how to stock a minimalist pantry

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A few months ago I wrote a pair of posts about setting up a minimalist kitchen: things to avoid and the essentials ( and the nice-to-haves). Following on from this, I thought I’d have a crack at pulling together a list of the essentials and the nice-to-haves for stocking a minimalist pantry.

I’ve actually been thinking about this post since I was in Barcelona last year. Living there for 6 weeks with a tiny kitchen, I really enjoyed the exercise of keeping my pantry items to a minimum.

Back at home it’s time for a long overdue pantry clean out. ‘The lentil shuffle’, as St Nigel calls it although mine is more like ‘a random sauce exorcism’. So for fun I’ve also included a list of the very unminimalist things I’ve ditched (or am using up and not planning to replenish). And for the record, I’m planning to tackle the mess that is my spice box another day – watch this space.

Again, this is just my personal list – based on the types of things I like to cook. Of course your essentials will be different depending on your cooking preferences and style. Actually I’d love to hear if there’s anything you strongly disagree with or anything you feel it is a crime not to include.

my minimalist pantry essentials

1. oil
In Spain I went with a good quality but not too expensive olive oil, which I used for both cooking and making salad dressings. At home I think a minimalist pantry can stretch to a cheaper extra virgin olive oil for general cooking, a more expensive peppery number for dressings and drizzling and some peanut oil for high temperature frying, stir frying or roasting or whenever you need a neutral flavoured oil (like mayo).

2. salt
Again in Spain I had just one box of sea salt flakes but for a more permanent kitchen I’d also allow a cheaper grade of sea salt for making brines and salting pasta water – the times it would be cost prohibitive to use my Maldon.

3. pepper
I can’t imagine a world without freshly ground black pepper. So much so that I’ve been known to travel with my favourite pepper grinder.

4. sugar or honey
Caster sugar is the most versatile as it is fine grained so will dissolve readily. If you’re not a baker, you could probably get by without sugar. In that case I’d include honey for whenever a little sweetness is needed – like in salad dressings or to balance out the seasoning on something overly salty.

5. sherry vinegar
In Spain I limited myself to one vinegar, which of course was a lovely aged sherry vinegar. I didn’t miss my massive vinegar collection, well not too much anyway.

6. soy sauce
Of all the sauces, soy is the most versatile. I’ve been appreciating it as a vegetarian source of savoury flavours. It was the secret ingredient in my recently posted carrot soup. At the moment I have a bottle of Tamari, a wheat-free soy sauce which is handy for when I’m cooking for my gluten-intolerant Dad.

7. dark chocolate
While it isn’t very minimalist to have four different bars of dark chocolate on hand, I have no hesitation including it in the essentials list. You never know when a chocolate-critical moment is going to arise. Also great to have to offer for dessert when you haven’t prepared something for your guests.

8. tea
I love my tea and couldn’t imagine life without my super strong Barry’s Irish Breakfast in the mornings, my Chinese Pu Mu Tan White Tea to sip while I write, and my Lemongrass and Ginger for a caffeine-free after dinner treat. Just need to work my way through my excess Jasmin tea collection.

9. tinned tomatoes
Ever since I was a uni student I’ve always felt I could prepare a meal if there was some pasta and a tin of tomatoes in the cupboard. Also great to add richness to stews and soups.

10. tinned chickpeas
If I had to narrow down my canned legume collection to one essential, chickpeas would win hands down. A meal in a can really (see warm salad recipe below) and an excellent source of protein and iron.

11. dried french-style green lentils
Also known as ‘Puy’ lentils, these are my favourite lentil. Small and pretty, they are very forgiving and don’t turn to mush like many other lentils.

12. plain flour
It’s not called ‘all purpose’ flour for nothing. Can be used in baking, breadmaking and pasta.

13. baking powder
Not essential for non-bakers, but my first choice for a leavening agent. Will turn plain flour into self raising flour in a flash – just add 2 teaspoons to a cup of plain flour.

14. natural muesli
My breakfast of choice.

15. dried chilli flakes
I know I said I’d leave my spice box for another day, but dried red chilli flakes are my first choice for adding a little fire.

16. nuts
For crunch in a crumble, or salad, or for a healthy snack, it’s always a good to have some nuts on hand. I usually have almonds and pinenuts but pistachios, hazelnuts and maccadamias make an appearance from time to time.

