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Get Started with a Well-Stocked Pantry

Some of the staple items in a well-stocked pantry. Photo by Jessica Turner.
Growing up on a farm, the pantry was at the center of family food culture. That cool, narrow space lit only by a bare bulb was nothing special architecturally, but the modest plywood shelving held a bounty of priceless culinary treasures — the literal fruits of a season’s worth of labor. 

There were jars of San Marzano tomatoes grown in the shelter of my father’s greenhouse, pints of spice-flecked apple butter, salsa, relish, and everything that could possibly be pickled — beets, dilly beans, cucumbers, peppers, and spicy disks of carrot preserved with ginger and chili. Some of the lids boasted codes, a testament to my mother’s meticulous organizational system: SRR92 (Strawberry Raspberry Rhubarb 1992) and CAS93 (Cinnamon Applesauce 1993), and my favorite, PDH91, written in flawless penmanship atop a jar of salsa that was objectively Pretty Damn Hot.

The pantry represented an intentional way of eating, and I’d never fully appreciated it until the pandemic struck. Back in those earliest COVID days, holding a jar of ancient lentils up to the light and calculating the shelf life of dried beans, I realized I wanted my own pantry.

I’m thankful the grocery store panic didn’t last, but I’m proud to say I’ve kept up my pantry maintenance, and have found it a convenient way to pull together a weeknight dinner quickly. I’m hardly preparing for another disaster, but because I’ve stayed organized, I won’t find myself in the middle of meal prep and discover I don’t have any black beans (but inexplicably have 14 cans of chickpeas – again). 

There are 10 staple pantry items I consider building blocks of dinner preparation. Keep these fully stocked.

Canned tomatoes. I like to have a supply of crushed, diced, and whole tomatoes on hand at all times. I use them for the Sunday marinara, simmered for hours, the veggie chili that comes together in a flash, and the sausage and tortellini soup ready to reheat for lunch the next day.

Chicken stock. Chicken stew with dumplings, Italian wedding soup, butternut squash with crispy shallots — all start with good chicken stock. For shelf-stable options, there are endless selections in one-quart boxes, but the small jars of concentrated bouillon puree taste great and use far less shelf space.

Olive oil. I’ll turn to coconut and vegetable oils for baking, but olive oil is for everything else. I use it for searing, roasting, sautéing, salad dressings, and it’s also my go-to oil for popping popcorn. 

Canned beans. As a rule, I keep black beans (for chili, burritos), cannellini beans (for soups, pasta dishes), and chickpeas (for hummus, salads). I use dried beans much less than canned, because dried beans aren’t always weeknight-cooking friendly.

Capers and olives. To me, a bright and briny pop of flavor makes everything better. I love both olives and capers in salads, pasta dishes, and roasted alongside chicken thighs or salmon. 

Pasta. Whether Bolognese, cacio e pepe, vegetable lo mein, or pasta salad at a summer cookout, pasta is endlessly versatile. My favorites are linguine, rigatoni, and orecchiette. 

Coconut milk. I use it as a foundation for curries, a thickener for soups, and as a dairy replacement in desserts. I always use the full-fat variety, as “lite” coconut milk is more prone to splitting in a sauce, and it just doesn’t taste nearly as good.

Soy sauce. Where would my stir-fry, marinades, or spring roll sauce be without this perfectly salty ingredient? It adds that punch of umami no matter how you use it, and since it has been around for thousands of years, it’s earned its place in the pantry.

Rice. I use brown rice in soups because it doesn’t expand as much in the leftovers. Jasmine and basmati rice are for side dishes, salads, and casseroles. Arborio is for risotto and rice pudding, and sushi rice is a must for the amazing steak-and-lettuce wraps that have recently become a staple in our house. Rice is far from one-size-fits-all, and the grain and starch content matter.

Jarred peppers. Most dishes benefit from acidity, and jarred peppers deliver. From the sliced jalapenos that grace the top of my favorite Friday night pizza to the easiest Romesco sauce made from roasted red peppers, they’re a must-have in my pantry. 

Jessica Turner is The Bridge’s new operations manager and the former owner of Capital Kitchen.

Pantry Pasta Puttanesca

This simple recipe comes together quickly and can be made almost entirely with pantry ingredients.

3 Tbsp olive oil

4 cloves garlic, chopped coarse

1 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes

½ cup pitted black olives, preferably oil-cured

2 Tbsp capers

¼ to ½ tsp crushed red pepper flakes to taste (more if you like it spicy)

1 pound linguine 

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

¼ cup chopped fresh parsley

1. Bring pot of salted water to boil. In a large skillet, warm olive oil with garlic over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is lightly golden.

2. Drain tomatoes and crush with fork or hands, add to skillet with salt and pepper to taste. Raise heat to medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes break down and mixture becomes saucy, about 10 minutes. Stir in olives, capers, and red pepper flakes and continue to simmer on low.

3. Cook pasta, stirring occasionally, until it is al dente. Drain quickly and toss with sauce. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary, garnish with chopped parsley, and serve.