Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pantry talk: When creativity counts

Chocolate cherry cake waiting for frosting
I've been thinking of a post about creativity in the kitchen for sometime now but when real life intervened... it was time.  That was when I wanted to make my chocolate cherry cake but did not have any chocolate chips to make the fudgy glaze.

I thought for a bit and stared at the recipe (which, unfortunately, did not make chocolate chips appear in front of me) and then decided to go ahead and make the cake but try it with my chocolate buttercream frosting instead.  Oh, yum... it was delicious.  A different taste and texture but quite good.

Having lived out of the pantry and now on a very tight budget, I know the value of being creative in the kitchen.  I'm sure part of it has to do with being a "pinch of this and dash of that" kind of cook (except baking must be more precise).  But it certainly helps to have an out of the box way of thinking when you are stretching the budget.

Here are a few lessons I've learned over the years of pantry life:

Knowledge is as important as stocking up - Knowing how to cook from scratch is essential to using the pantry wisely, not to mention cooking on a budget.  The more we do anything, the better we get.  So... one must often throw caution to the wind and try something new in the kitchen, especially when we have basic skills down pat.  Summer is a perfect time for this with all the fresh veggies and fruits available.

There is an alchemy to the kitchen... a chemistry of food... in which it is important to have a basic knowledge.  But that comes a little at a time and hopefully in the kitchen of a parent, grandparent, beloved neighbor, etc.  (If one is not fortunate enough to begin learning kitchen basics early, then it is really never too late to learn.)  The more we become use to putting food together, the easier it becomes to tweak the ingredients when necessary.

I like to have a good home library of cookbooks available so I can find instruction and inspiration.  I look for good cookbooks at library sales and such as well as using Amazon credit once in awhile for books about cooking or gardening (sometimes both together).  My taste in cookbooks has changed through the years and my shelves now reflect a combination of books about fresh foods and local cooking as well as my favorite Midwestern, Southern, Mennonite, Amish, etc. cookbooks.  Long gone are the gourmet books...

I truly have found that just one or two great recipes from a cookbook pays for the cost in the long run (and most have far more than one or two useful recipes).  I usually will look for a cookbook which has been recommended by a friend or blogger whom I respect and I know likes the same kind of recipes I do.  Except for library sales, online book sellers do seem to have the best prices.

Of course, now there are so many wonderful food and cooking blogs to learn from that were not available when I was learning to cook (I still am learning, though!).  My library also has shelves and shelves of cookbooks available to borrow for two weeks.  I have spiral notebooks that I write out recipes in while I have the books at home.  If I really like a library cookbook, it goes on my Wish List.

I took various cooking classes as a young wife and they have paid back over and over what ever money was spent on them back then.  Knowledge learned cannot be taken away (barring brain injury, of course) and all we know about cooking will come together to help us stretch our budget in the long run. 

My local gourmet shop offers classes in all kinds of ethnic cooking, knife skills, tea time cooking, cake design, etc. While I didn't take any of them, I thought they were very reasonably priced.  One could learn to make Indian food for the price of a couple restaurant meals.

The more you know about cooking and baking and decorating cakes and gardening and interior design and landscaping and cleaning and sewing and knitting and painting and making stuff with kids and taking care of pets and all those aspects of the job of homemaker... the easier it is to create on a budget.

Good equipment is important to good cooking - I do know our grandmothers were able to get by with a couple good iron skillets (and I do have two sizes of wonderful iron skillets) but I must say when I make a sauce in my All-Clad saucepan... it is heavenly. 

My local gourmet kitchen store puts one piece of All-Clad half price each month and I used some of my income from a seasonal job for it a few years ago (when I could still work part-time).  I expect it will be in perfect condition for Elisabeth to inherit!  I bought a couple nice Cuisinart pans with that same paycheck.

I have really good cookware, knives, etc. mostly because I budgeted for them or asked for certain items at Christmas and for birthdays through the years.  Thankfully, for the past few years I've found some great items while thrifting or at garage sales since such expenditures are no longer in the budget.

Cooking with cheap equipment makes as much sense as building a house with tools from the dime store  Bad cookware makes bad cooks.  Not to mention... a homemaker needs reference books just as an architect or other creative professional.   This becomes even more evident as we must make a home in the midst of shortages and rising costs.  It can all be done... the building of an excellent cookbook and home making library... a little at a time.  :)

Develop new skills - Decide to learn something new, at least once new skill a year!  I'm determined to finally use my pressure canner.   Re-learning old skills will be like gold in the bank... I'm convinced of it.

Concentrate on the basics and know what is on the shelves - Which means we have to be... ugh... organized.  Really, really organized when it comes to our pantry.  We need to know what we have and how much and use the oldest dates first.  There needs to be a master list (mine is in the Scrapbook Journal) of what we would like to have in our pantry as well as what is essential.

I do not have the ability to keep a deep pantry, anymore.  Funds are getting more scarce all the time.  So that means knowing the essentials and having them on hand is even more important... such things as flour, sugars, butter (in the freezer), other baking supplies, canned tomatoes, pasta, ingredients for specific casseroles, etc.  The essentials will be different for each family, of course.