17. dried pasta
I tend to have at least one short pasta like my current favourite, mezze rigatoni and a long pasta like linguine in the pantry. Worth spending the extra money on the artisanal stuff.

18. basmati & arborio rice
My two favourite rice.

19. potatoes
As anyone with an Irish boyfriend knows, potatoes are an essential pantry item. I don’t think we really need to have four different varieties in the larder all the time, but who’s counting?

20. garlic
It keeps for ages and makes a world of difference to many dishes.

21. lemons
I have this thing that if I have lemons and parmesan (and loo paper) in the house then everything will be all right.

22. parmesan cheese
Surely the most versatile and long lasting cheese. There are few things that can’t be improved with a little grating of fresh parmigiano reggiano. I also love it as a snack.

23. rosemary
Critical for roast spuds, and easy to grow. It’s one of my few surviving fresh herbs. Also keeps well in the freezer if you aren’t lucky enough to have a fresh source. If it wasn’t rosemary, thyme would be my second fresh herb choice.

24. free range eggs
If you have eggs, you have a meal. I always have some in the fridge and find they tend to last well beyond their use-by date.

my minimalist pantry nice-to-haves

1. brown sugar
I love brown sugar for sprinkle on my porridge or for baking. Can be substituted for palm sugar in Asian cooking.

2. vinegar
I’ve already confessed to having a massive vinegar collection which will be hard to part with, but I think I can do it if I keep a well-aged balsamic, a light white wine vinegar, and my Sarsons brown malt vinegar that I picked up in Ireland to splash over takeaway fish and chips.

3. sesame oil
A little goes a long way but there’s nothing like a splash of sesame oil to round out Asian dishes. I love a little drizzled over steamed greens and steamed whole fish.

4. oyster sauce & fish sauce
After soy, these two are my go-to sauces for Asian cooking. If I have these on hand I can make do without hoisin, black bean, sweet soy etc. Of course this is a real personal preference thing.

5. golden syrup & desiccated coconut
These fall under the category of ‘sentimental ingredients’. I like to have both on hand in case I get a craving for my Mum’s chocolate caramel slice. Appreciate that they wouldn’t star in most people’s nice-to-have collection.

6. anchovies & capers
In my mind these two little bursts of saltiness go together, although are not interchangable. They are both brilliant to brighten up your cooking. Anchovies also have the ability to enhance the meaty flavours in a lamb or beef stew.

7. preserved lemons
Another little ray of salty sunshine that can make a world of difference to your food.

11. canned butter beans, cannellini beans and lentils
If chickpeas are the essential canned legume, it is nice to have some or all of the above on hand for almost instant salads or purees.

12. strong flour
Also known as bakers flour or high protein flour, this is the best for baking bread, pizza crusts or home made egg pasta. Of course, non-bakers can skip this.

13. semolina
For adding texture to fresh pasta and giving pizza bases and bread a rustic crunchy base.

14. all bran
For beefing up the fiber content in my breakfast.

15. ground cumin, ground coriander and smoked paprika
More on spices to come, but these are the three I rely on the most. Purists will argue that they should be whole seeds but minimalists will see the benefits of not needing another piece of equipment to grind their spices.

16. cocoa powder
For making puddle cookies and best ever (cocoa) brownies. Definitely not essential but good to have on hand for baking or for a hot chocolate when someone has depleted your chocolate stash.

17. dried fruit
At the moment I have some dried sweetened cranberries that can be used in salads or baking. I do love dates and prunes as well but they tend not to be as versatile.

18. vegemite
Am tempted to put this in the essentials, but I did survive my 6 weeks in Spain without. Lovely with avocado on toast but I won’t try and convert any non-Australians, just yet.

19. vanilla beans
Sometimes, if I’m feeling a bit impoverished, I use vanilla extract instead.

20. other grains
While pasta and rice are essentials, I do like to keep different grains on hand. Barley, freekah, couscous and quinoa are all in my pantry at the moment.

21. onions
So many great things start with sauteeing an onion.

my unminimalist pantry items on the way out

1. truffle oil
A gift from a friend. While I adore truffles, I rarely think to add truffle oil to my cooking, probably because it so easily overpowers everything. Am working my way though this one but will be declining any future gifts.

2. chipotle chillies in adobo
A relic from my visit to Mexico in 2001. I can’t tell you how many times I have moved house with my little cans of chilli in their smoky piquant sauce. A testament to the powers of canning as a food preservation technique that they still seem to be edible. Planning a few Mexican meals in the not to distant future to rid myself of this food ingredient baggage.

