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The Well Stocked Pantry

Nick Olejniczak

During this period of lockdown and social distancing, a lot of us are starting to feel like pioneers living on the prairie. Since we are making fewer visits to the grocery store, we are doing more planning for stocking up on the essentials we need to keep going. Chef Jerry Pellegrino, has given this some thought and has put together a good list.

Jerry believes that a well chosen pantry is better than an overstuffed one. The smartly stocked pantry allows you the ability to whip up meals without much planning on any given night, add some excitement to standard recipes or just make a quick snack in between meals. Assuming everyone keeps salt and pepper on hand, below is what we believe to be the top ten essential items everyone should have in their cupboard.

1. A Spice Blend – choose one depending on what you like or try a new one each month but whether it’s Herbs de Provence, Garam Masala, Creole Seasoning or Italian herbs, having one of these in the cupboard allows you to add instant excitement to any dish and since these are blends of six to ten different spices you don’t need to have containers of all those different spices taking up all that room.

2. Onion Powder and Garlic Powder – so many dishes start out with onions and garlic, but keeping the fresh ones around can be a challenge. Although not as good, these two powders get you pretty close to the real thing.

3. Honey – vinaigrettes, stocks, soups, stews…they all can benefit from a little bit of sweetness to balance them out. You could just keep sugar on hand but honey provides an added complexity to foods and since it is the only natural product that never goes bad, it is perfect for the pantry!

4. Extra Virgin Olive Oil – we pour this on everything! Although it’s not the ideal oil to cook with, buying a price conscious brand like our local Pompeian makes you feel good about it. So, drizzle it on bread, tomatoes, cheeses and salads or sauté anything you have in the fridge to make a quick meal.

5. Dried Pasta – one big and one small. Pasta is the perfect foil for anything you have left in the fridge; chop it up, sauté it up and toss with cooked pasta…easy meal! For the big version we prefer Bucatini or Penne, for the little version, it is hard to beat the delicious taste and texture of Israeli Couscous.

6. Yellow Cornmeal – maybe you’re not always in the mood for pasta but still need to get rid of some leftovers in the fridge; making a batch of polenta can fix that easily. But cornmeal has so many other uses…make a batch of skillet cornbread, cornmeal crust and fry anything from oysters to chicken to onion rings or make a warming Indian pudding with honey for dessert.

7. Balsamic Vinegar – vinegars in general are good things to have in the pantry but Balsamic vinegar is the king of them all…it can add complexity to sauces, makes the perfect vinaigrette and can even be reduced to a syrup to be served with fruit and whipped cream for dessert.

8. Dijon Mustard – besides the fact that is just tastes great on everything, Dijon’s acidic, sharp taste adds great flavor to so many things. Start with the simple Honey & Dijon Mustard Vinaigrette then move onto using it to glaze hams, adding it to pan sauces, mixing it into your potato dishes and rubbing it on lamb as the ‘glue’ to hold on your herb crust.

9. Canned Fish or Chicken – use these in a pinch to add protein to a great salad or pasta, mold them into a cake, purée them to make a dip or mix them with some simple ingredients for a great sandwich. Canned tuna is the obvious choice and certainly a good one but there’s lots of room to be adventurous… some of our favorites are Double ‘Q’ Wild Caught Alaskan Salmon, and Trader Joe’s has a great proprietary smoked canned trout.

10. Your Favorite Hot Sauce – whether it’s Tabasco or Sriracha or Louisiana Crystal, there’s always the need to provide some real heat to certain dishes. Certainly these spicy concoctions are great just on lots of foods but they provide heat to sauces where pepper just won’t work; Hollandaise, Cheese Sauces, Béchamel, etc. We also like to stir them into mashed potatoes to give them a kick, add them into all types of marinades and of course, liven up your Bloody Mary.

AND A FEW MORE… Your favorite canned beans, canned whole tomatoes or a just some cans of Rotel with diced tomatoes, onions & peppers. If you are not a fan of pasta you can certainly create a great “Pantry Rice Dish”.

Al would add a few essentials too.

1. Bouillon cubes or powders. These are so handy for making broths for soup or sauces. Flavors include chicken, beef, pork, and vegetable.

2. Dried beans, lentils, and grains. These are an excellent source of protein which can find a place in hundreds of recipes. They keep forever, but do require overnight soaking. Barley, bulgur wheat and quinoa are great staples.

3. Lemon juice. Just as you need a sweetener, you also need a good source of acid. Nothing beats lemon juice, which keeps forever.

4. A big bag of rice. One of those staples that keep for a very long time. Try the nutrition-rich brown variety for a change of pace.

5. A 5 pound bag of all-purpose flour (and a jar of yeast). Baking bread, making pasta, or thickening a sauce... there are so man uses for flour, and the easiest to find these days is the all-purpose variety.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.