How To Shop
I am always amused in Italy and Spain how small the supermarket trolleys are. This is because most non Anglo-Saxons shop each day, so only need small amounts of fresh groceries at one time. The supermarket trolleys in New Zealand are twice the size of their Spanish and Italian counterparts and reflect the siege mentality many of us seem to have when it comes to grocery shopping. Whether these differences are all about everyone here having cars to transport large amounts of shopping, I don’t know, but well organised cooks the world over always have a basic store of food on hand. One is reminded of the famous Italian store-cupboard dish of Spaghetti alla Puttanesca which translates as Whore’s Spaghetti. It was obviously called this because it was quick and easy. Whatever you stock the pantry with it must be the right stuff for you.
Surveys have proven that people only eat the food they like, that is why diets don’t work long term, so filling your pantry or freezer with things you think you should have but know you will never use is a waste of time and money. Your culinary credentials will always be your cooking not your store cupboard. The type of food you like to cook will soon determine what needs to be in you pantry.
Similarly be aware of how a cargo cult works. In some societies unused to modern technology it was thought that ancestral spirits were responsible for aircraft bringing goods or cargo. It was reasoned therefore that if you built an airstrip, then the goods would come. Some people stock pantries and build kitchens in the belief that a well stocked pantry or a classy kitchen will make you into a good cook. Just buying ingredients, however flash, won’t make a meal, so it matters little how well stocked your pantry is if you never cook, unless, of course, you classify preprepared meals as food.
The only other thing to watch is quality. I always buy the best quality food I can afford at the time. While I find this can fluctuate wildly, it doesn’t mean the best quality is always the most expensive, it usually does but not always. When you do stumble across a bargain, remember it and buy it again and again. Quality can also mean knowing where the product has come from and how it was produced which is where organic foods are useful. I don’t get too hung up on organic food as such, I just try to use food that is as close to its original form as possible. I avoid food with additives. I just want to eat food. I am one of those geeks who stand in the supermarket reading labels. This does pay off in additive avoidance.
So given that we all need something in the pantry/freezer/fridge that is useful and appetising, where does one start? Remember you can’t stock everything, so what you need are the things which are flavour accents or things which may be harder to find or are meant to last a while. But not too long.
If you are doing the pantry makeover first clean it out. Face it, that grimy handful of haricot beans left over from the recipe you didn’t like, which you tried three years ago, really isn’t worth keeping. If they were, you would have used them long ago. Fridges and pantries should be full of things you need, not things you put there until they go off and you throw them out. Be realistic about what is worth saving.
I have two broad store cupboard themes which guide me when it comes to being able to whip up something delicious. The first is Mediterranean, and includes things from Spain right round to Morocco and maybe a few Mexican ingredients. The second is a pan-Asian collection which includes India, South East Asia, Japan and China.
Sounds like a case of international siege mentality but if judiciously chosen, and well maintained, such a collection will mean you will always have what you need.
The following is a list of more than you will probably need but is a good memory jogger when it comes to making a list.
First the things I don’t need.
Dried herbs, they don’t taste anything like the original fresh version, they generally taste like “dried herbs” and dominate anything you use them in, so I don’t bother. The two exceptions are dried tarragon which isn’t too bad and dried Greek or Sicilian oregano, which is supposed to be dried. Start a few pots of real herbs growing on the deck or balcony and if you haven’t got it, leave it out of the recipe or make something else. The good thing about recipes is there are plenty to choose from.
What I do need in the pantry are
Iodised salt and flaky sea salt
Plenty of black peppercorns
Italian, I use the Ferron brand, Vialone nano or Carnaroli rice because their structure is better than arborio which means I can make a non-stir risotto. It is also good for rice puddings.
Thai Jasmine, as an all purpose rice for all Asian dishes except Japanese Short grain rice for Japanese food .
Basmati, if I am making a special Indian dish which suits the rather dominating aromatic nutty flavour of basmati.
Thai rice sticks
Chinese wheat noodles
maybe some Japanese Udon or soba noodles
A couple of shapes of made-in Italy dried pasta- this is probably the best quality pasta you can buy, much better than so called fresh. It is what Italians eat.
Puy lentils- they don’t need soaking and when boiled, drained and tossed in extra virgin olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper, they are an earthy delight to go with roast chicken or lamb or as a salad.
A few cans of organic Italian borlotti and canellini beans
Instant couscous, I’ve used them all and the French Tipiak brand is definitely my brand of choice. Just add boiling water, cover, let stand 20 minutes then fluff up with a fork for perfect couscous.
Dried chickpeas, you have to soak them overnight but they taste much better than canned.
Some Indian dhal such as channa dhal, it is cheap, delicious and stores well.
I also like to have some quinoa and kasha(roasted buckwheat)
Extra virgin olive oil for salads and as a condiment- remember, olive oil doesn’t improve with age, so buy it in small amounts often and use it up fast (don’t waste your money on Pomace olive oil, this is the lowest quality which is why it is in the prettiest tins).
New Zealand avocado oil both for salads and cooking
Grapeseed oil when you want an oil with a light flavour
Sesame oil for Asian and Middle Eastern dishes
Soy or Peanut oil for Asian dishes.
A jar of tahini
Soy Sauce– make sure it says “naturally brewed on the label” and refrigerate after opening, soy sauce , like rice, soy sauce should be specific to the recipe, so
Japanese for Japanese food or when a light soy sauce is needed.
Chinese Soy sauce for Chinese food
Kecap Manis, Indonesian sweet soy sauce for Indonesian food, (very addictive this )
Fish Sauce for anything Thai or Vietnamese
Chilli Sauce, sweet and another such as Tabasco or sambal oelek
Canned tuna both the supermarket variety and the delicious Spanish and Italian varieties.
Anchovies, try to get the Spanish Ortiz brand, they will convert the most ardent anchovy-hater.
Green and Black Olives but not the nasty sliced or pitted Spanish black ones, I like Kalamatas
Canned Italian tomatoes
Tetra-packs of liquid chicken, beef and vegetable stock
Canned coconut cream
A couple of sachets of Thai curry paste
Treat yourself to a stainless steel Indian spice box from your local Indian shop and fill the 7 small containers inside with flavourings for Indian food, cumin, turmeric, dried chillis, mustard seeds, fenugreek, coriander seeds and garam marsala.
Spanish smoked paprika
Spices such as ground cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg
Vanilla beans or pure vanilla extract
Chinese dried mushrooms and/or Italian dried porcini, they mean you always have mushrooms and the water you soak them in becomes a delicious mushroom stock
Sherry, balsamic, red wine and cider
Baking basics, flour, sugar, baking soda and powder, dried yeast and cocoa
Dried fruit such as prunes, apricots and dates
Potatoes- waxy and floury
Onions, red and brown
Garlic, can you ever have enough?
Frozen spinach and peas- you’ve always got green vegetables
A couple of loaves of sourdough bread, just run under the cold tap straight from the freezer and place in a hot oven until hot right through and crunchy
A block of butter
Any leftover fresh herbs in small ziplock bags
Any leftover (yeah right!) wine, usually still in its bottle
Italian parmesan in a piece for grating, a luxurious necessity, keep it wrapped in a clean cotton cloth in an airtight container.
Almonds, peanuts, pinenuts and walnuts so they are kept cold and don’t go rancid.
Ditto dessicated coconut
Organic free range eggs
Plain unsweetened additive free yoghurt