3. red Himalayan salt
Something I picked up when I couldn’t get any Maldon Sea Salt. Very disappointing salt that looks pretty but leaves a strong mineral aftertaste. Planning to use this in my pasta water over the next few weeks.

4. random middle eastern ingredients
Like my chipotle chillies, I’ve been moving my rosewater and orange blossom water from house to house for way too long. Time to ditch the flower waters. I haven’t used the pomegranate molasses in years either but I did used to cook with it quite frequently, during my middle eastern cooking phase. Will use this one up and decide whether it deserves to be rescued into the nice-to-have list.

5. vinegar
I picked up a bottle Chinese black vinegar this because I love it so much when I go to my favourite dumpling house. Time to admit that I never use it. Rice wine vinegar was leftover from a sushi making session back in 2007. I think I prefer to leave my sushi to the experts. I’ve had a precious bottle of super-expensive ancient balsamic for ages and I hardly ever use it because it’s so expensive. It does makes the best minimalist bruschetta. Time to use it up and not worry about replacing. I also have some ‘homemade’ tarragon vinegar from when I found a home for some leftover tarragon in a bottle of cheap white vinegar – the fact that it’s hardly been touched speaks volumes. My final vinegar that need to go is a caramelised red wine vinegar – nothing that can’t be replaced by adding a little honey to some sherry vinegar.

6. sauces
Black bean and sweet soy sauces that haven’t been touched in years definitely need to be cleaned out. I do like having a little Worcestershire around but I think that’s only because my Mum always used to put it in her spag bol. Tomato ketchup is another that I hardly ever use. Likewise the BBQ sauce I last used when testing one of my Mum’s recipes for my first book last year.

7. cocoa butter
One of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. Apparently cocoa butter is great for frying so I borrowed some from work to try it out. Still sitting untouched over a year later.

8. glucose syrup
Something that I used to use as a teenager to make a tooth-achingly sweet caramel sauce to serve with cream puffs. I’m not sure why I have a bottle these days – possibly a sorbet making remnant.

9. caperberries
Another gift from a friend. The fact that they’re still on the shelf means they don’t deserve a place in my minimalist pantry, especially since I have included capers. Will have fun thinking up a good way to use them up though.

10. cream of tartar and bicarb soda
I can’t remember why I picked up the cream of tartar so I won’t be missing it. Bicarb soda could be a bit more radical to ditch. Am planning a little experiment to see whether I can exist on baking powder alone. Will report back.

11. dried organic cherries
Something I used in a salad once but haven’t found a use for since. They are lovely to eat though.

12. ‘logical’ sugar
A new product from CSR I picked up to try out. It’s a low GI sugar that is made by combining molasses with white sugar. Interesting but not really one for minimalists.

13. dried black beans
Another random that I know I haven’t cooked with in the last few years.

14. hot chocolate mix
Made from flakes of real chocolate – a freebie from Lindt. I haven’t tried it yet, but even if it is delicious, it won’t replace a good quality block of dark chocolate in my minimalist pantry. Nice to play with as a novelty though.

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[5 ingredients | 10 minutes]
warm chickpea salad with rosemary & garlic

serves 1 hungry person

Sometimes I wish that chickpeas came in a smaller can. The problem with the standard size is that it’s not enough for 2 people but makes for a very large serving for one. I always have the best intentions with this salad but it’s so comforting and moreish that there are never any leftovers.

Think of this as a base to play around with. I think it’s perfect as is but if you don’t have almonds, most other nuts would work. Or you could leave them out all together and serve the chickpeas with a sprinkling of finely grated parmesan instead.

If you were in the mood for some greenery, a handful of salad leaves tossed through at the end wouldn’t go astray. Neither would a nice little side salad, but it is completely satisfying on it’s own.

1 clove garlic, peeled & finely sliced
1 sprig rosemary, leaves picked
pinch dried chilli flakes, optional
small handful whole almonds, almonds
1 can chickpeas, drained (400g or 14oz)

Heat a medium frying pan over a medium high heat. Add 2T olive oil.

When the oil is hot add garlic, rosemary, chilli and almonds (if using) and stir fry or a minute or so, until the garlic is just starting to brown.

Toss through drained chickpeas and continue to stir fry until chickpeas are warm and starting to brown up a little as well. Season generously & serve warm.

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