Illustration for article titled With the right pantry staples, anyone can assemble a quick weeknight meal
Photo: carinko (iStock)
FeaturesFeaturesStories from The Takeout about food, drink, and how we live.

Assembling is an easy and creative cooking method that takes prepared food—from grocery stores, restaurants, or delivery—and turns it into a series of delicious meals. We’ll be showing readers how to do more of it in the coming weeks. 


I went to Toronto before the holidays, and stopped into the St. Lawrence Market, my happy place. It’s filled with stalls offering food products I can’t easily get in the U.S. In one shop, I stopped in front of a steel rack and stared: there was an entire shelf of bitters in 16 different flavors, each with enticing and colorful labels. Ooo, I’d love to take some of these back, I thought, examining the bottles.

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And then I stopped. I had lots of bitters at home, including some that people have given me for gifts, and others that I’ve made myself. Why buy something I already had an abundance of, and none of which I’d had to pay for? Would I actually use ginseng bitters, or cranberry, or fennel? Was it worth the hassle of bringing them across the border to sit unused in my pantry?

It’s a scenario you might relate to if you’ve been inside a cute spice store or perused a hot sauce aisle in a gift shop. You snap up things that stand out and look unique, then get them home and never use them.

The pantry you need for assembling, my light-on-cooking cooking method, is just the opposite. Your cabinets shouldn’t be supplied with flashy bells and whistles like extracts and lava salts (though go ahead and keep those on hand if they really make you feel aspirational). Instead, you should have a baseline of staples so that you always have the ingredients you need to put together a proper meal.

For some of you, this means adding ingredients to your pantry. For others, it requires some “editing.” And I know you might feel guilty getting rid of perfectly good stuff, but if it doesn’t fit the way you eat now, get it out of your way. Local food pantries and your friends will be happy to have these cast-offs. And you can always post a giveaway notice on Freecycle or in the Free Stuff section on Craigslist.

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Let’s say you want to get to a fully stocked, optimally useful pantry. Are you starting with nothing, or with a lot of clutter?


Building your pantry from scratch

The scenario: You have some granola bars and a bag of tortilla chips, but not much else.

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Below is a list of categories, comprising the types of things you should stock your kitchen with at all times. I want you to “start with three”: the three things in each category that you are most likely to use. (There’s no need to have a pantry that overflows with everything in the Williams-Sonoma catalog, especially if you have limited cupboard space.)

If it looks like an intimidating list, remember that you’ll only be stocking up on a small portion of it. Staples like these tend to be affordable, too, so it’s the most cost-effective way of keeping food in the house. And I’ve listed them roughly in order of the most substantial, long-lasting shelf-stable things, down to the least essential perishables. If you only want to “start with three” from certain categories, start at the top and work your way down.

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Grains

Rice, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, farro, oatmeal

Pasta

Spaghetti, macaroni, rice noodles, various pasta shapes, whole wheat or gluten-free noodles

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Condiments

Mustard, mayonnaise, fish sauce, soy sauce, hot sauce, kimchi, pickled ginger, harissa, steak sauce, chutney

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Sweet spices

Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, dried lemon, clove

Savory spices

Za’atar, sumac, black pepper, paprika, Chinese five spice powder, powdered garlic

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Salt

Table salt, sea salt, kosher salt, flavored salt

Oils

Olive oil (an everyday oil for cooking and a high-quality oil for dressing), flavored olive oil, sesame oil, peanut oil, hazelnut oil, truffle oil

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Vinegar

White vinegar, balsamic vinegar, rice vinegar, fruit vinegar

Frozen

Frozen peas, frozen corn, frozen basil cubes, frozen garlic cubes

Sweeteners

White sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, cane syrup

Dried herbs

Basil, tarragon, thyme, rosemary, sage, bay leaf

Dried fruit

Raisins, dried cherries, dried blueberries, dried cranberries

Nuts and seeds

Peanuts, pecans, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds

Dairy

Milk (or milk substitute), cream, butter, cheese, yogurt, eggs

Vegetables

Carrots, potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, and greens, plus olives and capers

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Fruit

Oranges, apples, pears, berries, grapefruit, lemons, limes, bananas, avocados

Miscellaneous

Fresh herbs, bread, crackers, tortilla chips, potato chips

There. Now you have a pantry.


Streamlining your already full pantry

Some of you might already have a kitchen stuffed with the items in the list above, plus a fridge that’s bursting with jars and bottles and containers. The solution to this is simple, if you have the discipline to do it.

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Sit down and think about the meals you’ve assembled or cooked from scratch since the start of the year. What did you use most frequently? What are you constantly restocking? Which spices do you reach for most often, and which sweeteners do you tend to prefer?

When you have an hour free, take everything edible out of storage and put it on your countertop. Sort it into favorites and things that you never use. Give priority shelf space to things you use regularly; you shouldn’t be rummaging in the back of the cabinet for cinnamon to put on your daily toast, or the hot sauce you like the most. If you use it at least a couple times a week, position it so it’s easy to grab. (Assembling meals should be simple in every conceivable way.)

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If you’re wavering on what to keep, remember that spices can grow stale and lose their flavor. Keep them tightly sealed and out of sunlight; otherwise, throw out anything from before 2010. Hopefully, this applies to very little in your cabinet.

Finally, ask yourself: Do you want to pay rent, devote a chunk of your mortgage payment, or put a utility bill toward store things you aren’t using? Because that’s essentially what you’re doing.

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It can be painful to part with food possessions, especially if they were gifts or carry memories of the place where you found them. But once you’ve streamlined, you’ll be able to assemble meals quickly and sit down to a delicious dinner much faster.

Oh, and I didn’t buy any of the bitters in Toronto. I did buy some elderberry extract, because I had a recipe that called for it, I couldn’t find any where I live, and it was $10 cheaper than a similar one on Amazon. Plus, I had an empty and available spot for it after cleaning out my cupboards this fall.

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Once your pantry is ready to work for you, cooking will feel a lot less like work.

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