely table and having a few "good" things in the pantry is a good way to not feel deprived if you're living on a budget (and who isn't these days)!

I'd like to link to you this Saturday. I'd like to use your second paragraph and then link to the rest of your post. Let me know if that's o.k.



Packrat said...

Great post. It is nice that you pass your experience/knowledge on to others.

Mrs.Rabe said...

This was a great read!

I do alot of what you shared. I cook from scratch, simple but good food. We set the table every night even for leftovers, we like to use candles or have some sort of centerpiece...I like to stock up on items when I see them on sale. A discount grocery that I shop at often has Nestle or Hershey baking products very inexpensively. I only have a very small freezer extra freezer, so I have to be careful what I purchase. One thing I love to do is to stock up on special things like teas and use them as gifts - in a basket with a nice napkin and a thrifted tea cup or mug makes a great gift!

I love to get ideas from your blog.

Raquel said...

Brenda: Are we sisters? I do the very same things - well, almost. I do buy a lot of my spices at our local Amish or Mennonite stores. One of the stores is a "broken box goods" store. You never know what you will find and they usually have a fantastic selection of spices - we found ground cardamom, which to buy in Wal-Mart is $10 a bottle, for $1. Yes, we bought several bottles. I shop at my local thrift store and I let my mom know what I am looking for or like and she looks when she is out for other bargains.
This is a fantastic post - and like Scrappy Quilter - I went back and read all of your posts, too! I actually do that frequently - it takes me a while but I do enjoy it. Much love - Raquel XO

Lorrie said...

I came over from Manuela at the Pleasures of Homemaking and found myself nodding my head while reading your post.
It's so true that the attitude with which food is presented, and the care taken in preparation result in a meal that is more than just food, it's a warm experience that feeds the soul as well as the body.

And I noticed on your sidebar that you love reading old Victoria magazines. I did a post on that very topic just yesterday!


Maries Cottage said...

I just found your blog, how gorgeous, can't wait to visit often!!!

Storybook Woods said...

It is funny, I am always being accused of making fancy foods but to me that was what I was raised with and it does not seem fancy. I was raised taking simple, in season items and adding a little something, like lemon peel and capers to make it sing. This has helped me keep my budget low. Great post, Clarice

carla said...

Brenda, my post today is about pantry storage. I don't have a pantry closet (yet!), but I do buy in bulk and store where I can. Come by if you get a chance:

Thanks for the comment on snickerdoodles. My husband and I went to Oklahoma last weekend to see my mother in the nursing home and I took a package of them to her. She is in the middle stage of Alzheimer's and I hoped they'd be a pleasant memory for her - she used to make them for our family when I was a girl. She loved them.