I was able to think of the chocolate buttercream frosting because I knew I had those ingredients on hand.  Having basics on the pantry shelves certainly encourages creativity and sometimes I like to include a few unusual items.  That's how I started making middle eastern food... adding tahini and new spices to the pantry.

Deepen the pantry as much as possible - That is, to what extent your family decides to deepen their pantry and what is affordable.  But if you get used to a pantry lifestyle, then you begin to notice the cycle of sales and bargains... stocking up on sale!  You will save money if nothing else.

However, if there is any emergency... if there is a problem with the the supply line of food... if there is bad weather and shortages... if there is a significant and long term job loss... a deep pantry is insurance you can eat.

Follow the delights of your heart - People come and go from this blog all the time.  Numbers go up and down (thankfully up a lot more than down!).  I know that the people who read Coffee Tea Books and Me regularly have the same passions that I do about life, Faith, family, friends, books, tea time, etc. but the one subject I hear about the most that people love to read about is... the pantry posts.

I believe that is because God is placing within the hearts of those who will listen (and most often the women in a family) the desire to stock up and learn new skills.  There is a reason for that.  I'm not sure exactly what it is... it could be the economy or the food shortages due to bad weather or any number of things in the world today... but God is definitely at work in the hearts of like minded people.

If nothing else, I hope you get encouraged to learn all you can and stock up on what is possible and know you are not alone.

Note:  This post is being written really, really fast as there is much to do in the real world of cooking and gardening and laundry and making certain Miss Victoria does not get out to chase the squirrels.  Please disregard any typos and grammar errors.  ;)


Rebecca said...

Really helpful thoughts and ideas here! These are the skills & knowledge that are going to become more and more essential for more and more people, I believe.

And Necessity IS the "Mother of Invention"!

Vee said...

Always an enjoyable read. The alchemy part of cooking is not my strongest suit. (I've just returned from visiting my aunt who is an excellent cook as is her hubby...all except for that part about his using B*isquick. It would not have been a part of her pantry due to its sodium content. Somehow, it sneaked its way into the grocery cart. She made us the most wonderful scrambled eggs today and when I asked her for the recipe she said that the recipe involves whatever leftovers are in the fridge. Today's version had saute├ęd onions, sweet red peppers, and mushrooms.)

Mrs.Rabe said...

I like all your posts! I always feel as if I have had a visit with a good friend. I agree, too about God moving in peoples hearts to stock up.

I am thankful for your pantry posts!


Anonymous said...

Great post! Another good free source of recipes is
I always like reading about Miss Victoria. Our cat doesn't chase squirrels, she threatens them and considers her job done.

matty said...

Great recommendations!

Anonymous said...

Great post, Brenda! I am learning so much from your pantry posts. Keep them coming!

Lori in PA

Anonymous said...

Many years ago I read an author say that a person should have the best of books on any subject they want to excel in...he even said if that is homemaking then the best cook books and such should be bought. I was actually impressed that he thought of homemaking as a profession as others do not at times take it seriously. We know better. Anyway, I started in even more earnest, gathering good used books. I am glad I did as the ones on homesteading and such I got I do not see now. I began studying gardening and cooking through the years . There is always more to learn. :) Like what are the rock bottom prices now anyway? With prices changing it is hard to know just when food is the lowest prices to stock up!! :) I am trying to learn more and more of how to make more of what I used to buy. Like making mayonnaise. I used to make it so I can again. Keeping a good attitude through the price raises is important...we are all in this together. Thank you for another pantry post. You are right...we do love em!! :) Sarah

Anonymous said...

Great ideas and post, Brenda!!

Making do...tis what my mom taught best...not all things turned out so well, but I do not remember having to throw anything out either. Now, I have had a few experiments in the gluten free dept. simply not be worth the eating, but most were good for SOMETHING! Ha...

Elizabeth in NC

Kristi in the Western Reserve said...

A lovely post, Brenda. Creativity in the kitchen is such an interest of mind. I find it amusing that of my children, on daughter and one son cook very much as I do, very willing to experiment and most of the experiments come out well because they have a basic sense of what will work. My middle daughter always wants recipes, though I think she is loosening up a bit now.

I love to read cookbooks, but especially what my friend Penny and I call chatty cookbooks. I bet you do too.

Gumbo Lily said...

Great thoughts, Brenda. Knowing just a few basic skills can really expand your cooking experience. I just recently taught my youngest child to make a roux. From that basic sauce, he can make his favorite homemade Mac & Cheese, an Alfredo-type sauce, gravy and you name it. The list goes on as far as the imagination.

I also agree that the pantry must fit the family. Not everybody needs dry beans. If the family doesn't eat dried beans, then it's a waste of funds and food.

I have several cookbooks, but tend to lean on the common homecooked type meals. Still, I am expanding my cooking experience.

Great post.

Anonymous said...


Your pantry posts are my favorites, also.

I agree that God is speaking to His people about being prepared...physically and spiritually.

Becky said...

Hi, Brenda...I always enjoy my visits to your blog. :)

I agree that the Lord is nudging many of us to "get prepared".

If we think things are bad now (grocery prices, etc.), I think they're going to get a whole lot worse very soon.

Your pantry posts are going to be very helpful to those who are just starting to prepare.